When it comes to getting a protein boost from a nutrition bar or a smoothie, whey and soy have long been the go-to, fuel-up ingredients. But as more people are hopping on the plant-based bandwagon (and distancing themselves from inflammatory dairy and GMO soy), the search is on for a powerhouse energy source that’s both plant-based and sustainable. And it looks like healthy food brands have finally found it—in pea protein.
This new ingredient is showing up everywhere, from protein drinks like Indie Fresh in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market to 1915 Bolthouse Farms sold in grocery stores. Pea was the protein source of choice for Aloha’s and RiseBar’s nutrition bars. Vega relies on the rising ingredient in all their products. Bob’s Red Mill just unveiled a selection of smoothie-ready powders. And pea protein’s even debuting in the snack aisle with a healthier potato chips like Simply Protein.
Why the sudden popularity? And how does it hold up nutritionally?
Keep reading for everything you need to know about pea protein.
The nutrition rundown on pea protein
Pea protein is sourced from dried yellow field peas, yup, just like it sounds. It’s a big protein source that’s been really overlooked, points out nutritionist and Foodtrainers founder Lauren Slayton, MS, RD.
Pea protein is especially high in two amino acids lysine (which helps turn fatty acids into energy) and arginine (which helps the body heal faster after injury and can decrease blood pressure), she says. And it has more protein than hemp, another big plant-based energy source, and fewer carbs.
That said, it isn’t a complete protein like whey, meaning it doesn’t containing all nine of the amino acids everyone needs in their diet, says Slayton. (It’s missing cystine, which boosts collagen production and is found in veggies like broccoli, and methionine, a metabolism-booster, and another collagen fueler.) This is one reason why some brands round it out with other protein sources. Aloha, for example, sells a blend that includes pumpkin seed protein and hemp seed protein as well.
Why pea protein is having a moment right now
Todd Habermehl, co-founder of Amazing Grass, which only uses plant-based ingredients, had been wanting to use pea protein for a while, but says it was only in the past few years that a source big enough to support commercial use became available within the U.S. “Five years ago, it was very hard to find pea protein that was certified organic and non-GMO,” he says. Now that there’s a source that delivers on both fronts, Amazing Grass uses it widely in their products, including their new Protein Superfood powders.
Habermehl, like a lot of founders of healthy brands, is also smitten with its sustainability. “Peas are a nitrogen fixator, which means they leave behind greater nitrogen in the soil, which in turn requires less fertilization for future crops,” he explains. So you can really feel good about what you’re eating.
Okay, but what does it taste like?
Rest assured pea protein does not taste like smashed peas. (At least to most of us at Well+Good.) The neutral, mellow taste is a main reason why Vega uses it in their protein shakes and bars. “It blends easily with water and the texture and taste are really good. It’s not chalky in your mouth like some other protein sources can be,” says Vega national educator Kim McDevitt, MPH, RD. (A grainy texture is one reason people have been turned off by hemp or rice protein in their smoothies. Who wants that?)
It’s also super clean protein
McDevitt says the head honchos at Vega also like that it’s minimally processed. “It’s literally made from grinding peas into a flour and soaking them in a saline solution to extract the protein from the starches—that’s it,” she says. “There are no added chemicals or artificial fillers. What you’re getting is really clean.”
Your gut might really like it
In addition to peas leaving the soil in better shape, they might be equally kind to your gut. Jeff Johnson, Kashi’s senior director of natural health and new ventures, who just launched GoLean shakes, says pea protein is just easier for many people to digest than animal proteins. (Read: no gas or bloating, which is often a complaint with whey and the protein casein.) For the Kashi shakes and in general, Johnson finds it plays well in combination with other proteins and nutrients like flax, chia seeds, and sprouted legumes.
The takeaway here? Peas may be a trendy protein source you’re about to see everywhere, but they’re also a super solid one you can feel good about adding to your shopping cart.
Want to know what plant-based protein bars deliver on taste and nutrition? These six are the very best vegan options. And if you want to up your knowledge on protein in general, this protein guide is about to be your new best friend.
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