Researchers from the U.K. and Ireland have discovered alcohol can be fermented from pea starch instead of wheat, and that gin made from the vegetable has a smaller environmental footprint in 12 of 14 categories. Their study, published in the journal Environment International, concluded that making the switch to peas could help to limit the beverage's impact on climate change.
Unlike wheat, peas don't need nitrogen fertilizer, and growing them results in less air and water pollution, the study found. One downside is that pea-based gin would require 112% more direct land occupation. Still, peas provide more protein than wheat, and after the gin is distilled, the byproduct can be used for animal feed. The researchers said this animal feed substitution "more than offsets the carbon footprint of pea gin," including bottling it.
"If successful, there is great potential to scale this innovation out to other alcoholic beverages such as vodka and beer, and to scale it up to industrial bioethanol (biofuel) production, with considerable global mitigation potential, particularly in terms of climate change and nutrient leakage," the study concluded.
Many of today's consumers are looking for products with greener credentials that can boost sustainability, whether that means enhancing air and water quality, conserving land, lowering greenhouse gas emissions or upcycling ingredients and reducing waste. Consequently, peas are attracting more attention because of their smaller carbon footprint and nutritional profile, highlighted by their 25% protein content.
According to Bloomberg, pea protein demand has been enhanced by the success of plant-based meat alternatives such as those made by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Citing government data, the news agency said U.S. and Canadian growers planted about 20% more field peas this year.
Researchers from the U.K. and Ireland also made a connection between commodity choices and rainforest preservation. They noted Europe imports large quantities of soybeans from Brazil and other Latin American countries to feed pigs, poultry, cattle and fish. Soybean cultivation, they found, "drives environmental damage, including rainforest destruction."
The researchers said if peas, beans or other legumes were widely used to produce alcohol, 6% of the total greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. might be reduced. They plan to perform similar research using beer.
It's possible some alcohol makers could decide to switch from wheat to peas following this study, but it's uncertain how many of them will want to invest the time and money in making the move or whether they will stick with what they know works unless there is a consumer uproar. Since researchers looked at 14 different environmental categories to assess the benefits between wheat-based gin and pea-based gin, there are baselines to compare against.
Making gin from pea starch doesn't seem to have been attempted yet on a commercial scale. The Cambridge Distillery Co. produced a special pea-based gin for a restaurant and bar opening in 2016. An indirect use of peas in alcohol has come in the form of the butterfly pea flower — a purple wildflower related to the garden pea — which showed up in an Empress 1908 Gin distilled last year by Canada's Victoria Distillers in collaboration with that city's Empress Hotel.
Taste could conceivably be a barrier for some consumers, although switching from wheat to peas shouldn't be a factor when it comes to gin, one of the researchers told Fast Company. Manufacturers also would need to factor price and supply into their product formulations.