Your Pea Protein Primer | Civil Eats

Your Pea Protein Primer

Farmers and processors are investing millions in products from milk to burgers made from yellow peas. Is this plant-based protein all it’s hyped up to be?

handful of yellow peas

Americans love meat. By year’s end, the average American will have eaten more than 200 pounds of beef, pork, chicken, and turkey combined—a banner year for the animal protein industry.

At the same time, many people are also seeking out alternative protein sources. Whether motivated by concerns for health, animal welfare, or the environment, nearly one-third of Americans practice meat-free days and 35 percent say they’re increasing the amount of non-meat proteins they eat, according to market intelligence agency Mintel. Surveys have found that vegans make up as much as 6 percent of the population, though other studies put that figure much lower.

Of the protein-packed plants taking the country by storm, one unlikely source is experiencing something of a meteoric rise: the pea. Peas have been around forever, but only recently have they found their footing as a go-to protein in many energy bars, milk alternatives, and burgers.

Pea protein is creating something of a feeding frenzy among investors and big food companies hoping to strike it rich off the new designer protein. In 2018 alone, global food giant Cargill poured $25 million into Minnesota-based pea protein manufacturer Puris, while Ripple Foods brought in $65 million in series C funding to expand its line of pea protein-based milks and yogurts. And last year, director James Cameron, seeing the growth in the plant-based foods, invested in Canadian pea processing plant Verdient Foods. While he wouldn’t disclose the amount of his investment, Cameron told CBC News the “ballpark is big.”

Globally, the pea protein market increases each year, with some estimates placing its value at $360 million by 2022.

As with all hot, “new” foods, there’s more than meets the eye. We asked experts to give us the lowdown on pea protein—where does it come from, how is it produced, and is it substantially better than other plant-based proteins?

Taking a Bite out of Soy and Almond

First, we need to address the billion-dollar elephant in the room: soy. Protein derived from soybeans accounts for the largest segment of plant-based proteins by far. It’s currently a $1.7 billion market worldwide, expected to grow by around 10 percent a year for the foreseeable future. Soy has for years been the go-to alternative protein source for consumer packaged goods manufacturers, and for a long time the leading source for dairy-free milk (almond milk has since taken the lead).

But both soy and almonds have struggled with image problems of late. At the peak of California’s punishing five-year drought, almonds became a scapegoat for irrational water use in the state, owing to the widely cited statistic that it takes more than a gallon of water to grow one nut.

Ripple’s pea milk bottles. (Photo courtesy of Ripple Foods)

Soy comes with its own baggage. For one thing, almost all domestically grown soybeans are genetically modified—a potential red flag for many consumers. And since that modification tends to be focused on making the plants tolerant to Roundup and other weed killers, it’s also one of foods most commonly sprayed with pesticides. Soy’s prevalence in the U.S. diet over the last few decades has also earned it a spot among the eight most common food allergens, as identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Additional questions surround the isoflavones prevalent in soy, which can mimic estrogen in the body, although studies are inconclusive on the damage these do to humans.

But if there’s anything we know about the food industry, it’s that it doesn’t take much bad press—much less scientific proof—to turn consumers away from a product.

Enter pea protein.

It Starts with a Pea

The industry starts with the high-protein yellow or green “field peas” known by most consumers as “split peas.” More than 400 growers in the U.S. and Canada buy yellow field peas from Puris, grow them organically, and sell them back to the company. Split peas are naturally higher in protein (20-25 percent) than sweet green peas (5-6 percent), making them a better raw material from which to isolate the protein.

The harvested peas are then dried and shipped to Puris’s manufacturing facility, where they are milled into a fine powder. The powder is immersed in water to create a pea “milk” or “slurry,” which scientists place into a centrifuge machine to mechanically separate the proteins from the starches and fibers. (Puris also manufactures and sells its condensed fiber and starch isolates to food manufacturers, using the entire pea.)

Now it’s time to make the protein isolate taste good. This is where the clean-eating critics of protein isolates begin to get wary. In order to improve flavor, texture, and functionality, some have wondered whether the protein is treated with harmful chemicals or submerged in petroleum-based hexane, like many soy proteins. That’s true of some pea protein isolates, but not the ones made by Puris, where food scientist MarJanie Kinney says the protein is treated only with food-grade enzymes and acidulants such as citric acid. The protein is then removed from the water and spray-dried, leaving behind a powder that is approximately 80 percent protein.

