- Pea protein is a “complete protein,” but it’s low in one vital amino acid.
- Unlike some plant-based protein powders, pea protein is well digested and highly bioavailable.
- Pea protein is almost as good as whey protein for building muscle, feeling satiated, and recovering from workouts.
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 simply 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, and especially for men. Many others choose other popular alternatives like hemp or rice protein, and many still go in for more obscure supplements like beef or collagen protein.
Pea, however, is often overlooked because of concerns about its amino acid profile, digestibility, and taste.
Well, they’re wrong.
As you’ll see, pea protein is actually one of the best plant-based forms of protein that 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 and casein, and how to choose the best pea protein powder for you, then you want to keep reading…
- What is Pea Protein?
- Is Pea Protein a “Complete” Protein?
- The Benefits of Pea Protein
- The Downsides of Pea Protein
- How to Choose a Good Pea Protein
- The Bottom Line on Pea Protein
Table of Contents
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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 grounding peas into a fine flour, mixing it with water, and removing the 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 provides the following nutrition in just one 30-gram serving:
- 100 calories
- 23 grams of protein
- 7 grams carbohydrate
- 0.3 grams fat
- 6 grams fiber
- 400 IU vitamin D
- 5 IU vitamin E
- 5 micrograms vitamin K
- 200 IU vitamin A
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To fully answer this question, we need to start the discussion with 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 other molecules).
These nine are known as “essential amino acids, or EAAs, and one in particular, leucine, is especially related to muscle building, which is why research shows that the leucine content of a meal directly affects the amount of muscle growth that occurs as a result.
In other words, high-leucine foods have a higher muscle-building potential than low-leucine foods.
Now, if a source of protein has all nine EAAs, it’s called a “complete” protein, and 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 can fill the “holes.”
This simply isn’t true.
Researchers at MIT debunked this claim a couple decades ago and proved that all vegetable proteins contain all essential amino acids. That said, they also found that some sources of protein are lower in certain essential amino acids than others.
For example, popular sources of animal protein like dairy and meat are rich in EAAs, making them extremely popular among people looking to improve their their body composition, whereas the protein found in many vegetables aren’t, making them less conducive to muscle gain.
Pea protein, however, is a standout exception because it’s rich in all nine essential amino acids except for methionine, which is easy to correct for by including small amounts of animal protein in your diet or even other plant proteins like rice protein.
As I mentioned above, pea protein is unique in that it’s rich in essential amino acids, and in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) in particular.
Here’s how the full amino acid profile looks:
As you can see above, 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.
Another reason why pea protein deserves praise is it’s almost pure 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.
Pea protein also digests slowly, which makes it perfect for taking before you go to bed, and which may also make it better for improving body composition over time than faster-digesting options like whey.
Specifically, there’s evidence that slower-digesting proteins are better for muscle growth over the long term due to how your body’s muscle-building machinery processes amino acids into muscle tissue.
Pea protein’s amino acid profile is lacking in one regard:
It’s low in methionine.
Practically speaking, this isn’t an issue because methionine is abundant in many other foods that people generally like to eat, like chicken, oats, and eggs.
It would only present a problem if pea protein were more or less your only source of protein and you didn’t eat other foods that provided sufficient amounts.
If you’re getting your protein from a variety of sources, though, or otherwise eating methionine-rich foods, then you have nothing to worry about.
Another common criticism of pea protein is that it isn’t easily digested and absorbed due to “antinutrients” and other inherent deficiencies.
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.
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.
Studies also show that pea protein is highly bioavailable, almost equally to animal protein, so antinutrients clearly aren’t causing problems.
You may have also heard that pea protein is 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.
Lastly, many people think that because peas make them bloated, pea protein will do the same.
Fortunately, most of the substances naturally present in peas that cause this aren’t present in pea protein isolate, so this really isn’t a concern.
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, then 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 THRIVE.
THRIVE is an affordable vegan protein powder that provides you with 25 grams of high-quality plant protein per scoop, including 23-grams of pea protein, along with 10 additional nutrients that vegan and vegetarian diets tend to be low in, and 4 enzymes to help you better digest and absorb it all.
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 THRIVE today.
Pea protein is one of the unsung heroes among plant-based protein powders.
- It’s mostly protein by weight.
- It’s well digested and absorbed.
- It’s a “complete” protein and contains an abundance of most essential amino acids, including leucine.
- It tastes pleasantly different.
Its Achilles heel is the amino acid methionine, which it’s short on, but this is easily mitigated by eating a balanced diet.
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!
+ Scientific References
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- G Schaafsma. (n.d.). The protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score - PubMed. Retrieved July 14, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10867064/
- Shahidi, F. (1997). Beneficial Health Effects and Drawbacks of Antinutrients and Phytochemicals in Foods An Overview. https://pubs.acs.org/sharingguidelines
- Boirie, Y., Dangin, M., Gachon, P., Vasson, M. P., Maubois, J. L., & Beaufrère, B. (1997). Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 94(26), 14930–14935. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.94.26.14930
- Overduin, J., Guérin-Deremaux, L., Wils, D., & Lambers, T. T. (2015). NUTRALYS® pea protein: Characterization of in vitro gastric digestion and in vivo gastrointestinal peptide responses relevant to satiety. Food and Nutrition Research, 59. https://doi.org/10.3402/fnr.v59.25622
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- Babault, N., Christos Païzis, Deley, G., Laetitia Guérin-Deremaux, Marie-Hélène Saniez, Lefranc-Millot, C., & Allaert, F. A. (2015). Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: A double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5
- S, T., R, L., R, H., & O, B. (2001). Isolation and study of the functional properties of pea proteins. Die Nahrung, 45(6). https://doi.org/10.1002/1521-3803(20011001)45:6<399::AID-FOOD399>3.0.CO;2-0
- Hoffman, J. R., & Falvo, M. J. (2004). Protein - Which is best? In Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (Vol. 3, Issue 3, pp. 118–130). Las. http://www.jssm.org
- V R Young, P. L. P. (n.d.). Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition - PubMed. Retrieved July 14, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8172124/
- Norton, L. E., Layman, D. K., Bunpo, P., Anthony, T. G., Brana, D. V., & Garlick, P. J. (2009). The Leucine Content of a Complete Meal Directs Peak Activation but Not Duration of Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Mammalian Target of Rapamycin Signaling in Rats. The Journal of Nutrition, 139(6), 1103–1109. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.108.103853
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