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Everything You Should Know About Pea Protein

An expert explains the type of pea proteins and the benefits

pea protein powder

If you’re looking to get a little extra protein in your diet, you might want to consider an option that’s garnered a lot of positive attention lately: pea protein.

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Yes, pea, as in the vegetable. But don’t laugh; there’s a good reason it makes sense as a supplemental part of a well-balanced diet. To learn all about the benefits of using pea protein, we talked to registered dietitian Anthony DiMarino, RD, LD.

What is pea protein?

Protein is one of the building blocks of food, a nutrient that gives food its structure, says DiMarino. Protein itself is made up of amino acids and protein from yellow peas contains easily digestible ones.

“The amino acids are extracted and create a powder which anyone can use as a supplement to a well-balanced diet,” he adds.

Types of pea protein

There are three types of pea protein products, all of which are made from the yellow split pea, according to DiMarino.

  • Pea protein isolate: One of two types of pea protein you’re likely to come across in a store, an isolate is a powder that contains pea protein and amino acids and nothing else. “This type is great if you’re trying to lose weight and build muscle, since it gets more protein in your diet,” says DiMarino.
  • Pea protein concentrate: Pea protein concentrate contains less protein but contains either additional carbs and proteins or carbs and fats. “This is the preferred product if you’re looking to add weight or as a meal replacement because it has additional calories but it’s a good source of nutrition, too,” he adds.
  • Textured pea protein: This type of protein is even less processed and you likely won’t come across it as a dietary supplement, as it’s mostly used to make meat alternative products. “This is primarily for people trying to cut down on meat and focus on a more vegetarian or vegan diet,” he notes.

As DiMarino suggests, the type of pea protein that’s right for you depends on your needs.

How much actual protein is in pea protein?

“One cup of yellow peas on their own contains about 8 grams of protein,” says DiMarino. “But one scoop of pea protein isolate — the protein powder you’d buy at a store — contains between 15 and 20 grams of protein for every 100 calories.”

To put that in perspective, the recommended dietary allowance of protein for an adult is about 0.8 grams per kilogram of your body weight. For example, a 175-pound person would need about 63 grams of protein a day. If you’re active, you’ll need a little more.

In other words, pea protein powder packs a powerful punch, particularly as a dietary supplement.

The benefits of pea protein

Several potential benefits can come with using pea protein, Dimarino says, including:

  • Easily digestible. Pea protein is digested well and, therefore, is easy on your stomach, unlike high-fat meat products.
  • Creamier texture. “If you enjoy a creamier texture to your shakes, pea protein shakes are creamier than other options like whey protein,” DiMarino says.
  • Vegan-friendly. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, this is a staple you can easily fit into your diet.
  • Hypoallergenic. Pea protein is both gluten- and lactose-free, making it a preferred option for people who have those particular allergies.
  • High in iron. Pea protein delivers a healthy helping of this essential nutrient.

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Pea protein drawbacks

There aren’t many drawbacks to pea protein, notes DiMarino, as long as you properly incorporate it into your diet. Essentially meaning, it should be a supplement, not a substitute for real food. “Remember the food-first approach and treat pea protein as an additional part of your daily intake, not in place of something else,” he says.

The only real drawback is that because it’s a plant-based protein, it’s not as “bioavailable” as other proteins. “In other words,” he continues, “our bodies can’t readily use them. They don’t have essential amino acids. If you’re using pea protein, you’re still getting protein but be sure your diet includes foods that possess the necessary amino acids that help your body absorb the pea protein.”

Which is healthier? Pea protein vs. whey protein

When deciding between pea protein and another type, DiMarino says one thing to keep in mind is, “It’s not that one is better than another. It just depends on what you’re looking for and what trade-offs you’re OK with.”

Whey protein is the most popular of protein mixes, he continues, for a few reasons. First, it’s easily absorbed by your body. It’s also more affordable than other proteins, which can be a factor for many. And it’s pretty similar to pea protein. “When you look at the nutrients whey protein has, it’s pretty similar in terms of proteins, fats and carbs,” he adds.

One primary difference is that whey protein has lactose. Also, while both whey and pea protein are naturally gluten-free, many whey protein powders are made with additives that contain gluten. Pea protein powders are less likely to contain gluten additives, but they still can. If you’re avoiding gluten, check the packaging of any protein powder you buy to ensure it’s certified gluten-free.

The only other difference worth noting is that pea protein contains more iron than whey, while whey has more calcium and potassium. “When it comes to choosing, it just depends on what you’re looking for,” DiMarino says, “because they’re pretty similar when you compare macronutrients.”

The bottom line

Pea protein can be a great, healthy choice for getting supplementary protein. But as DiMarino advises, just remember to use it in addition to a well-balanced diet and not as a substitute for any meal or other food.

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