What Is Pea Protein?
From non-dairy milks to protein powders, pea protein is in many plant-based foods today. Although pea protein may seem like a new ingredient, it's actually been around for a while. The most popular vegan protein powders on the market use pea protein as their main ingredient, so if you’ve tried these products before, you’re probably more familiar with pea protein than you think.
While pea protein has been available for many years, it has not received the same kind of attention that other types of protein have. For this reason, there are a lot of questions around pea protein and its use. Today, we’ll answer some of the more basic questions and get a better idea of what pea protein really is.
So, what is pea protein?
Pea protein is the protein content of peas (pisum sativum) that is most commonly extracted as a powder. It is usually cream to light yellow in color. When we think of peas, we often think of green peas, but yellow split peas are used to make pea protein because of its lighter color. While many people wouldn’t mind a dark green powder, it’s understandable that a lighter, cleaner-looking powder may appeal to a wider audience. Pea protein is 100% plant-based and vegan.
How is pea protein made?
The exact details of pea protein production are somewhat guarded, and this is because many of the processes used are proprietary. However we do have a pretty good idea of what this process generally looks like.
First, dried yellow peas are passed through a wet-milling process that grinds them and produces a kind of pea smoothie. From this smoothie, the protein and starch are separated. Depending on the manufacturer, this separation is achieved through either the use of harsh bases and acids or a mechanical and chemical-free process. The starch has its own uses in many food applications, so it is not discarded. Both the starch and the protein are then spray dried, turning them into a fine powder. This is the final product that we know as pea protein.
Where does pea protein come from?
The yellow split pea, which is the raw material for pea protein, is grown around the world, with Canada, Russia, China, India and the United States as its top producers. The protein powder itself is primarily manufactured in China, Canada and Europe (France, Germany and Belgium to be specific). The starch that is separated in the process described above is used for noodles and other popular foods in China, hence the large amount of pea protein coming from there. If you look at the most popular pea protein powders out there today, you’ll find that most are made in one of these countries.
What does pea protein taste like?
Unflavored pea protein has a mildly nutty taste. When mixed with just water, it tastes like split pea soup. It has a fairly neutral taste, as there is no saltiness or sweetness. Like other types of plant-based protein, pea protein can be gritty and chalky, although this will vary from brand to brand. The consistency can be anywhere from clumpy to watery with the sweet spot of a perfect creamy texture somewhere in between. If the pea protein is hydrolyzed, it will mix with liquids more quickly but will lack the smoothness and shake-like qualities of non-hydrolyzed pea protein.
What is pea protein used for?
With a high protein content, usually a minimum of 80% by weight, and high bio-availability, meaning a large percentage of it is actually absorbed by the body, pea protein is very versatile and can be used for a variety of reasons. Because pea protein is free from dairy, gluten, soy and other allergens, it may be an ideal alternative to other types of protein.
The most common use of pea protein is for supplementing a vegan diet, as it can be a challenge to get enough protein without meat and other animal sources. With more protein than 3 large eggs in a 25-gram serving, pea protein is an easy way to increase protein intake. Pea protein is also a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids that your body cannot produce itself.
Many people also use pea protein as a meal replacement. A study has shown that pea protein consumed 30 minutes before a meal significantly reduced food intake during that meal, and participants also reported greater satiety, the feeling of being full, with pea protein than with other types of protein. The University of Michigan Medicine has an excellent resource on pea protein and its use for weight management.
Last but not least, pea protein is used to aid muscle growth and recovery. Because it is easily digested, pea protein can be taken directly after weight training and other exercises where muscle breakdown may occur. Research comparing muscle thickness after 12 weeks of strength training found no difference between those using pea protein and those using whey protein.
How can I use pea protein?
Because of its dried powder form, pea protein can be quickly added to pretty much anything that has a liquid consistency. Smoothies, soups, sauces and baking mixes (for brownies, pancakes, cookies and protein bars) all fit the bill. The key is to find a pea protein that is unflavored and mixes well so that the original taste and texture of the food are not drastically affected.
Where can I find pea protein?
Now that you've learned all about pea protein, you know exactly what to look for in a pea protein powder. Pea protein can be found both online and in your local grocery or nutritional supplements store. If you decide that an unflavored pea protein powder would best fit your needs, take a look at JustPea, a pea protein powder that's actually made right here in the USA.