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March 12, 2022 10 min read

Protein seems to always be synonymous with two things: muscles and meat. Often, we eat meat for protein, to get bigger and stronger muscles. Although protein isn’t technically synonymous with either, for all intents and purposes, it might as well be.

The protein we get from animal products is not only high-quality, but also complete. Therefore, it’s one of the best ways to hit our  protein intake goals throughout the day. Animal-derived products such as whey protein powder are also fantastic options. Since they’re derived from animals (dairy in this case), you’re getting the full protein composition that your body needs. However, animal products aren’t the only road to a large and powerful physique.

Although it’s from an unlikely source, pea protein can stand on its own. Even when compared to animal protein, the protein derived from peas offers essentially the exact same benefits, at least when compared to casual protein supplementation. To better understand the unique benefits of pea protein, let’s take a closer look at what exactly makes a protein, a protein. 

Why Extra Protein?

Many of the benefits of protein powder are simply the benefits of a high-protein diet in general, so it’s worth quickly looking over them before we get started. Protein is the primary building block of muscle. If you’re looking to consistently train, regardless of the type of training, you’re going to want to be consuming enough protein. Without high-quality protein, our muscles won’t be able to heal and grow, effectively kneecapping our gains. 

Protein in our diets is also beneficial for trying to lose weight. Although it may sound contradictory since we’re “gaining weight” in the form of muscle mass because of protein, a high-protein diet will keep us satiated for longer than either carbohydrates or fats. This means we’ll feel fuller for longer, cutting down on the number of calories we ingest overall. And because of the added muscle mass we can put on, our body is going to begin burning more calories even when we’re at rest.

This means that more body fat is burned through for energy, even if we might not be working out. Due to these factors, introducing enough high-quality proteins into one’s diet can snowball into greater and greater effects on wellness and physical composition. However, it’s important to note that this means high-quality proteins—not just any kind. So, what makes a high-quality protein?

Frame of fresh vegetables, fruits and seeds on black table, flat lay. Sources of essential amino acids

What’s in a Protein

When judging the efficacy of different types of proteins, it comes down primarily to the makeup of the protein. There are  at least 10,000 different proteins that make up our bodies and maintain our bodily functions. These types of proteins are all made from different arrangements of 20-something amino acids that are both produced in the body and taken in from the foods we eat. Nine of these amino acids cannot be created by the body and therefore must be consumed. These are called essential amino acids (EAAs).

The completeness of a protein is judged based on whether it provides all of these essential amino acids in the quantities that your body needs. Animal-derived proteins have little trouble meeting this standard, and they often surpass it. This is why animal-derived proteins are considered to be high-quality. On the other hand are the plant-derived proteins, such as pea protein. The only plant protein that’s considered complete is soybean, which makes tofu, tempeh, and edamame a good source of protein.

All About Peas

Pea protein powder is made from processing yellow, split peas. Although a cup of yellow peas will give you about 8g of protein, a yellow pea protein powder will give you 15 to 20 grams of protein per scoop. This will come out to around 100 calories for the protein powder. The obvious benefit of pea protein is that it doesn’t contain any animal products, making it perfect for those with certain dietary restrictions, such as  veganism. Pea protein powder is also gluten-free and hypoallergenic—this is an especially big plus since lactose and soybeans are both common allergens.

The drawback with pea protein is that it technically doesn’t contain the necessary amounts of all nine EAAs. The amino acid that’s missing in enough quantities is called methionine + cysteine. However, it’s important to remember that pea protein does contain these amino acids, just not enough to be considered a complete protein. This is why pea protein is often combined with a grain-derived protein, such as brown rice.

Normally when combining a legume (such as peas) with a grain (such as rice), we get a full amino acid profile. Rice, for example, doesn’t contain enough leucine, which peas make up for. However, the incompleteness of pea protein may not be as big of a deal as it first sounds. We’ll consider this further down when we compare pea protein to the golden standard of protein supplementation—whey protein powder.  