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Pea Protein in Use

“Pea protein allows you to plug a plant-based protein source in a number of different applications that people are willing and ready to eat,” says Kinney, who helped develop Puris’s pea protein isolate before becoming an independent consultant. “Puris is creating a plant-based future in every food category.”

The company is certainly not alone; the number of products containing pea protein isolate has increased nearly 200 percent in the last few years, with food companies adding it to just about everything—from energy bars to bread. Food conglomerate Cargill’s principal technologist Bill Gilbert told FoodNavigator that where the market for whole grain and fiber breads is fairly saturated, baking breads with pea proteins could “extend that category further.”

Tyler Lorenzen of Puris Foods in a pea field. (Photo by Bill Phelps, courtesy of Puris Foods)

Pea protein is also the star in a line of plant-based burgers that the company Beyond Meat says “looks, cooks, and satisfies like beef”—without the cholesterol, animal fat, and environmental burden of meat. Beyond Meat’s burger even “bleeds” beet juice when thrown on the grill.

But it’s pea protein milk alternatives that are making perhaps the biggest splash. Companies like Ripple and Bolthouse Farms hope their products can take market share from soy, almond, and dairy milk.

Transparency and Nutritional Properties

The key thing to remember regarding transparency is that production methods can differ, especially in pea proteins imported from abroad. For instance, while Puris may grow its peas organically and in the United States, it may be more difficult for consumers to verify claims made by manufacturers from China and Europe—especially around their organic standards. (Canada grows more than three-quarters of all split peas imported by the United States.)

Nutritionally, peas are technically not a complete protein—they don’t contain all the amino acids needed for the body to process proteins. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and a growing number of nutritionists, as long as we get those amino acids from other plant-based foods at other times in the day, having them all in one meal isn’t necessary. Boston-based vegan nutritionist Kristen Ciccolini says pea protein has been shown to benefit the human body in many important ways.

“It’s easier to digest than the dairy versions, there’s evidence showing it’s a great choice for weight loss and appetite control, and it has been found to help keep blood sugar in balance,” Ciccolini says. “The branch-chain amino acids that it contains support muscle repair as well.”

Despite claims like this, pea protein has been the subject of only a few peer-reviewed research studies. In a recent letter to Congressional lawmakers from lobby group Plant Based Foods Association regarding the 2018 Farm Bill, executive director Michele Simon and board chair Jaime Athos specifically requested additional research into plant-based sources of protein in a general call for a fairer food system for plant-based foods.

Simon told Civil Eats that the academic study of plant-based foods is dwarfed by those of meat and dairy, the production of which amounts to a “catastrophe situation” for our health and planet.

“Research can really drive a lot of innovation and food products that come on to market,” Simon says. Funding more research into plant-based proteins like peas could open the door to further innovations in plant-based nutrition. “How can we tap into the variety of plant-based proteins to help consumers shift away from a meat-centered diet to a plant-based diet?”

Sustainability and Scalability

With companies like Nestlé and Cargill getting into the pea business, questions about environmental sustainability abound. After all, an increasing amount of U.S. farmland is controlled by fewer, larger commodity farms, which in turn frequently contract with a handful of mega-corporations who make our food.

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But from an environmental standpoint, the addition of peas can actually improve the sustainability of large-scale cereal farms, according to Dr. Chengci Chen, Cropping Systems Agronomist and Superintendent of the Eastern Agriculture Research Center at Montana State University. Chen says that’s because peas and other legumes grow in concert with bacteria in the soil to take nitrogen from the air and soil and feed it to the plant as a natural fertilizer.

When peas are grown as a rotational crop on Montana’s large cereal farms, Chen says that the nitrogen created by the peas keeps the soil healthy and reduces the amount of nitrogen-based chemical fertilizer that is applied to the wheat before running off into the groundwater supply.

“It’s a win-win situation. Peas build nitrogen in the soil, they require no fertilizer, they increase yields for farmers, they’re a clean crop and healthy for human and animal consumption,” Chen says. “I can’t think of any negative impact to growing peas.”

And what if field peas are grown at the same scale as soybeans? Marion Nestle, an author and nutrition professor at New York University, says it’s not going to happen—or at least not anytime soon. Soybeans have been paired with corn on most Corn Belt farms since they were made popular by Henry Ford the 1930s and the nation is covered with billions of dollars worth of farm infrastructure designed around storing, processing, and transporting them.

