Food Dive reported last week that while alternative proteins from algae and insects continue to make headlines, until they become cheaper and more appetizing, an increasing number of manufacturers will ask us to give peas a chance.
Extracted from dried and ground yellow split peas, pea protein is showing up in everything from sports supplements, smoothies and protein bars, to meat alternatives and yogurt. General Mills uses it in its Lärabar and Cascadian Farms brands, UK bakery giant Warburton’s recently added pea protein to sliced bread, and it is even possible to buy ‘pea milk’.
Beyond Meat produces a vegetarian burger based on pea protein that looks, sizzles and even ‘bleeds’ like a beef burger, thanks to beetroot juice. Even meat firms are paying attention, as Tyson Foods — the nation’s biggest meat producer — has bought a 5% stake in the company. In meat products themselves, companies are adding pea protein to cut fat content and improve texture.
The appeal for consumers is that pea protein is a non-allergenic, non-GMO and environmentally friendly ingredient — especially when compared to other commonly used protein sources like soy and whey. While whey protein is the most popular fortification product on the market, more consumers are considering plant-based protein sources for their health and environmental benefits.
The list of health benefits for pea protein is long. It is cholesterol-free, helps with satiety and blood pressure, and lowers triglycerides and cholesterol. For elderly or ill consumers, it is more easily digested than animal-derived proteins. Major pea protein supplier Roquette has also done research that suggests it is just as effective as whey for enhancing muscle mass gain during weight training.
All of this adds up to a booming market. According to Mintel, the number of new products containing pea protein grew by 195% from 2013 to 2016.
Roquette is banking on rising demand for pea protein in a big way, and recently announced a CA$400 million ($321 million) investment to build the world’s largest pea protein factory in Manitoba, Canada, as well as an additional €40 million ($47 million) for its French pea processing site. By 2019, the company expects the two facilities to have a combined capacity of 250,000 tons a year, placing it at the heart of two of the world’s biggest regions for pea protein ingredients — North America and Europe — as well as the world’s biggest pea supply. Canada provides 30% of the global pea protein total.
Roquette has seen growing demand for protein-fortified products. Meat substitute products grow rapidly as more consumers become interested in vegetarian options.
Part of peas’ appeal is the claims food companies can make on-pack — including gluten-free, non-GMO, kosher and vegan. Unlike soy, whey or casein, pea protein is not considered to be a major allergen, meaning foods and drinks containing the ingredient can make low/no/reduced allergen claims.
Pea protein does have potential downsides, particularly when it comes to protein quality.
Soy and animal-derived proteins are considered “complete” because they contain all nine essential amino acids — those not made by the body. Protein from peas is “incomplete,” meaning it is low in certain amino acids.
While this may give some athletes pause, it is unlikely to be a problem, according to Melissa Majumdar, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“As long as someone is not relying on pea protein for their only source of protein, they will likely meet their amino acid and therefore protein needs,” she told Food Dive.
“If all essential amino acids are not available or are only available in limited amounts, the body must get them from another source to perform functions in the body needing protein. In other words, amino acids are the protein puzzle pieces and the puzzle is not complete with a missing piece.”
She explained that pea protein bioavailability is at 69%. Whey is 99% and soy is 95% to 98%. Apart from its limiting amino acids, bioavailability also is affected by chemicals that inhibit nutritional availability, including tannins and lectin.
“On the other hand, pea protein can be a less expensive form of protein than animal protein,” Majumdar said. “Pea protein is not as common of an allergy as whey and soy and as long as the limiting acids are replaced or complemented, pea protein can be a quality protein source.”