Between soy, legumes, nuts and seeds, seitan, nutritional yeast, and whole grains, there's a wide variety of different sources of plant-based protein. But one that often slides under the radar is pea protein. It’s a great option if you follow a vegan or plant-based diet, or if you have food sensitivities.
“In its isolated state, pea protein is suitable for those avoiding common allergens like soy, dairy, and wheat,” Hillary Pride, RDN, LD, says.
Multiple studies have also found that pea protein is just as effective at building muscle as whey protein, and it’s high in iron. Here’s everything else you need to know about pea protein to properly incorporate it into your weekly meal plan via smoothies, snacks, and more.
6 Things You Need to Know About Pea Protein
1. It’s a Complete Source of Protein
It’s rather unusual for plant-based proteins to be a complete source of protein, meaning that it contains all of the amino acids that the body needs. Pea protein does, however, which is why you’ll find it in many plant-based protein blends. (Soy protein is another complete source of protein.)
“Pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids, making it an excellent vegan complete protein choice,” Pride says. “However, because amino acid content varies between all protein sources, it is still important to vary your protein choices to ensure that you get adequate amounts of amino acids.”
While it does have all of the essential amino acids (which the body can’t produce solo and needs to source from food), it’s lower in the essential amino acid methionine, Pride explains. So, it’s important to get a variety of proteins in your diet, especially if you do follow a plant-based or vegan meal plan.
2. It’s as High in Protein Content as Dairy Protein
In a regular, 30-gram serving of pea protein, there are 27 grams of protein, which is just as much as a dairy-based protein like whey or casein. There are also 120 calories and very little fat and carbs. And, it’ll likely fill you up just as much as the non-vegan proteins.
“It also has as strong of an effect on satiety as casein does when used as a pre-load meal,” Carissa Galloway, RDN, says.
Essentially, pea protein keeps you feeling fuller, longer.
3. Pea Protein Can Help Build Strong Muscle
Good news: Pea protein is as synonymous with building muscle as whey protein, as it contains some of the same essential amino acids as whey, including leucine, isoleucine, and valine, Galloway says.
“Because of its good source of essential amino acids and branch chain amino acids, pea protein will help with muscle recovery,” Pride explains.
Studies have proven its effectiveness in both muscle recovery and muscle hypertrophy (or bulking up). Research has also shown that pea protein had similar effects on muscle thickness, muscle mass, and body composition as whey protein when it came to supplementing it along with high-intensity training.
4. There Is a Significant Amount of Iron in Pea Protein
It can sometimes be tricky to find enough iron in plant foods, but pea protein is a great source of iron. Most servings of pea protein include up to 40% of recommended daily iron intake. Pride points out that Vitamin C increases iron absorption, so it’s best to up your Vitamin C intake as well. Think: green leafy veggies, broccoli, strawberries, and citrus fruits.)
5. It’s Lower in Fiber Than You May Think
Pea protein can be lower in fiber than other plant-based proteins like hemp, so it might be slightly less filling. However, this may be a positive if you follow a low fiber or low-FODMAP meal plan. It also may decrease the bloating you might encounter in other plant-based or dairy-based protein products, Galloway adds.
But if you need more fiber in your diet, add it to your pea protein shake or smoothie.
“Simply adding fiber-rich ingredients like frozen raspberries to a lower-fiber pea protein smoothie can help in boosting satiety,” Pride says.
6. ... but Be Wary of the Sugar and Salt Content
You can find pea protein in various dairy-free milks, vegan cheese, protein powders, protein smoothies, protein bars, veggie burgers, and protein chips at your neighborhood market. But according to dietitians, it’s key to read the labels for the other micronutrients present in these products — along with the sugar and salt content — to make sure that you’re not going overboard.
In other words, just because it contains peas and is labeled “plant-based” does not make it an overall nutritious choice.
“The majority of pea protein products are high in sodium, ranging from 100 to 400 grams of sodium,” Galloway explains, “So, people following a low-sodium diet might want to stay away.”
You should be safe with an unsweetened protein powder, which won’t contain a ton of salt or sugar.
Pride suggests unsweetened pea protein-based milk, where you'll get a significant amount of protein (about 8 grams per low-carb cup). All in all, just remember to study the foods that you’re putting in your body, especially when it comes to packaged protein-rich foods that you see at your local grocery store.