Types of Pea Protein

Pea protein is created by removing the outer shell of the pea and milling it until it becomes a flour. This flour then goes through a process of filtration that removes some parts of the flour, such as fiber and starch. This leaves a more protein-y powder. However, not all pea protein powder is created equal. Much like whey protein powder, the specific make-up of pea protein largely depends on how processed the powder is. There are four general levels of processing that will give you more or less protein per calorie.

Textured pea protein is the least processed variety, to the point where it’s not even sold as a supplement but rather as a product to make meat alternatives. When it comes to supplements, pea protein concentrate is the least processed. The trade-off with less protein is that you’re going to be getting more carbs and fats, which can be beneficial depending on your goals. A concentrate would work well as a meal replacement, for example. This option is also the cheapest.

Along with concentrate, pea protein isolate is also just as popular. It’s more processed and therefore contains more protein per scoop, around 20g worth depending on the manufacturing. And if you’re looking for even more protein per scoop, hydrolyzed pea protein is the most processed of the bunch. However, these options will run you up more money. They’re especially good for post-workout recovery.

The Protein in Peas Compared to Whey

As we mentioned above, whey protein is the golden standard of protein supplementation because it provides a complete, high-quality protein make-up. This is because it’s derived from an animal product (dairy). Therefore, when it comes to supplementing with protein powder, many people won’t budge from the tried and tested method of whey. It is, after all, the best protein that is complete. However, there’s still a lot to be said for pea protein. Pea protein is short in methionine + cysteine, but it does still contain these amino acids.

If you’re eating a conventional Western diet, it’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to fall short in these amino acids throughout the day. Even if you’re not eating meat, other common foods will contain these amino acids and will allow you to achieve protein “completeness.” The only time this may not prove to be true is if you’re training at elite levels, where your muscles are going to need the extra juice. Another aspect is that pea protein doesn’t contain as many branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) as whey protein.

BCAAs are the amino acids that are specifically broken down and used in the muscles, which is why it’s believed that they play a particularly important role in muscle building. Nevertheless, pea protein has still been shown to be fantastic for strength and muscle-building needs. This might be partially due to the fact that it’s an extremely rich source of arginine. In fact, it has three times more arginine than whey protein. While this amino acid isn’t considered to be a BCAA, it still plays a critical role in building muscle mass.

Pea Protein Nutrients Compared to Whey

While the protein differences between pea protein and whey protein may be negligible for your casual or amateur lifter, the protein makeup does significantly differ. Since whey is a dairy product, it contains a significant amount of potassium and calcium. On the other hand, pea protein is going to offer more iron and dietary fiber. Both of these options can be good, but it’ll largely depend on your preferences and goals. While calcium is obviously good for building strong bones, fiber will be more useful if you’re trying to take care of your gut health.

Fiber is also filling, which can help improve your satiety if you’re trying to diet. Pea protein will also be lower in fat, and the only fat that is found is going to be unsaturated. However, there are also some drawbacks to pea protein. For one, it’s less bioavailable than whey protein. For one, this means that some nutrients (such as iron) are actually going to be lower with absorption than in whey protein. Pea protein also has higher levels of sodium, which is especially unhealthy considering our increasingly sodium-rich diets.

Peas Compared to Other Plant-Based Proteins

Pea protein is going to have many of the same benefits as other plant-derived sources of protein. Most importantly, there aren’t going to be any animal products involved. However, peas also have the added benefit of not being a common allergen. This is opposed to seeds and soybeans, which are more commonly found to be allergenic. Peas are also gluten-free, which separates them from the rest of the pack. But we’re here for the protein, so let’s discuss that.

Pea protein powder provides one of the best balances of essential amino acids out of all the plant-based options out there. This includes things like rice, soy, sunflower, hemp, pumpkin seed, and chia proteins. If you’re worried about getting a complete protein with enough of all the EAAs, pea and rice protein powder mixes are a popular option. But as we saw, it’s not entirely necessary if you have a generally well-rounded diet.

