Pea Protein: Alternative Protein Supplements for Vegans

pea protein

Pea protein is, quite simply, the protein derived from peas (Pisum sativum) – a common dietary legume native to Eurasia. Pea plants have been grown domestically for over 3000 years and are naturally rich in vitamin C, vitamin A, magnesium, essential amino acids, and dietary fiber.

However, the amount of whole peas you would need to consume to ingest a generous amount of protein makes them somewhat impractical as a whole-food protein source, especially for gym-goers. For example, 150 grams of green peas contain about 120 calories, 22 grams of carbohydrates (8 of which are sugar and 7 of which are fiber), and 8 grams of protein.

Being on a vegan or plant-based diet can make meeting your protein needs quite a challenge.

This is where pea protein comes in handy…

Pea protein provides a complete profile of amino acid (like whey protein does), high  bioavailability, and easy digestibility to give your body the protein it needs without consuming animal ingredients. Targeting vegans may be a niche market, but with little else in the way of plant-based alternatives, it behooves most all vegans to consider using pea protein powder.

How is Pea Protein Made?

Pea protein is made in quite a similar fashion as whey and casein proteins – which are made from dairy.

Large batches of whole peas (usually yellow peas) are smashed to bits and turn into “pea mush,” which is then filtrated to isolate the core and skins from the actual pea protein isolate fractions. The excess pea mush is usually mixed into organic foods for humans or used in feed for farm animals.

There are many useful nutrients left behind in the core and skins of the peas, particularly fiber and vitamins, so rather than just discarding it, the mushy mess is used in other products that the manufacturer makes.

The pea protein extract, which contains a bounty of antioxidants and other micronutrients, is then power-heated and dried into a powder for use in the final product.

How Pea Protein Works

Pea protein works much like any other protein you find in food, albeit with some distinct differences.

In general, protein is an essential macronutrient and plays a critical role in maintenance, muscle buildout, as well as many other physiological processes such as hormone production and bone regeneration. Proteins are made up of molecules called amino acids, which are essentially the “building blocks” of many bodily tissues, especially skeletal muscle.

When we ingest protein, it is hydrolyzed (broken down) into individual amino acids and smaller protein chains that go on to play a multitude of roles physiologically, such as energy production, brain metabolism, neurotransmitter synthesis, cardiovascular function, immune system function, and many others.[1]

Pea protein contains structural proteins much like whey/dairy-based protein, such as globulins and albumins. The most abundant protein in peas (and other legumes) is legumin, which is said to account for over 75% of the protein content.[2] Vicilin makes another large chunk of the protein in peas.

Legumin is quite similar in both structure and function to the casein protein found in milk. Arguably the biggest difference between dairy proteins (whey and casein) and pea protein is that the latter is fairly low in methionine and a tad lower in BCAAs.

While methionine is a key essential amino acid for muscle protein synthesis, it is also what gives many animal-based proteins their high acidity. In fact, this is one reason that pea protein is only weakly acidic and the superior option if you’re trying to keep the body in an alkaline state.[3]

Since athletes and gym-goers often consume high-protein diets, the acidity of animal proteins can start to impair kidney function and other bodily processes. Research suggests that consuming more plant protein (particularly pea and rice protein) could effectively ameliorate the negative ramifications of high protein intake.[4] (We will touch more on this later.)

This segues into the next section which discusses the benefits and uses of pea protein.

Uses & Benefits of Pea Protein

Research has continually demonstrated that protein demands are higher in active individuals and those on a plant-based diet are prone to eating less protein then they need for proper health, performance, and longevity.[5]

Whether an individual is looking to build muscle or is searching for a high-quality vegan protein for health-conscious supplementation, pea protein is an ideal option.

Pea protein is among the most hypoallergenic and digestible proteins available. It has a well-balanced amino acid profile—high in branched-chain amino acids—which support lean body mass and promote fat loss.[6]

Moreover, it is suggested that certain plant proteins, especially pea protein (which is rich in isoflavones) may play a potential role in lowering the risk of cancer (breast cancer), lowering cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and reducing inflammation.[7][8]

Advantages of Pea Protein vs. Animal Protein

While meat, fish, poultry, and vitamins & minerals are excellent sources of high-quality protein including other important nutrients. Proteins are not always available from vegan diets, a high intake of animal-sourced protein has been incriminated in a decline of kidney function in normal healthy subjects with the consequent risk of it leading to CKD (Chronic Kidney Disease) – a disease that impacts up to 10% of the global population.[9]

In fact, a recent research review warned that long-term high-protein diets composed of either vegetable or animal-source protein could cause renal injury in otherwise healthy subjects.[10]

Regarding the possible link between protein consumption and CKD, there are two important issues to consider – one is an increase in what is called the glomerular filtration rate (GFR) and the other is an overall increase in the acidity of the diet.

