Alternative proteins from algae and insects continue to make headlines, but until they become cheaper — and more appetizing — more manufacturers than ever are asking us to give peas a chance.
Extracted from dried and ground yellow split peas, pea protein is showing up in everything from sports supplements, smoothies and protein bars, to meat alternatives and yogurt. General Mills uses it in its Lärabar and Cascadian Farms brands, UK bakery giant Warburton’s recently added pea protein to sliced bread, and it is even possible to buy pea “milk.”
Beyond Meat produces a vegetarian burger based on pea protein that looks, sizzles and even bleeds like a beef burger, thanks to beetroot juice. Even meat firms are paying attention, as Tyson Foods — the nation’s biggest meat producer — has bought a 5% stake in the company. In meat products themselves, companies are adding pea protein to cut fat content and improve texture.
The appeal for consumers is that pea protein is a non-allergenic, non-GMO and environmentally friendly ingredient — especially when compared to other commonly used protein sources like soy and whey. While whey protein is the most popular fortification product on the market, more consumers are considering plant-based protein sources for their health and environmental benefits.
The list of health benefits for pea protein is long. It is cholesterol-free, helps with satiety and blood pressure, and lowers triglycerides and cholesterol. For elderly or ill consumers, it is more easily digested than animal-derived proteins. Major pea protein supplier Roquette has also done research that suggests it is just as effective as whey for enhancing muscle mass gain during weight training.
All of this adds up to a booming market. According to Mintel, the number of new products containing pea protein grew by 195% from 2013 to 2016.
Roquette is banking on rising demand for pea protein in a big way, and recently announced a CA$400 million ($321 million) investment to build the world’s largest pea protein factory in Manitoba, Canada, as well as an additional €40 million ($47 million) for its French pea processing site. By 2019, the company expects the two facilities to have a combined capacity of 250,000 tons a year, placing it at the heart of two of the world’s biggest regions for pea protein ingredients — North America and Europe — as well as the world’s biggest pea supply. Canada provides 30% of the global pea protein total.
Pascal Leroy, vice president of Roquette’s pea and new proteins business line, told Food Dive that the company started producing pea protein to improve the texture and yield of meat and fish products about 10 years ago. Now its biggest market is the specialty nutrition sector for sports, clinical applications and weight management, but other categories are seeing strong growth too.
“Dairy-free and meat-free applications are really booming these days,” he said. “This is really following the trend of vegetarians and flexitarians. In the U.S., 25% of the population claims to be flexitarian. This is really pushing the market.”
Specifically, Roquette has seen demand for protein-fortified products. Meat substitute products grow rapidly as more consumers become interested in vegetarian options.
“This is really following the trend of vegetarians and flexitarians. In the U.S., 25% of the population claims to be flexitarian. This is really pushing the market.”
Vice president, Roquette’s pea and new proteins business line
Part of peas’ appeal is the claims food companies can make on-pack — including gluten-free, non-GMO, kosher and vegan. Unlike soy, whey or casein, pea protein is not considered to be a major allergen, meaning foods and drinks containing the ingredient can make low/no/reduced allergen claims.
For manufacturers, there are three main types of pea protein: concentrates, isolates and textured. Pea protein isolates are a more refined version of concentrates and offer a higher protein content. Both are used to lower the fat content of meat products. They are also used in baked goods and noodles to improve texture, as well as in functional foods and beverages. Textured pea protein has a neutral taste and fibrous texture, which is useful for vegetarian meat substitutes and as a meat extender.
When used as a meat replacement in particular, protein made from peas is much more sustainable, and this is one area that Roquette sees as a major selling point.
“Customers are more and more educated about sustainable options as well as health. Pea proteins have many advantages to farmers, to customers and consumers,” said Leroy. “Peas are ideal for crop rotation. You don’t need nitrogen fertilizers and there is less irrigation. …These elements bring sustainability. It’s part of our program to ensure that.”
Problems with peas
Pea protein does have potential downsides, particularly when it comes to protein quality.
Soy and animal-derived proteins are considered “complete” because they contain all nine essential amino acids — those not made by the body. Protein from peas is “incomplete,” meaning it is low in certain amino acids.
While this may give some athletes pause, it is unlikely to be a problem, according to Melissa Majumdar, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“As long as someone is not relying on pea protein for their only source of protein, they will likely meet their amino acid and therefore protein needs,” she told Food Dive via email.
“If all essential amino acids are not available or are only available in limited amounts, the body must get them from another source to perform functions in the body needing protein. In other words, amino acids are the protein puzzle pieces and the puzzle is not complete with a missing piece.”
“As long as someone is not relying on pea protein for their only source of protein, they will likely meet their amino acid and therefore protein needs.”
Registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
She explained that pea protein bioavailability is at 69%. Whey is 99% and soy is 95% to 98%. Apart from its limiting amino acids, bioavailability also is affected by chemicals that inhibit nutritional availability, including tannins and lectin.
“On the other hand, pea protein can be a less expensive form of protein than animal protein,” Majumdar said. "Pea protein is not as common of an allergy as whey and soy and as long as the limiting acids are replaced or complemented, pea protein can be a quality protein source.”
Leroy says there are ways around this issue that depend on the company’s aim and the final application.
“To achieve your goal, you can go different routes,” he said. “…We educate our customers on the benefits of pea protein with or without other ingredients. We can mix different proteins or ingredients.”
Apart from its protein profile, the other potential downside for manufacturers is taste. Pea protein can add a distinct pea-like flavor to finished products, which is rarely desirable in yogurts, baked goods or drinks. However, ingredient suppliers and manufacturers alike have made strides in neutralizing its taste.
The UK bakery firm Warburton’s has said the ingredient’s flavor was its biggest challenge in creating its pea protein-fortified bread. It worked with Canadian researchers to solve the issue, providing equipment that has helped develop a database of flavors and functions of pulses in baked goods.
In the future, the database will help food companies, farmers and processors provide pulse-derived products with specific flavors suited to different applications. In addition, companies like Roquette provide their own flavor-masking solutions.
Pea protein also provides good value for money, said Leroy — particularly considering its health and environmental benefits.
“The main guidance is the value you can bring to your final product,” he said