American farmers planted around 90 million acres of soybeans in 2017, compared to just 1.1 million acres of field peas. Some surveys suggest soy’s 2018 acreage could match the 91 million acres of King Corn planted in 2017. This dynamic means domestic soy will most likely always remain less expensive than peas for the consumer.

In the end, however, a nutritionally balanced and economical diet may require Americans to seek out proteins from more than just one source, says Nestle.

“Lots of people do not want to eat meat for reasons of religion, politics, economics, or health and greatly prefer plant proteins,” Nestle says. “Fortunately, these work just fine as long as sources are varied. I wouldn’t call this a fad—it’s more of a lifestyle choice.”

Top photo courtesy of Ripple Foods.

Cookies made with pea milk. (Photo courtesy of Puris Foods)

Steve Holt is a Senior Editor and Writer at Boston University. His reporting has appeared in many publications including The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Edible Boston. Follow him on Twitter @thebostonwriter. Read more >

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  1. Leon Starkman
    Fine informative article thank you Naomi. Abba and Emma
  2. Shari Welsh
    Awesome !!!!! Thank- you for the information. With the heavily subsidized cattle/meat/dairy Ind. deadly corruption and betrayal to animals, people and our environment we need every avenue possible to correct the fatal course those criminal ind. have set us on.
  3. Francene kilichowski
    Now that I know Cargill and Nestle (No surprise) are jumping on the plant protein bandwagon, I will check the parent company of any future pea protein products. They don't get a pass for the decades of lying to us, the abuse of both animals and workers. I will not knowingly buy their products.
  4. Thanks for the story. I've seen more products with "pea protein" and had been wondering about it. I wish, however, that you had added a really important issue to your discussion of soy protein -- non-fermented soy has never been part of the traditional human diet, in any culture, and many nutritionists consider it inedible because it is so difficult to digest. Traditional Asian cultures ate soy, yes -- but only fermented soy, and products made from it. Traditional soy sauce, traditional tofu and other staple soy foods were always fermented in order to "pre-digest" the tough fibrous components and make it possible for the human digestive tract to process the soy. The one exception was edamame, and this is not made from the mature soy plant -- it's the juvenile form of the plant.
    But of course all the commodity soy products we see today -- soy milk, soy lecithin, soy stabilizers -- none of these things are fermented. My nutritionist believes that 90% of the population simply cannot break down these products properly. The young and resilient bodies can cope with it but older folks and people with digestive issues can be quite harmed by eating this stuff.
    I hope in your future discussions of soy issues you will include this very basic one -- the widespread use of non-fermented soy. And by all means, don't take my word for it -- do your own research on it!
  5. Wow, you really glossed over the pea protein extraction. The pea has to go through multiple steps to get from a pea to an isolated protein. This includes removing the fats, phytates, oligiosacharides and fiber. There are numerous ways to do this. Hexane or some form of ethanol extraction is only in the fat removal (defatting) stage, though other chemicals (like lye) can be used in some of the other phases. So the whole process is anything but farm to table. Did the reporter actually go into the factory to see how this process is done at commercial scale going through the various processes?

    The image used of Tyler Lorenzen of Puris Foods in a pea field is quite telling as well. Bare ground that's been tilled is anything but conducive to soil biology. Even with tilled organics, this is essentially ecocide, and the tillage releases a lot of soil carbon. When hit with rain, bare ground also leads to a lot of soil erosion. Plus in many cases with legumes and wheat, syn N is still used to boost the protein content of those crops. So there are a whole range of ways to farm, many of which do a lot of environmental harm from both a GHG and impact on sentient being perspective.

    Anyway, I delved into the topic of pea isolate protein somewhat in my most recent blog entry. Sadly this Civil Eats article reads more like an advertisement for the pea protein company. This is unfortunate since I expect more critical analysis from Civil Eats rather than a marketing piece. .
  6. Adam Weiss
    Wonderful and thoughtful article. Ping me if interested in the NEW pea protein.... Lemna. Cheers Adam
  7. Ahli Anggur
    Why process the hell out of them? Just cook and eat the peas. It's called dal.
  8. Diane Archuleta
    So happy to know that you embrace transparency. It's quite refreshing. Can you tell us what is used to dry the peas when "The protein is then removed from the water and spray-dried"?

    Thank you.
    How do you know the pea protein in our food is from Puris? Thank you!

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