Pea protein and beyond: What’s behind the rise of pea ingredients

29 Jul 2019

Peas have emerged as a frontrunner in the race to be the next big plant protein, but they also are used for their fibre content and have many functional properties, making peas one of the most versatile plant-based ingredients on the market.

Pea protein has attracted a huge amount of attention over the past few years, not least because some of the major meat alternatives companies are using peas for their products, including big names like Beyond Meat. But it is not all about the protein.

Pea protein and beyond: What’s behind the rise of pea ingredients
Pea ingredients have more to offer than protein alone

Pea protein and pea fibre also have water binding, gelling and emulsifying properties that can be used to improve texture in processed meat and fish products, and to improve structure and browning in gluten-free baked goods. Particularly in gluten-free products, pea-derived ingredients are on the rise, whether as protein isolates, concentrates or flour. The texturizing properties of pea ingredients also explain why they are popular in meat alternatives, quite apart from their nutritional value.

Pea protein is one of the fastest growing plant proteins in new product launches, according to Leatherhead Food Research, and has an advantage over alternatives like soy and wheat for allergen-free products, as pea protein is a less common allergen. Like soy, peas yield a complete protein, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids, making pea protein a good vegan alternative to animal proteins in sports nutrition products in particular.

However, it contains relatively low levels of methionine and its digestibility is limited by the presence of other components, such as tannins. That said, even for protein products intended for sports nutrition, complete protein is less important than many imagine, as most people – including vegans – very easily meet all their daily protein requirements by eating a varied diet.

Pea ingredients are not without their drawbacks, and taste has been a major hurdle. Suppliers including Ingredion, Cosucra and Cargill all claim to have tackled these notorious taste issues, minimising any pulse-like off-notes to allow the use of pea ingredients in applications like baked goods, which are particularly flavour-sensitive.

All the interest in peas has led some to question the reliability of supply in such a rapidly growing market. According to Mintel, the number of new product launches containing pea protein rose 195% from 2013 to 2016. In response, ingredient suppliers, including Cargill, Roquette and DuPont Nutrition & Health, have ramped up both their sourcing and processing capabilities.

If manufacturers can be reassured of an abundant supply, it seems likely that demand will continue to grow, as pea ingredients fit well with consumer interest in non-GMO, clean-label and plant-based foods – trends that appear to have long-term staying power.