HealthTalk: Pea protein is everywhere, is it healthy?

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Q: I’m suddenly seeing pea protein everywhere. What is it and is it healthy?

A: Pea protein is an extract from split peas, and food manufacturers are adding this protein to a variety of foods like energy bars, meal-replacement shakes, veggie burgers and even cereals. You can also find it as a powder to add when making smoothies.

With protein getting a lot of attention right now, pea protein offers a healthy option. Traditional approaches to boosting protein might have involved larger meat portions, yet evidence is strong that excess red and processed meats increase risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.

Growing interest in vegetarian and plant-based diets has likely prompted the increased availability of pea and other plant-based proteins. Pea protein also appeals to people who are lactose-intolerant or do not include dairy-based protein. But compared to getting protein from foods that bring a bevy of other valuable nutrients, it’s not the answer for everyone.

Growing interest in vegetarian and plant-based diets has likely prompted the increased availability of pea and other plant-based proteins.

Pea Protein versus Other Plant Proteins

Proteins are made of amino acids and there are nine amino acids that are essential in our diets. Unlike animal sources of protein, protein from plant foods is often low in one or more of these nine amino acids that makes a “complete” protein. Yet research shows that as long as you eat a variety of protein sources throughout the day, it’s not necessary to consume complete proteins in each meal.

Like the legumes from which it’s made, pea protein contains all the essential amino acids but it is low in one called methionine. That means it should be used as only one of many different protein sources, not the major choice throughout the day.

Pea protein is not all the same. Protein and other nutrient content varies based on the brand and whether it is a concentrate or isolate (isolates typically have more protein). Even when supplying equal amounts of protein, the amount of fiber differs. Some are a good source of fiber yet most contain little. This protein is relatively low in fat yet at least one that I looked at contained a concerning amount of trans fat (the type of fat most clearly damaging to heart health).

Compared to protein-fortified products with protein isolated from hemp seed, rice and most other grains, pea protein contains a better balance of essential amino acids.

Compared to protein-fortified products with protein isolated from hemp seed, rice and most other grains, pea protein contains a better balance of essential amino acids.

The less desirable aspect of pea protein is that it can have a gritty texture. So it seems to work best in smoothies with a variety of other ingredients, or in protein-enriched products using recipes that overcome that problem.

Pea Protein in the Big Picture

As a dietitian, I’m glad to see people thinking about ways to meet protein needs beyond big meat portions, and including protein in meals throughout the day. But it’s important to recognize that just because the grams of protein listed on a bar or drink look good, protein doesn’t turn a food lacking in nutrients into a healthy meal.

Consider what else you get from foods that supply protein. The standard size serving of pea protein powder as listed on labels often provides about 21 grams of protein. That’s the amount in about 3 ounces of meat, fish or poultry (the size of a deck of cards).

However, in extracting the protein, some of dry peas’ other nutrients may be removed. Split peas provide important amounts of magnesium, folate, and potassium, but labels provide no indication of how much is retained in pea protein powder. A serving of pea protein powder does often remain a good source of iron. But isolated pea protein also is missing the pea’s carbohydrate compounds that can support anti-inflammatory gut bacteria.

Foods that contain smaller amounts of protein can add up to meet your protein needs and provide other nutrients and phytochemicals. For example, blenderizing a smoothie with soy milk or tofu, or including a handful of nuts in a snack or mixed into salad also supplies magnesium, potassium, polyphenols, and vitamin E.

If you choose it to boost protein, just remember that whole foods provide more than protein: keep an eye on the big picture.

Bottom line

Pea protein can be a useful ingredient to provide structure to gluten-free foods or improve texture. If you choose it to boost protein, just remember that whole foods provide more than protein: keep an eye on the big picture of what your foods provide to promote overall health.

AICR HealthTalk is by Karen Collins, MS, RDN.

Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, is AICR’s Nutrition Advisor. Karen is a speaker, writer and consultant who specializes in helping people make sense of nutrition news. You can follow her blog, Smart Bytes®, through her website and follow her on Twitter @KarenCollinsRD.

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    Karen Collins

    Author: Karen Collins

    Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, is AICR’s Nutrition Advisor. Karen is a speaker, writer and consultant who specializes in helping people make sense of nutrition news. You can follow her blog, Smart Bytes®, through her website and follow her on Twitter @KarenCollinsRD.

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