Pea Protein: The Option for Plant-Based Performance

Article by Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD: a consultant dietitian who works with Clif Bar & Company, in professional and collegiate sports, the media, and as an associate professor educating nursing and exercise science students.

The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition-related activity.

While there is no shortage of protein powders or isolated protein ingredients on the market, people are becoming more selective when choosing products due to growing interest not only in their health, but also the environment. Consumer articles and documentaries focused on eating plant-based for performance1 and wellbeing2 are popping up in the media, and growing research supports that plant-based eating patterns are among the best for people and the planet.3 As people turn to plant-based protein for nutrition and sustainability – more are considering the power of the pea.

Before you turn your nose up at this plant-based protein due to poor memories of peas from childhood, hang in to learn more. Whether you’re wondering if pea protein is better than other protein options or if it’s the right protein for you, you’re about to find out!

What is pea protein?

Peas are a member of the legume family. The most common are green peas – the kind you buy fresh, frozen or canned. These popular dinner plate staples provide protein but are not what is used to make pea protein. It’s the dried yellow and split pea varieties, the ones that mimic lentils in size and texture, from which pea protein is sourced. Generally speaking, to make pea protein concentrate or isolate, these peas are ground into a powder and added to water to form a paste. Next, the fiber and starch are removed, and then the paste is dried – converting it back to a powder with a concentrated amount of protein.

Consumers typically turn to soy as a plant-based alternative to animal-based whey protein. While soy has plenty of research supporting its health properties and overall protein quality,4 it happens to also be categorized as one of the eight major allergens in the United States – limiting its use among those with sensitivities. This is where pea protein really shines. Pea protein is an excellent plant-based protein for anyone with common allergies or intolerances to dairy and soy. Depending on the brand, powdered pea protein isolate can provide between 17-25 grams of plant-based protein per serving.

How does pea protein’s nutrition profile compare to other proteins?

The table below highlights the nutrition differences in popular protein sources. When it comes to allergens, remember that whey and soy protein may be of concern for individuals with allergies and intolerances. Furthermore, some popular blended plant-based proteins may contain gluten and grains, so those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity should always read the labels. Pea protein is a great plant-based protein option for individuals concerned with the above allergies and sensitivities.

As you will see in the chart below, plant-based proteins tend to have less essential amino acids, including leucine, a branched-chain amino acid important for muscle growth and repair.5 Additionally, the protein in plant-based foods tend to be more difficult to digest, meaning you need to eat more plant-based than animal-based protein to get the same benefit.

The Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) of a food is a measurement of protein quality, taking into consideration both the amount of essential amino acids in the protein source and its digestibility.4,6 For example, while pea protein contains all the essential amino acids, it is limited in several, particularly methionine and cysteine, giving it a lower PDCAAS than whey protein. For that reason, it is common for pea protein to be blended with other plant-based sources that are rich in cysteine and methionine to round out its nutrition profile. By combining pea and rice proteins, a higher PDCAAS is achieved, although data supporting the exact score varies.

Practically speaking, for most people, eating enough calories over the course of the day and including a variety of plant-based foods in the diet ensures adequate protein consumption.7

What’s the Difference? Comparing Pea Protein to Other Popular Protein Sources

Organic Pea Protein* Soy Protein Isolate Whey Protein Isolate Brown Rice Isolate Blended
Plant-Based Isolate**
Calories 102 76 123 92 110
Carbs (g) 1.6 0 10 3.35 4.7
Protein (g) 20 20 20 20 20
Fat (g) 2 0.77 0.4 0 2
BCAA (g) 3.8 3.6 5.7 3.8 3.7
PDCAAS .8 .99 1.00 .5 Variable
Dietary
Differences
Soy Free,
Dairy Free,
Gluten Free
Dairy Free,
Gluten Free
Soy Free,
Gluten Free
Dairy Free,
Soy Free,
Gluten Free
Varies by blend


Nutrition information standardized to 20 grams of specified protein in unflavored varieties via the USDA database8 and may vary depending on product.
*0rganic Pea Protein data based on Clif Bar & Company source.
**USDA data not available for blended plant-based protein; data based on Garden of Life Plant Protein and is highly variable, depending on the supplier.

Besides the macronutrients highlighted above, pea protein can also provide key vitamins, minerals, and beneficial phytonutrients (plant nutrients).8,9

What are the benefits of plant-based pea protein?

