Why Pea Is the Future of Plant Protein

pea plant-based protein

Photo Illustration by Michela Buttignol for Verywell Health

Key Takeaways

  • While soy and wheat gluten have been to go-to sources of plant-based protein, more food engineers are turning to peas because it's fast-growing and inexpensive.
  • Scientists are using a process called precision fermentation to recreate animal proteins, such as myoglobin and collagen.
  • When pea is heavily processed, it can become chemically similar to soy, which means it can be an allergen to some people.

The global population could top a billion by 2050, and all those people will come hungry. Scientists agree that even if animal products continue to be a key part of our diet, we will need to find new, more sustainable protein sources.

“Whether it’s the health drive, the sustainability drive, for animal welfare, for allergenicity—most everybody is looking to increase plant protein in the diet,” said B Pam Ismail, PhD, a professor and director of the Plant Protein Innovation Center at the University of Minnesota.

Many plants are contenders for the top crop to fuel the plant-based protein craze, but one is taking the lead: pea, a fast-growing, inexpensive crop. When processed and manipulated, pea can be a high source of protein.  

Scientists can now imbue a pea protein isolate with proteins, enzymes, and flavorings to resemble meat. While many meat alternatives are currently pea-based, scientists are eyeing new ways to incorporate components of other legumes and seeds to make plant-based products as nutritionally holistic as possible.

During a conference by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, leaders in plant-based protein nutrition and technology shared the latest in the quest to make pea into the ultimate non-meat protein.

Why Does Pea Make a Good Source of Plant Protein?

While soy and wheat gluten have long been go-to sources of plant-based protein, more scientists are turning to peas. Beyond Meat uses pea as the basis for their products, and pea protein powders have become ubiquitous in grocery and nutrition stores.  

Food engineers mostly use yellow and green split peas, rather than the round green kind that many people are familiar with.

Pea can be milled in different ways to create pea isolates, pea concentrates, or texturized pea products, each with unique characteristics for different food applications.

They’re also a good source of protein. Depending on how the pea is processed, it can have a protein content of 48% to 90%.

But while pea has the benefit of being widely available, it’s not as easy to manipulate as some other high-protein plants, like soy and oilseeds, according to Ismail. The chemical structure of pea makes it harder to emulsify and texturize the plant product.

Food engineers are finding new ways to isolate key parts of plant proteins and preserve their structure, said Dilek Uzunalioglu, PhD, senior director of food discovery and design at Motif FoodWorks, a company formulating plant-based meat alternatives. All that processing may seem daunting for people who fear GMOs. But for plant protein, a high level of processing is important to make the protein more digestible and bioavailable, or easily absorbed into the body.  

“People will say, ‘you’re using Frankenstein ingredients,’ but actually, you are used to most of those ingredients in some shape or form. We are just using some of the technologies and our understanding of how the food functionality works to create these products,” Uzunalioglu said.

How Are Scientists Making Pea Protein More Meat-Like?

Uzunalioglu said consumers most commonly say that fixing taste and texture would improve their likelihood of trying meat alternatives.

For current plant-based meat products, manufacturers replicate that texture by binding texturized pea protein with hydrocolloids and gums, and they improve the taste with spices and flavorings.

In animal products, myoglobin is the protein that provides aroma, flavor, and texture to meat. A cut of steak or chicken breast gets a smooth, chewy texture from the collagen, fibers, and gelatin that make up connective tissue.

Rather than replicate the functionality of these proteins with other ingredients, food engineers are increasingly finding ways to use lab-grown proteins. In a process called precision fermentation, scientists can use microbes, like yeast and bacteria, to act as factories that produce proteins, enzymes, flavor compounds, fragrances, and pigments. For instance, they can then enhance the taste and feel of meat alternatives with myoglobin and collagen that have never passed through an animal.

The food industry has long been using fermentation techniques to create animal-free ingredients with animal ingredient characteristics. In the 1980s, cheesemakers recreated rennet, an enzyme found in the lining of calves’ stomachs, through fermentation and stopped harvesting it from cows. In 2018, Impossible Foods made a media splash for its use of fermentation to produce heme, a biological compound that makes its burger “bleed” and taste like real meat.

Scientists can also get these additives from processing plant products. Uzunalioglu said she’s “very excited about” using certain byproducts of food production for plant-based products. For instance, by isolating a byproduct of corn starch production, scientists gain a protein that can improve the stretchability of cheese alternatives.  

“We are very demanding on this protein,” Ismail said. “What we've been working on is developing extraction methodologies that are safe, feasible, cheap, and also result in maintaining that structure of the protein in a way that gives us the functionality that we want.”

What About Pea Allergy?

Pea is a legume like peanut and soy. When it’s heavily processed, as many pea protein isolates are, pea can become chemically similar to soy, said Steven Hertzler, PhD, RD, a senior scientist of clinical research at Abbott Laboratories.

“When you have the ability to start to isolate the protein and provide it to people at 20 grams per shot, knowing that it has a lot of structural similarities to known allergenic proteins like soy, what will happen to the prevalence of food allergies going forward?” Hertzler said.

Pea does not fall on the list of priority allergenic foods known as the Big 8, but that doesn’t mean it should be considered hypoallergenic since allergies to field peas and garden peas are well documented, argued the authors of a 2021 review paper.

People who now consume whole peas tend to do so in small portions. But if a person starts to regularly eat pea-based meat and dairy alternatives, they’ll likely eat a much larger quantity of processed peas. “Among frequent consumers of any new products containing pea protein, some will likely become sensitized and reactive to pea protein,” the authors wrote.

In a recent study, researchers tested people with allergies to peanuts, soybeans, lupines, green peas, beans, and lentils. They found that people in every allergy group were sensitive to at least one other legume. In a study of 39 adults who are allergic to peanuts, nearly a third also had clinically significant pea allergies.

Pea Alone Isn’t Enough to Meet Your Nutritional Needs

Hertzler said that when assessing the benefits of a plant protein source, scientists need to consider various nutritional variables: amino acids, digestibility, dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, antinutrients, allergies.

The body breaks down protein into amino acids, which are then used to repair muscle fibers. Getting the right mix of essential amino acids is important for muscle growth and recovery.

No protein source contains all of the amino acids that the body needs. For instance, pea and soy are high in arginine, which is important for wound healing. Corn and potato, meanwhile, are high in leucine, an amino acid that signals the first step for muscle-protein synthesis, Hertzler said.

“For a long time, we taught in the nutrition world about the concept of complementary proteins in a meal—mixing those two protein sources together, the grains and legumes, to try to balance out the disadvantages of the other,” Hertzler said.

The most nutritional plant protein products may contain a blend of plant sources to hit all the necessary amino acids.

Hertzler said it’s not necessary for each meal to contain a perfect balance of these food sources. But people should be mindful of their overall intake of these amino acids over the course of the day.

“I started out as a registered dietitian…One of the things I kept saying was, ‘get your food groups in,’” Hertzler said. “I’ve been involved in the field of nutrition now for over 30 years. And guess what, that's still what I tell people.”

What This Means For You

Scientists are working to make pea—an easy-to-grow and inexpensive crop—into a versatile plant protein that can replicate the taste and texture of meat.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.