It seems like just yesterday there were only two varieties of protein powder available for purchase on grocery store shelves, and if you weren’t prepared to invest in a protein powder, you had to either eat an animal, eat something that came from an animal or eat a bland, white block of tofu that left you wishing you’d elected for the animal.
One of the most curious of all proteins is pea protein, which leaves a lot of people curious as to how the green peas you always tried to avoid eating at dinner could possibly provide you with protein of such respectability that it could be placed next to classic powdered protein sources like whey and soy.
Yeah! Since when are peas a go-to food product for protein intake?
For starters, you’re probably picturing the wrong peas. Rather than being processed from green peas, which contain comparatively little protein on a per-cup basis, pea protein is formulated from yellow peas, also known as split peas. These members of the legume family are uncharacteristically high in protein, but in order to acquire that protein in sufficient amounts to claim that you’re consuming them strictly for it, you’d have to eat a lot of split peas.
To that end, the ratio of carbohydrates to protein in a standard serving of split peas doesn’t align with the spirit of what a protein-heavy food is expected to administer. To get 48 grams of protein out of ordinary yellow peas, a person would need to consume an entire cup of them, which contains 119 grams of carbohydrates — a 2.5-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein — and delivers more than 670 calories. By comparison, to get an equivalent amount of protein out of tuna, you would typically consume about half as many calories.
What this means is that split peas are a fulfilling meal-time food option if you’re desirous of multiple macronutrient types, but not the greatest choice if you’re trying to isolate your protein intake and keep your calorie consumption to a minimum. It also means that some scientific tinkering is involved in isolating the protein content of split peas — as well as stipping out the carbs — and turning it into a powder.
But aren’t there already enough protein powders? Why did the world need pea protein?
The need for pea protein seems to have been driven by the general desire for non-meat, non-animal based protein, and also out of a desire to offer an alternative to soy-based protein products. Pea protein is presently free from any of the stigmas associated with soy protein, which is still dogged by whispers that it elevates the estrogen levels of people who consume it regularly. Although studies have reported findings that suggest the association between soybeans and estrogen is pure myth, the fact that most food-based studies are funded by industry groups obscures the veracity and conclusions of all such studies beneath a turbid cloud of suspicion.
In addition, soy products are the poster children for genetic modification in the food industry, and with many people now looking to dodge GMO foods, the plant-based-protein-powder landscape is teeming with opportunity for a new challenger to knock the incumbent soy protein from its pedestal.
Understood. So is pea protein just as good as other protein sources?
You had to ask that question, didn’t you?
Unfortunately, this is among the most controversial questions you can ask in all of nutrition, because some people will claim that you’re casting aspersions against the efficacy of their entire lifestyle simply by answering this question in a way that they consider to be unsupportive.
But here’s the deal: Not all proteins are created equally, and equality is a big deal in the world of protein. According to many experts, in order to actually do the work of a protein — which for our purposes means to adequately build and repair muscle tissue — a protein must be complete. To be heralded as complete, a protein source must provide its consumer with all nine of the amino acids that are required to come from food. All animal-based proteins and eight different plant-based proteins are considered complete.
Many vegetarians and vegans resort to protein-completeness charts that advise them of the best combinations of food to mix together in order to achieve an efficient amino-acid mixture, and to solve the Bitcoin-level mathematical problem required to construct a complete protein. However, many people who prefer to consume protein from non-animal sources will rely primarily upon the eight complete sources of plant proteins in order to reliably track their protein consumption.
Okay, so pea protein is just as beneficial as any of the other plant proteins, right?
For the purposes of answering your question, I’m going to sidestep comparisons between complete plant and animal proteins in terms of their quality, absorbability, muscle-building capabilities and weight-loss promotion. Instead, I’ll focus our discussion on a comparison between pea protein and the reigning king of plant proteins — soy protein.
If we ignore the fact that many people are turning away from soy products due to GMO concerns, and instead we strictly focus on protein values for completeness, quality and taste, most sources of information that appear to be objective — which can be very difficult to find when you’re dealing with this topic — appear to concede that pea protein has levels of methionine and cysteine that are low enough to realistically disqualify it from classification as a true complete protein source, while also pointing out that these two amino acids can be easily acquired from other nutrition sources. On top of that, many people seem to find soy protein to contain a more pleasant flavor profile, or at least one that’s more neutral.
Got it. It sounds like you’re saying I should take soy protein.
I’m not necessarily advising you to take anything at all. In fact, I’m personally convinced that most people can get all of their macronutrient needs met over the course of consuming their everyday snacks and meals, provided they make a conscious effort to consume healthy food items.
However, if you’re considering incorporating a protein supplement into your diet plan, do your research. Aside from factoring in potential allergy considerations, you can always sample the different types of protein powders to see which of them agrees with your palate, your stomach, your muscles and your wallet.
After all, you may find that you’re willing to tolerate a hint of unpleasantness in your protein powder’s aftertaste once you discover you’re overspending for inferior results.