What are the Benefits of Pea Protein?

In one of his fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, a humble, tiny pea was bold enough to be felt by a young woman who would become a princess. While this fairy tale is mostly about sensitivity … it unwittingly predicted the power of the pea to be transformative.


The pea (Pisum sativum) is quite versatile for supplements and foods, you can see it listed as “pea protein isolate,” “pea protein concentrate” or “textured pea protein.” The pea is now found in milk alternatives, meat alternatives, cookies, and fitness/sports protein powders.


They are sources of calcium, magnesium phosphorus, iron, zinc, copper, folic acid, riboflavin, pyridoxine, and niacin, as well as dietary fiber. Further, pea protein is compatible for people with some sensitivities and preferences – as it is non-GMO, gluten-free and has low allergenicity.


Peas have up to approximately 30% protein (containing all essential amino acids with a high concentration of lysine but  low in methionine), and 2.0% fat. Nutritionist Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND, writes, “Compared to protein-foritified products with protein isolated from hemp seed, rice and most other grains, pea protein contains a better balance of essential amino acids.”


If you are a vegan or vegetarian, consuming peas and pea protein products is probably an enjoyable routine. If you are leaning towards flexitarianism and are new to plant proteins – quite an abundant world – there are key benefits of pea protein products. Good news is that, according to researchers, “Pea protein is a high quality alternative to animal derived proteins, with similar protein digestibility.”


Studies have shown distinct health benefits of pea protein. 


Fitness/muscle strength 

One study of 161 men aged 18 to 35 who engaged in 12 weeks of upper limb resistance training and who took either pea protein, whey protein or placebo (25 g twice daily) showed that those participants in the pea protein group had significantly greater muscle thickness than the men in the placebo group. The authors concluded, “In addition to an appropriate training, the supplementation with pea protein promoted a greater increase of muscle thickness as compared to placebo and especially for people starting or returning to a muscular strengthening. Since no difference was obtained between the two protein groups, vegetable pea proteins could be used as an alternative to whey-based dietary products.”


Comparing whey and pea proteins on performance was the objective of another study. Here, 15 men and women participated in a high-intensity functional training (HIFT) program for 8 weeks. They consumed either whey or pea protein -- 24 grams before and after exercise). After analysis, the researchers concluded that pea protein gave the same effects as whey in body composition, muscle thickness, force production, workout performance and strength gains.


Weight control 

Proteins are known to help reduce appetite. Several studies looked at how effective pea proteins may be in this area. One investigation looked at the potential satiety effects of either 10 grams or 20 grams of pea protein against 10 grams or 20 grams of fiber on food intake in participants who were allowed to eat as much pizza as they wanted until they felt full (called “ad libitum”).  The researchers found that both pea protein amounts lowered food intake and also suppressed pre-meal blood glucose.


To discern if pea protein had satiety effects similar to that of the popular whey protein, researchers gave 33 participants either NUTRALYS® pea protein in two doses – 15 g and 30 g, 30 g whey protein or no protein using vegetable soup as the carrier. The pea protein isolate and the whey protein did perform equally in reducing food intake. 


Glycemic control

The objective of a study was to examine of the effects of pea components (hull fiber, protein, whole peas and placebo) on food intake at an ad libitum meal, as well as appetite and blood glucose responses before and after the meal. Blood glucose was lower when all pea components (including whole peas) were consumed compared to placebo. The authors concluded that the study supports the use of pea protein and hull fiber in foods that are aimed at glycemic control.


In the previously mentioned study of pea and whey proteins in vegetable soup, the researchers found that “insulin levels following the soup with 30g of pea protein were significantly lower than 15g of pea protein, suggesting there is potential to replace carbohydrates with proteins in the control” of both blood glucose and insulin.

 

Cholesterol

The aim of one study was to evaluate a possible cholesterol management action of pea protein isolate and, according to the authors, to determine whether pea proteins could affect the liver’s lipid metabolism through regulating genes involved in cholesterol and fatty acid balance. In this murine study, subjects with high cholesterol levels supplemented with either casein or pea protein isolate for 28 days. As soon as 14 days, subjects consuming pea proteins exhibited markedly lower plasma cholesterol and triglycerides than those fed casein, a trend that continued throughout the remainder of the study.  The authors also found that “pea proteins appear to affect cellular lipid homeostasis by upregulating genes involved in hepatic cholesterol uptake and by downregulating fatty acid synthesis genes.”


A similar comparative study in 24 subjects found that after 16 days of pea protein also had lower concentration of total cholesterol in the liver as well as improved markers of liver function compared to those fed casein.  The data, said the authors, suggested that pea protein can stimulate healthy production and excretion of bile acids, which reduces concentration of cholesterol in the liver.


Microbiota enhancement

One study found that glycated pea proteins affected the growth of gut commensal bacteria, particularly lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, whose levels increased significantly as did amounts of bacterial metabolites, notably short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), acetate, propionate lactate and butyrate. The researchers believe that these changes in microbial composition may beneficially impact the intestinal environment and exert a health-promoting effect in humans.


A novel study, recently published, showed that pea protein has a powerful ally. “The fate of dietary protein in the gut is determined by microbial and host digestion and utilization,” explained the researchers. When combined with AminoAlta™ (two probiotic strains L. paracasei LP-DG® or CNCM-1572 and L. paracasei LPC-S01 or DSM 26760) the amino acids found in pea protein were elevated in blood samples of 15 active men who were given either AminoAlta™ or placebo with pea protein. The probiotic group had significantly increased amounts of methionine, histidine, valine, leucine, isoleucine, tyrosine, total BCAA, and total EAA maximum concentrations over the placebo. 


Conclusion

Plant-based foods and beverages is an exciting category for health foodies, especially for those who are beginning to explore this fruitful category. Those containing pea proteins are dominant. In 2018, it was estimated that in the US, approximately $19 billion of products sold were pea proteins. Three years later, this number is surely much higher, which means that researchers are continuing to investigate its health benefits. As of June 2021, there were 12 human studies of pea protein in various stages of development and analysis in the US alone. The humble pea can indeed be felt. 

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