When we think of eating our peas, we tend to think of the pea-and-carrot medleys most often found on toddlers’ high chairs. But now, you’re just as likely to gobble up your peas in a nutrition bar on your way to the yoga studio.
The pea, or more specifically, yellow pea powder, is being billed as the hot new protein source, as Americans look for more ways to add more protein to their diets while avoiding the fat and cholesterol found in animal products. Pea protein is being used in everything from nutrition bars like General Mills’ Larabar ALT and Cascadian Farm’s protein granola bars to Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo, largely because it’s virtually tasteless, adding protein without affecting flavor.
“Pea powder is a good source of protein, especially for vegans,” says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RD, national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. “Whole foods (like beans/lentils, seeds/nuts, soybeans, tempeh, Mung beans and pumpkin seeds) are always considered better, but there is no evidence to suggest that pea protein powder can't be a valuable source of protein for someone who wishes to give a boost to her total protein intake.”
The food industry is currently experimenting with “pulses” —the edible seeds of legumes like dried peas, chickpeas, lentils, and beans— as more Americans seek to add non-animal protein to their diets for an energy boost as well as weight loss or maintenance (protein can help make you feel fuller, longer, when it's balanced with fat, carbohydrates, fiber and other nutrients, says Diane Henderiks, Registered Dietitian and chef at dishwithdiane.com).But while pea powder is a good source of protein, it isn’t a complete protein, warns Cohn.
“It doesn't have all the essential amino acids, and you need to combine the pea protein with another high-protein plant, like rice protein powder, to get all the essential amino acids,” she says. Many nutrition bars feature these types of combinations, but check the ingredient label to be sure, Cohn adds.
However, the average non-vegan American doesn’t need more protein in their diet. In fact, most Americans eat too much protein.
“The exception are vegans who are not consuming enough plant proteins that have all the essential amino acids,” Cohn explains. “Our bodies are really efficient at recycling protein, not only with the protein we eat but also recycling our muscle protein. In fact, total protein recommendations are generally much lower than the average American's protein intake.”
If you are a vegan, pea powder can be a valuable source of protein, even if it’s found in processed foods like crackers and nutrition bars.
“Healthy ‘processed' foods are totally acceptable when balanced out with whole foods,” Cohn says. “The reality is that with our current lifestyles processed foods are necessary.”
But is the alternative protein craze just the latest food fad, like low-fat or low-carb? Yes, Cohn says, but it has some pros.
“It is a good supplemental protein, especially for active vegans/vegetarians. But don't expect it to cure a disease, it's a supplemental protein powder and that's it.”
If you’d like to add yellow pea powder or other pulses to your diet, start slowly, as you might find yourself a little—uncomfortable.
“If you have a digestive condition that affects you then limiting beans/pulses/legumes to a single serving at a time is a good way to test your tolerance,” Cohn advises.
—Jennifer D’Angelo Friedman