Putting the Pea in Protein


Whether it be for noble interests in global sustainability or just an annoying inability to process lactose, more and more people are shifting towards plant-based diets. That’s not exclusive to strict vegans and vegetarians either. Even those without principled stances are seeing the health and ecological benefits of going green, or at least going a little bit greener. But regardless of how far the trend goes, people aren’t going to be willing to compromise one essential part of their nutritional health: getting enough protein.

Interestingly enough, that same group has started to turn away from what has long been the go-to alternative to animal-based protein, soy. Amid growing concerns over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and its reported effects on women’s reproductive health, soy is falling out of favor with many of today’s increasingly health-conscious consumers.

Enter the pea, the trending plant-based protein source du jour.

From a performance standpoint, the pea certainly has its merits. It’s high in protein, rich in iron, and has a strong amino-acid profile, making for a sustained release in the body. It’s in line with the overarching interests of the modern shopper, being non-GMO, hypoallergenic, and easily digestible. It’s also more soluble than other plant proteins, which makes it an attractive option for beverage brands looking to supplement their drinks with a vegan protein source.

Santa Monica-based Botan, which launched at the top of 2014, was one of the first brands to introduce a beverage with pea protein at its forefront. For Botan founder and CEO Edward Canaan, the biggest challenge in the year since his company went to market has been scaling up, as the global demand for peas continues to grow at a rapid pace.

“We grew so quickly it was hard to keep up with demand in terms of the supply of pea protein,” Cannan said. “We were buying it by the kilo, then hundreds of kilos, and now we have to buy by the ton. So keeping up with demand has been our number one challenge.”

Tempering that demand, however, has been the ingredient’s other obstacle: a strong and frankly unpleasant taste. It’s through a continuing trial and error process of formulation and innovation that suppliers and beverage brands appear to be getting closer to improving the flavor profile of pea protein. As that happens, the pea is popping up in an increasing number of applications.

In the case of San Diego-based cold pressed juice brand Suja, adding pea protein to a high-pressure-processed drink avoids the aftertaste that would otherwise come with the pasteurization process. At last month’s Natural Products Expo West, Suja unveiled its new ‘Sunset Protein’ nut milk, boasting a blend of pea and hemp protein. Bryan Riblett, Suja’s Vice President of Commercialization, noted that pea protein hits several targets for beverage formulation.

“I definitely prefer it from a blending standpoint,” said Riblett. “It has a smooth texture and you don’t get that same chalkiness that you’d get in a rice protein.”

Also introducing it into their products is Califia Farms, the fastest growing natural beverage company in the United States. At Expo, the company introduced a vegan reformulation of its almond milk protein line, swapping out whey for a pea and sprouted rice protein blend. Califia founder and CEO Greg Steltenpohl says the decision to reformulate came at the behest of his customers.

“We were hearing from our constituency that people wanted us to become a vegan brand,” Steltenpohl said. “And pea has proven to be a winner in that vegan market as far as protein alternatives.”

The new formulation packs six grams of protein, two grams less than its earlier formulation. Steltenphol says that’s still in line with the evolving protein needs of the consumer.

“The protein game is shifting from that ‘Ours has more than yours’ emphasis, he explains. “Americans are realizing they already have a lot of protein in their diet.”

To be clear, pea protein is unlikely to usurp soy, or whey, anytime soon; it’s market share is still relatively small and people’s pursuit of plant-based protein sources isn’t limited to the pea. It’s got its competitors. Hemp protein is growing, as are rice and pumpkin seed protein. So is spirulina, an equally strong protein source, albeit more expensive.

Even so, pea protein’s future appears promising. Vegan or not, more than ever people are looking to nourish themselves in a healthy, clean and sustainable way, and so with refinement, the humble pea finds itself in the right place at the right time. It remains to be seen whether the pea will step out on its own or if its application will primarily be used in combination with other sources as is the case with Suja and Califia’s new products, but as its sourcing becomes more reliable and suppliers find cleaner flavor profiles, expect to see pea protein get utilized in more beverages, snacks, and nutrition bars.    

“I’m of the belief that the future of nutrition will be plant-based,” says Canaan. “And the pea is definitely versatile. It’s really yet to be discovered just how much can be done with it.”