In addition to being free of major allergens, pea protein is also vegan-friendly and environmentally sustainable. As the spotlight shines on our food system, climate change and the future of planet Earth, people are looking for plant-based options to not only support their health but also to help maintain a healthy planet. It’s important to note that following a plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean eating exclusively plants. Even small shifts toward a plant-based eating plan can deliver big benefits.

Plant-based diets, especially those comprised mainly of colorful produce, whole grains and plant proteins (e.g., nuts, legumes), have been linked to a variety of health outcomes. Specifically, evidence suggests that plant-based eating patterns are associated with a healthy heart, healthy weight and more.10,11,12 Pea protein in particular has been shown to be as effective as milk protein in promoting satiety,13 and some research suggests that meals based on beans and peas may be even more satiating than meat-based meals.14 This is important, because an increase in satiety (or feel>ing of fullness) may allow for better appetite control. Additionally, while more research is needed, recent animal research and emerging science suggests that pea protein could play a role in maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.15

Furthermore, peas have a very low environmental impact for several reasons. First, because the roots of the pea plant do not extend deep into the soil, peas use (on average) one tenth of the water of many other protein sources.16 Secondly, peas and other legumes enrich soil, rather than deplete it, through the process of nitrogen fixation. The roots of the pea plant convert nitrogen in the air to a form plants can use, reducing the need for nitrogen-based fertilizers. By reducing the use of fertilizers, the CO2 emission from pea production is dramatically lower than animal proteins.17,18

Can pea protein help me build muscle?

Pea protein contains all three BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine and valine), giving it plenty of muscle building power. In fact, while whey has ~25% more, pea protein delivers a good amount of leucine (the BCAA most notably responsible for building muscle),19 making it a good substitute to animal-based protein sources for those looking to adopt a more plant-based, sustainable diet.

Research shows pea protein to be just as effective as whey protein in promoting gains in muscle size.16 One study showed that after eight weeks of high-intensity functional training, pea protein and whey protein supplementation produced similar results in measured force production, muscle thickness, and body composition improvements.20 So, while more research is needed, studies like this highlight the power of plant protein in the future of performance nutrition.

The takeaway

Pea protein is one of the clear leaders in the plant-based protein field. It provides vegan-friendly and environmentally sustainable quality protein and delivers BCAAs for muscle building without worry of reactions to major allergens. Plus, when combined with other tasty, plant-based ingredients, like in CLIF® Granola, pea protein can provide you with the energy you need to kick-start your day. CLIF® Granola delivers 8g of plant-based protein (and a good source of fiber* to help tide you over), is loaded with hearty clusters of simple, whole food ingredients like oats, almonds, cashews, seeds and dried fruit making it great by itself as a snack or pairs perfectly with yogurt or your favorite milk for a delicious, balanced breakfast.

*Contains 8-10g total fat per 2/3 cup serving.

References

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  2. AUM Films. What the Health. http://www.whatthehealthfilm.com/. Accessed May 18, 2019
  3. Lancet. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. January 2019. https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/EAT
  4. Food and Agriculture Organization. Protein quality evaluation. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/38133/1/9251030979eng.pdf. Published 1991
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  7. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diet. The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016. https://www.eatrightpro.org/~/media/eatrightpro%20files/practice/position%20and%20practice%20papers/position%20papers/vegetarian-diet.ashx
  8. USDA Food Composition Database. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/. Accessed June 20, 2019.
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  12. Scientific report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. US Department of Agriculture, 2015. www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/
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  14. Kristensen M et al. Meals Based on Vegetable Protein Sources are More Satiating Than Meals Based on Animal Protein Sources - A Randomized Controlled Trial. Food Nutr Res. 2016;60.
  15. Li H, Prairie N, Udenigwe CC, et al. Blood Pressure Lowering Effect of a Pea Protein Hydrolysate in Hypertensive Rats and Humans. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2011;59(18):9854-9860. doi:10.1021/jf201911p.
  16. Hadfield R. Sustainable. USA Pulses. https://www.usapulses.org/consumers/about-pulses/sustainable. Published June 12, 2018. Accessed May 18, 2019.
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  19. Babault N, Païzis C, Deley G, et al. 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. 2015;12(1):3. doi:10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5.
  20. Banaszek A, Townsend JR, Bender D, Vantrease WC, Marshall AC, Johnson KD. The Effects of Whey vs. Pea Protein on Physical Adaptations Following 8-Weeks of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): A Pilot Study. Sports. 2019;7(1):12. doi:10.3390/sports7010012