The kidneys play a major role in controlling nitrogen balance (as well as blood pH) in the body by concentrating and moving nitrogenous endproducts (urea, ammonia, etc.) to the bladder so they can be excreted. (Remember: Protein contains amino acids, which are nitrogen-containing molecules.)

The filtration elements of the kidney are called glomeruli, which are in turn components of the greater functional unit known as the nephron. The glomerular filtration rate is the flow rate of filtered fluid through the kidney, which ultimately emerges as urine.

When healthy subjects eat protein this flow rate increases, a process known as hyperfiltration. The capacity to increase GFR after a high-protein meal is known as the renal functional reserve, and a loss of this reserve is a characteristic of CKD.

Some medical professionals consider the increase in the glomerular filtration rate after high-protein meals to be a normal process. It even increases naturally during pregnancy, which is not associated with an increased risk of CKD.[11]

However, there is also reasonable evidence that frequent elevations of the glomerular filtration rate could lead to a decline in kidney function and possibly even CKD. Intuitively, this would rebut the notion that humans are designed to consume protein every 2-3 hours like common bodybuilding wisdom would suggest.

While a decline in kidney function is associated with aging, the so-called Brenner hypothesis suggests this decline is not linked so much to growing older but rather with frequent protein feedings.[12], [13] (As a side note, this may be one mechanism through which intermittent fasting is beneficial for longevity.)

So, does this mean that high-protein diets are inherently harmful to the kidneys over the long-term? Not necessarily. We also have to consider the source of protein, and pea protein appears to be one of the safer/healthier options.

High-Protein Diets & Kidney Function: Should Active People Be Consuming More Plant-Based Protein?

It is well established that individuals with preexisting kidney issues need to avoid high-protein diets, but there is no universally clear consensus for healthy subjects despite there being a reasonable doubt regarding long-term safety.

Recent evidence seems to suggest that pea protein, egg whites, milk proteins (whey/casein), and other plant-based proteins are the best options for long-term, high-protein diets that are so common among athletes and bodybuilders.[14], [15]

Why? Because not all protein is equal in effect on GFR. Meat (including poultry) and fish elicit the highest increases in glomerular filtration rate, while plant proteins yield very low increases.

Among the animal-sourced proteins which yield the lowest increases are dairy protein (casein and whey) and egg whites. Hence, using a whey protein supplement is generally safe for the kidneys.

One recent study compared two groups – one on a mix of protein isolates (60 g/day) and the other on an equal amount of maltodextrin, both in addition to the usual diet.[16] The researchers found no difference in GFR between the two groups.

Though, one flaw of the study was that the supplemental protein was a mix of pea, soy, egg white, and milk proteins; whether deliberately or not, they used sources of protein known to not cause an increase in GFR.

The exact biological mechanism which determines the increase in GFR after consuming things like red meat, chicken, and fish is not currently entirely understood but appears to be related to the amino acid profile of the protein, in particular, the levels of alanine, glycine, and arginine – amino acids which are known to induce glomerular hyperfiltration.[17]

Fittingly, pea protein contains much less alanine, arginine, and glycine (per gram) than red meat, poultry, and fish. In fact, pea protein appears to be strongly renoprotective and advantageous over more common plant proteins, such as soy (which may also increase estrogen levels in males).[18]

Pea Protein Supports an Alkaline Diet

Modern diets are characterized by a tendency towards acidity, in stark contrast to ancient diets which were predominantly alkaline.[19], [20] Excessive acidity brings about a decline in renal function.[21]

Most protein foods are highly acidic, especially certain types of fish and red meat, while egg whites and plant-based proteins – like pea protein and brown rice protein – are either neutral or only weakly acidic.

As alluded to earlier, sulfur-containing amino acids (e.g., methionine, cysteine, homocysteine, and taurine) coming from dietary protein are acidic, and the body compensates by buffering this acid with calcium, which may potentially come from bone tissue since this is where over 99% of the calcium in the body is stored.[22] In other words, bone mineral density may be compromised as part of a highly acidic diet.

