What is pea protein and is it even healthy?
INSIDE A PROCESSING PLANT Formerly used for dairy production in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, a machine lifts a cloth bag containing 2,200 pounds of pea flour and slices it, releasing a plume of pastel yellow powder that descends into the hopper.
It’s one of the quieter rooms in an extremely busy facility, says Melanie Sumiec, process engineer at Puris who leads a virtual tour of the factory.
This powder, which comes from hulled and ground yellow split peas, is now on a conveyor belt headed to another section of the plant for its final processing: isolating the precious protein powder that makes up fake burgers, vegan shakes, and snacks rich in protein and to strengthen the muscles that now invade supermarket shelves.
The pea protein market is already worth around $ 213 million, according to the Grand View Research analysis, and that figure is expected to double by 2025, as plant-based diets continue to become mainstream.
Puris is the largest pea protein maker in North America, and its CEO Tyler Lorenzen says the company’s joint venture with global food company Cargill has allowed it to build a new plant in Minnesota that will double production. .
Good thing too, because pea protein is about to be everywhere.
Beyond Meat creates its burgers and sausages from this ingredient. Ripple Foods makes its plant-based milks, shakes and frozen desserts from these products. PeaTos makes their signature snack in five flavors, with four grams of protein per serving. Start-ups like Owyn and Ladder produce pea protein powders.
So what’s driving all of this growth? And what’s so revolutionary, even healthy, about ingesting all those peas, anyway?
Where does pea protein come from?
SUPPLY AND DEMAND. Offer and demand. You have to look at both to understand why pea protein is so popular now.
First, the cuisines of the planet have long relied on yellow peas as a staple in many dishes: Indian dal, Russian split pea soup, and Chinese split pea cake, to name a few.
And legumes like yellow peas aren’t just good for you; they are also good for the earth. Their nitrogen fixing qualities have made them an essential crop in many farming systems, large and small; they require less energy to grow than other crops, such as wheat, corn and soybeans.
Lorenzen says that’s why his father founded the business that would become Puris in the mid-1980s, to create a market for farmers who grew peas to enrich their soil.
At the time, manufacturers used the yellow peas primarily in animal feed or pet food, or vendors shipped the peas overseas. It didn’t make a lot of money for the farmers and it didn’t make much sense to feed the cattle a lot of vegetable protein to grow animal protein.
The major players in pea protein argue that their product can help reverse inefficiencies in current American farming practices by turning plants into foods Americans already love to eat, such as burgers and snacks. Or protein shakes.
Powdered yellow peas certainly provide protein. Two scoops of a popular brand, Naked Pea, contain 27 grams of protein, two grams of carbohydrate, and 120 calories. (By comparison, the same amount of Naked Whey contains 25 grams of protein, three grams of carbohydrate, and the same number of calories.)
Pea protein is also generally cheaper than whey made from dairy products. But even if you factor in familiarity, durability, cost, and nutrition, that is often not enough to create demand in the mass market.
For that, you need something else: the hype.
And over the past few years, this hype has come in the form of “plant-based” diets.
Is Pea Protein Good For Plant Based Diets?
VEGETABLE FOOD is trending for many reasons, says Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging.
For years, research has shown that plant-based diets can improve your health by reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
But recently, “marketing has also been a huge driver of popularity,” says Ansel. “Vegetarian burgers have been around for decades, but it really wasn’t until companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods invested in national marketing campaigns from around 2018 that plant-based meat suddenly got sexy. . “
Celebrities also influence their cultural power. Everyone from Colin Kaepernick to Russell Brand is going green, and in the 2018 documentary The game changers, even Arnold Schwarzenegger said he ate less meat.
The film, produced by director and vegan James Cameron, claimed that consuming animal products can interfere with athletic performance, injure your heart, and impair sexual function.
(Men’s health, through experts, then debunked these claims, many of which were based on outdated, flawed, or misinterpreted research.)
Pair the increased rebranding of vegan like “plant-based” diets with decades of declining milk consumption in the United States and you have a hungry market for non-dairy alternatives.
And if the newly created plant-based, protein-focused CrossFitters can’t eat animal products, that leaves them with only a few options. Like peas.
Except what is lost in the discussion around this dietary change is whether pea protein has all the benefits of animal protein. The answer requires a look into the geeky world of protein quality.
Is Pea Protein Good For You?
PLANT FOOD followers like to claim that their athletic performance actually improved when they removed or reduced animal products. (No concrete research suggests that plant-based diets are superior for athletic performance.)
And in terms of building muscle in particular, the vegetable protein powder is just as good as whey or casein, both of which are made from dairy products.
Pea protein can help you build muscle mass after training, says Eric Helms, Ph.D., CSCS, a sports physiology and nutrition researcher at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.
But, he warns, there are many ways to assess whether a protein is “good.”
One is to check its protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score, a way to measure the amino acid composition of a protein against a person’s needs.
Helms says whey protein gets a score of 1, the gold standard, because it provides the nine essential amino acids your body needs to build muscle. Pea protein isn’t far behind, at 0.8 or 0.9.
“The real question people want to know is, ‘If I’m vegan or on a plant-based diet, will that lead me to sacrifice fitness or athletic performance? “And the data we have now probably doesn’t say it,” Helms says.
But that’s only if you consume a variety of foods that help provide the amino acids you need, he says. If your diet is loaded with crisps, cookies, and shakes, it doesn’t matter if they’re plant-based or pea protein.
What does pea protein taste like?
DESPITE THE FACT As Helms knows about the research (and even conducted some of his), he still prefers whey over pea protein.
“Whey has over a decade of taste and texture engineering behind it,” he says.
It naturally dissolves more easily in liquids, it has an appealing milky taste, and then there are the flavors. Of a recent whey protein flavor he tried, Helms says, “I was like, Did I just have a Butterfinger? “
While the transformation of pea protein from cattle feed into a hot sports supplement has been rapid, its relative grain size and vegetable flavor are sticking points for some consumers. Compared to whey protein, pea protein tends to give smoothies a “mud-like” texture, Helms explains.
And it tastes like peas, says Stephen Zieminski, founder of Naked Nutrition. Zero taste is one of the highest priorities for pea protein manufacturers. “I know pea protein gets a bad rap for its grain and earthy taste,” says Sumiec, process engineer at Puris.
The company’s production process is designed to make the powder “bland in the best possible way”. To neutralize the somewhat polarizing natural taste of peas, Puris continues to refine an evaporation technique that can further enhance, and ultimately eliminate, bitter flavors.
Until then, it’s up to other food scientists and start-ups to design innovative flavor camouflages. And some top players seem to be on the case as well.
PepsiCo continues to invest in the trend, adding pea protein to its Naked juice and Evolve milk line and, earlier this year, partnering with Beyond to develop new products. Could pea protein infused sports drinks or soda (big sip) be next?
It’s all part of the process of “normalizing” the consumption of herbal ingredients, explains Lorenzen. “I think one of the misconceptions people have is that eating plants means eating a salad. But it could be a burger. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Then again, there is nothing wrong with a salad.
A version of this article originally appeared in the October issue of Men’s health.
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