The Bottom Line Benefits of Pea Protein

Having examined the similarities and differences between different types of protein powder, it becomes pretty obvious what some of the advantages (and disadvantages) of pea protein powder might be. As a vegan protein powder, pea protein can be useful in specialized diets. Pea protein is also:

  • Lactose-free
  • Hypoallergenic
  • Gluten-free

These are crucial benefits if your diet requires you to stick to some of these limitations. However, even those who aren’t necessarily limited in their diet might still find that pea protein causes less bloating and gas. This can be a particularly big issue with whey protein—whether you’re lactose intolerant or not. Giving pea protein a test run can be a good idea if you find yourself with this problem. Compounding on top of this is the high fiber content found in pea protein.

This means your gut health will benefit and your number twos will become healthier. Along with these more apparent benefits, pea protein is also an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory, to some extent. There’s also minimal fat in pea protein, and the fat that is there is unsaturated. This means good news for your heart health. The elephant in the room is the protein content. Although pea protein does contain a terrific amino acid make-up, it does fall short in this category.

The Drawbacks of Pea Protein

Like most plant-based proteins, pea protein doesn’t offer a complete protein make-up. However, the protein is only incomplete because there aren’t enough quantities of methionine. As we looked at above, this really doesn’t matter if you have an otherwise well-rounded diet. You’re going to be getting the fat amino acid profile one way or the other—unless you really are depending on protein powder for all your protein needs. However, this in itself is very unhealthy, and missing some of an amino acid isn’t going to be what does you in.

Additionally, peas are often mixed with other proteins anyway to provide a complete amino acid profile. Moving on from the protein question, pea protein is also less bioavailable than animal-derived proteins. This means that your body will have a more difficult time absorbing certain nutrients, such as iron. And lastly, pea protein powder is often high in sodium levels. Too much sodium has been a rising issue in American diets, so this is an important factor to consider.

Cooking your own food and limiting take-out is the best method for keeping your sodium intake under control. This isn’t a special case with pea protein powder, but additives such as sugars and preservatives should be examined before buying a protein powder. Added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and artificial flavors can all change the nutritional profile of a supplement, whether it’s an animal-based or plant-based protein powder.

Side Effects of Pea Protein

Any side effects of pea protein are going to be related to the side effects of eating “too much” protein, of which there isn’t any. However, that doesn’t mean an all-protein diet should be anyone’s aim. It’s important to maintain a well-rounded diet that hits all of your macros and nutrient needs. Stocking up on too much protein is going to hurt your gains in the long term.

In terms of pea protein specifically, it’s also a good idea to be aware of any fillers that your powder might contain. For example, pea protein powder usually has more sodium than whey powder. You want to be aware of all the other nutrients you might be ingesting due to the protein powder, and plan your diet accordingly.

Refreshing pea protein green smoothie in a glass on concrete background

How to Take Your Protein

One of the greatest benefits of any protein powder is its accessibility. You don’t have to sit down to eat a steak to get plenty of high-quality protein. Instead, integrate protein powder into your diet in whatever way works best for you. Things like protein shakes and smoothies are the most popular method, but there are different ways to add a little extra muscle juice into your diet. Pea protein in particular lends itself well to baking because of its texture and neutral taste (at least with the unflavored option).

Protein pancakes, brownies, and waffles are all delicious and easy-to-make options. Just remember to tweak your recipes for your goals: if weight loss is your aim, protein brownies aren’t going to be the smartest choice of snack. Or, if you really want to punish yourself before hitting the weights, even dryscooping is an option (although not a recommended one).

Pea Protein Powder for a Powerful Physique

Although there are many different sources of protein out there, the importance of protein in your diet will always remain the same. Animal-derived protein is the classic choice, but even if you’re not limited by dietary restrictions, switching things up can go a long way to ensuring better wellness and more consistent gains. And when it comes to switching things up towards  plant-derived protein sources, pea protein has been proven to be one of the best options for anyone serious about their health.

However, supplements—whether protein powder, animal-derived or plant-derived—should only be seen as just that: supplements. They’re useful ingredients to add to our fitness toolbox, but should never be used as the main ingredients. No supplement, no matter its purported benefits and derivations, is going to stand in for a good diet, good rest, and a good workout routine.

Supplements exist to improve our capacities in each, whether diet, sleeping, or working out. However, the real work is going to be done by you and the decisions you make on a day-to-day basis will shape your wellness and physique over the long run.