- Pea protein is a vegan protein powder that’s high in every essential amino acid except one—methionine.
- Unlike many plant-based protein powders, pea protein powder is well digested, highly bioavailable, mixes well in shakes, and tastes good.
- Keep reading to learn how pea protein compares to other others for gaining muscle and staying healthy.
They deserve the limelight, too.
Research has shown time and again that they’re two of the best sources of high-quality protein that you can eat.
What if you don’t want to supplement with either, though? What other options do you have?
You can eat more whole foods, but that can be easier said than done depending on your circumstances.
Many people turn to soy protein powder, but that probably isn’t optimal, especially for men.
Then there’s pea protein, which is growing in popularity but is often overlooked because of concerns about its amino acid profile, digestibility, and taste.
Well, they’re wrong.
As you’ll learn in this article, pea protein is actually one of the best plant-based protein powders you can eat—on par with the best of animal-derived powders—and, when flavored and sweetened well, has a uniquely pleasant taste.
So, if you want to learn how pea protein is made, what its main benefits and drawbacks are, how it compares to whey, casein, and vegan protein powders, and how to choose the best pea protein powder for you, keep reading . . .
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Pea protein is more or less what it sounds like: protein extracted from peas.
Specifically, it’s obtained by drying and grinding peas into a fine flour, mixing it with water, and removing the bulk of the fat, fiber, and starch, leaving mostly protein with a smattering of vitamins and minerals.
This paste is then dried and ground into a fine powder, creating pea protein isolate, which is usually what you get when you buy pea protein powder. The precise nutrition facts of pea protein isolate vary depending on how it’s processed, but most brands will provide the following in one 27-gram serving:
- 100 calories
- 21 grams of protein
- 2 grams carbohydrate
- 1.5 grams fat
- 1 grams fiber
Pea protein is also relatively high in iron compared to most other plant-based protein powders, but the kind of iron found in plants isn’t as easily absorbed or processed as that found in animal foods. You can overcome this problem somewhat by consuming pea protein (and other plant foods) with foods rich in vitamin C, but it can still be challenging to get enough iron from plant foods alone.
In any case, pea protein is still relatively high in micronutrients compared to other vegan protein powders like soy.
Summary: Pea protein is derived from processing peas to extract the protein. It contains mostly protein, some carbs, traces of fat, and some micronutrients including modest amounts of iron.
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To fully answer this question, you first need to learn about amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and thus every tissue in the body, including muscle tissue.
The body needs 21 amino acids to stay alive, and 9 of them must be obtained from food (the rest can be synthesized by the body from these nine).
These nine are known as “essential amino acids,” or EAAs. Three of these amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—are known as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), and research shows they’re particularly helpful for stimulating muscle growth.
More specifically, leucine seems to be the most important of the three, although you probably need to consume it with isoleucine and valine to maximally stimulate muscle growth. This is why research shows that foods higher in BCAAs stimulate more muscle growth than those with less.
In other words, high-BCAA (and especially high-leucine) foods have a higher muscle-building potential than low-BCAA foods.
So, as a general rule, the best plant-based protein powders are going to have more essential amino acids (and especially BCAAs) than others.
If a source of protein has all nine EAAs, it’s called a “complete” protein, and if it lacks one or more EAAs, it’s called an “incomplete” protein. You’ve probably heard that various plant proteins, like pea protein, are missing one or more essential amino acids, making them “incomplete” proteins that must be combined with others that contain the EAAs they lack.
There’s a kernel of truth here, but it’s mostly false.
You see, researchers have known for decades that all plant proteins contain all nine essential amino acids—there’s no such thing as a truly “incomplete” plant protein.
What is true is that some plant proteins are very low in one or more EAAs, making it difficult to get sufficient EAAs from any single plant food. Most sources of animal protein, however, are high in all nine EAAs, which is why omnivores have a much easier time meeting their EAA needs and is one of the reasons they typically have more muscle mass than vegetarians and vegans.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t meet your EAA needs without eating animals—you just have to be more choosy about where you get your protein.
What’s more, some sources of plant protein are much higher in EAAs than others. For example, pea protein is about 30% EAAs, which is just a little less than casein protein at 34%, and it’s rich in eight essential amino acids, only lacking large amounts of methionine. Luckily, you can get plenty of methionine from other foods (more on this in a moment).
Summary: Pea protein is a complete protein that’s rich in eight essential amino acids, only lacking large amounts of methionine, which is easily obtained from other foods.
There are three things that make pea protein a standout among protein powders:
- It has an excellent amino acid profile.
- It’s easily digested and absorbed.
- It’s tasty.
Let’s look at each point . . .
A protein’s amino acid profile is a breakdown of how much of each type of amino acid it contains.
As you learned a moment ago, the more essential amino acids (and especially BCAAs) a protein contains, the better it is for building muscle.
How does pea protein stack up in this regard?
First, pea protein is almost entirely protein.
Specifically, pea protein isolate is about 85% protein, 7% fat, 3% carbohydrate, and 5% vitamins and minerals. In comparison, whey protein isolate is the purest form of protein you can buy, and it’s about 90% protein by weight.
Second, and more importantly, pea protein is rich in essential amino acids, and in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) in particular.
Here’s what the full amino acid profile looks:
As you can see, pea protein is about 9% leucine by weight, which is fantastic for muscle-building purposes (whey, for example, is 10 to 11% leucine by weight), and contains significant amounts of most other essential amino acids as well (again, except for methionine).
This is one of the reasons research shows that people can gain just as much muscle with pea protein powder as with whey protein powder. Not only is pea protein better than most other plant-based protein powders, it’s on par with many animal proteins.