The ratio of both animal protein intake to potassium intake (the best sources of potassium are fruits and vegetables) is strongly predictive of bone resorption – the process of breaking down bone tissue into minerals and collagenous constituents.[23]

Interestingly, diets high in animal protein appear to be generally protective against bone fracture, while vegan diets may be associated with a lower bone mineral density albeit not an increased risk of fracture.[24], [25]

However, high animal-protein diets are correlated with an increased risk of forming kidney stones, particularly if potassium intake is low.[26] As such, the acidity from consuming large amounts of animal-sourced protein can be offset by incorporating a large number of alkaline foods in the diet, especially vegetables and fruit.

Nevertheless, consuming more plant-based proteins in lieu of animal proteins is the most prudent way to protect against CKD, bone fracture, and kidney stones, as well as eating an ample amount of vegetables and fruits to further support alkalinity in the body.

Side Effects of Pea Protein

Side effects of pea protein are few and far between. The obvious thing to look out for are ingredients in the pea protein supplement you’re using that may exacerbate any food allergies or food intolerances you have. Here are two other potentials (albeit rare) side effects of pea protein powder supplementation and how to avoid them:

1. Unexpected Weight Gain

– Especially for first-time pea protein users, it can be easy to get a little carried away and take in too much without really being aware of it. People tend to see impressive muscle gains and results just after a few weeks when they first start taking any kind of protein supplement; in turn, they are more likely to overdo it and keep increasing their use of the supplement. Remember, protein contains calories and will pack on the pounds just like fats and carbs will. Don’t go overboard and stay within your calorie/macronutrient needs.

2. Joint Pain

– Some of this can be caused by sudden weight gain. Obviously, if you gain weight, you’re going to be putting more biomechanical stress on your joints. That said, in rare cases, people who mix protein and antioxidant supplements for recovery have been reported to feel unexpected soreness in their joints.[27] If you experience this, your best bet would be to eliminate the antioxidant supplement and see if the symptoms improve. You could also supplement with collagen peptides.

Where to Buy Pea protein

Pea protein supplements can be bought from a variety of places these days, including everyday health food stores, supermarkets, supplement retailers, in the Vaxxen Labs store and other online outlets. Here are the three best options for buying pea protein:

Vaxxen Labs – Leftovers

Leftovers contain two of the best plant protein sources – organic pea protein isolate and brown rice protein, yielding a product that is rich in vital nutrients, easily digestible, and simple to add to a plant-based diet. Even better, Leftovers is gluten-free, non-GMO, and suitable for vegan diets.

Pea and other plant protein powders often have a grainy texture and pungent flavor that can be challenging to mask. However, the ingredients in Leftovers were chosen to create a vegan protein blend that is both uniquely smooth and delicious – it tastes just like a loaded sweet potato!

Local Pharmacies & Health Food Stores

It’s not rare for the local health food store (think Whole Foods) or pharmacy to carry protein supplements. They will probably cost you a bit more money because of the convenience factor and branding differences, but this is a good option if you need pea protein in a hurry.

Look around in the same area as the, and you’re sure to see big tubs of other fitness supplements of whey protein powder. Pea protein powder is generally going to be right next door. If you can’t locate them, ask an employee if they carry any plant-based protein powders and check the label to identify that it contains pea protein.

Buying Pea Protein Online

Buying pea protein online is quite easy these days. Amazon carries a bunch of different brands that offer pea protein powder, allowing you to compare and contrast the many options. Be wary, though, as many protein supplements contain added fillers and artificial ingredients that reduce the overall quality (and benefit) of the product. Do your research and read people’s reviews before making any final decisions.

Pea Protein: Frequently Asked Questions

Q: I’m lactose intolerant, can I still use pea protein powder?

A: Certainly, pea protein itself is free from lactose.

Q: I’m allergic to milk/dairy, is pea protein safe for me?

A: Pea protein is completely plant-based and does not contain milk or dairy; however, you should always read the label of the pea protein powder you’re using to make sure it doesn’t contain dairy-based additives.

Q: Can I combine pea protein with my other powdered supplements like creatine, glutamine, etc.?

A: Yes, that’s absolutely fine.

Q: Can I use pea protein in cooking/baking recipes?

A: Absolutely; due to its taste and physical properties, pea protein may be used as a replacement/additive in a variety of food recipes to increase protein content and enhance flavor. We recommend using Leftovers in your plant-based diet.


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