The easier it is for your body to digest, absorb, and process a protein, the better it’s going to be for building muscle and improving health.
More specifically, protein digestibility refers to the percentage of protein in a food that your body actually absorbs and uses. For example, if you eat 30 grams of protein and your body ultimately absorbs 27 grams, then that food has a protein digestibility rating of 90%.
Thus, the higher the digestibility score, the better the protein is for building muscle.
For example, meat and fish clock in around 95%, whereas whole wheat bread is closer to 40%, and rice comes in at about 60% (the exact percentages can vary depending on the measurement method, but these are good ballpark figures).
Although you may have heard that pea protein isn’t as easily digested and absorbed as other proteins due to “antinutrients,” this simply isn’t true.
Antinutrients are compounds that interfere with the absorption of other nutrients, like protein, vitamins, and minerals, and they tend to be much higher in plant foods than animal ones.
These substances are naturally present in peas, but they’re more or less completely eliminated through the standard processes used to create pea protein isolate.
Research shows that pea protein has an excellent digestibility score of around 70 to 80%, depending on how digestibility is measured. While this still isn’t quite as good as most animal proteins, it’s outstanding for a plant protein, so antinutrients aren’t blocking absorption enough to matter.
Another side benefit of pea protein is that it digests slower than whey (but not as slow as casein), which makes it perfect for taking before bed. Pea protein is also quite filling, making it an easy meal replacement if you need an on-the-go snack.
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to the taste of protein powder, but most people agree pea protein is one of the more palatable vegan options.
That said, when consumed on its own, the “pea” flavor tends to be a bit overpowering. When combined with another plant-based protein powder like rice or quinoa protein, though, the flavor becomes nutty, mild, and malty.
In other words, while most people don’t want to drink pea protein by itself, it becomes downright toothsome when combined in a protein blend.
Pea protein also has a smooth texture and easily mixes with water, unlike other plant-based protein powders like quinoa that have a gritty or chalky mouthfeel.
The biggest (supposed) problem with pea protein is this:
It’s low in methionine, one of the nine essential amino acids.
Practically speaking, though, this isn’t a major issue because methionine is abundant in many other foods that people usually eat in an omnivorous diet like chicken, fish, beef, dairy, and eggs.
The lack of methionine in pea protein only presents a problem if pea protein were your primary source of dietary protein and you ate little to no other methionine-containing foods. While this is almost never an issue for meat-eaters, it’s a good idea for vegans who follow particularly restrictive diets to combine pea protein with other plant-based proteins to ensure they get sufficient methionine.
This is why many vegans and vegetarians combine pea protein with rice protein, which contains abundant methionine. In fact, when you combine pea and rice protein, the resulting amino acid profile looks a lot like whey protein. This is why the blend of the two is often called the “vegan’s whey.”
Another benefit of mixing these two proteins is that the combination tends to taste better than either protein on its own.
The second, smaller accusation you’ll sometimes see leveled against pea protein is that it’s more likely to produce allergic reactions than other plant-based proteins.
While this is technically true, pea allergies are very rare, which is why pea protein is often recommended as a source of protein for people with allergies to more widely eaten foods like soy or dairy.
And speaking of allergies, if you’re a vegan who’s sensitive to wheat or gluten (a protein in wheat and many other grains), you may find that your body tolerates pea protein much better.
Lastly, many people think that because peas make them feel bloated, pea protein will do the same.
Fortunately, most of the substances naturally present in peas that cause this (like fiber) aren’t found in large enough quantities in pea protein to cause problems for most folks. In fact, many people who have tummy issues when they consume more than a few servings of dairy per day often find they have no trouble consuming large amounts of pea protein.
Summary: Pea protein is relatively low in methionine, but this problem is easily fixed by eating other foods high in methionine or combining pea protein with rice protein. Pea protein is also easily digested and absorbed and shouldn’t cause allergic reactions for most people.
Not all pea protein powders are the same.
Some are higher quality than others, and unfortunately, there’s no way to know how any given pea protein supplement rates by just looking at it.
That’s why choosing a good pea protein comes down to trusting the company that you’re buying from.
If you feel they’ve proven their honesty and integrity and earned your confidence, then they should get your business. If not, though, you should look elsewhere.
For our part, we work hard to demonstrate our commitment to producing high-quality, science-based supplements, and to selling them honestly and responsibly, and if that approach resonates with you, then you should check out our 100% vegan protein powder Plant+.
Plant+ is a high-quality pea and rice protein blend that provides you with 25 grams of protein per scoop; 25 additional micronutrients that vegan and vegetarian diets tend to be low in; 4 enzymes to help you better digest and absorb it all; and creatine and beta-alanine to boost your strength and muscle growth.
It’s also 100% naturally sweetened and delicious mixed in water, milk, or dairy substitutes, and contains no unnecessary fillers, dyes, or other chemicals.
So, if you want to build muscle and lose fat as quickly as possible and improve the nutritional quality of your diet without having to eat more animal protein, then you want to try Plant+ today.
Pea protein is one of the unsung heroes among plant-based protein powders.
- It’s mostly protein by weight and high in essential amino acids (especially muscle-building BCAAs).
- It’s well digested and absorbed.
- It tastes pleasant and mixes well with water.
Its Achilles heel is the amino acid methionine, which it’s short on, but this is easily mitigated by eating a balanced diet or combining it with rice protein, as we’ve done with Plant+.
All this is why a pea protein powder is just as viable of an option for supplementation as anything else, including the heavy hitters like whey and casein.
What’s your take on pea protein? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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