The benefits of eating plant-based foods are many, including weight loss, increased cardiovascular health and reduced risk for high blood pressure, cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Despite the evidence, many people are still concerned that a diet of mainly plant-based foods won't be nutritionally complete, especially when it comes to protein.
It's understandable. The meat = protein message has been handed down for generations, and the proteins in plants aren't considered sufficient enough to meet dietary needs. But, the truth about protein is that you can get enough of it from plants if you eat a variety of them.
One vegetable that's high in protein is the pea. One cup of green peas has 8 grams of protein. One half cup of cooked split peas (a type of field pea) also contains 8 grams of protein. Peas are taking their place next to whey and soy as smart way to add plant-based protein to your diet. One added benefit is that pea protein doesn't have the allergen concerns posed by whey or soy, although people with gout are advised to stay away from peas.
Animal vs. plant protein
Animal proteins are considered a complete protein. When you consume them, all the nutritional benefits from protein are in there, including all the essential amino acids. Plant proteins, including protein from peas, are considered incomplete proteins because not all the essential amino acids are available from each source. That doesn't mean you can't get the essential amino acids when you eat a strictly plant-based diet; you just need to eat a variety of plant-based foods to make sure you hit all the necessary amino acids.
(It's worth noting that there are those who say the need to eat complementary plant-based protein is a myth. As that Forks Over Knives article explains, unless you eat a diet of strictly fruits, you'll get all the amino acids you need from plants without worrying about the right combination.)
Pea protein milk
There are pea protein powders that you can buy on the market to create shakes or to add them to smoothies, but pea protein is also being added to a variety of products, including milk alternatives.
Bolthouse Farms sent me samples of their non-diary plant protein milks with pea protein made from yellow peas, and I spoke with Tracy Rossettini, director of research & development at Bolthouse Farms, about the benefits of using pea protein in a milk product.
"Consumers preferences are changing and moving to plant based." she said. "The pea protein milk, compared to cows milk, has a better nutritional profile."
One cup of each variety of Bolthouse Farms Milk contains 10 grams of protein and 450 mg of calcium. One cup of dairy milk contains 8 grams of protein and 293 grams of calcium. The pea protein milk contains more fat than dairy milk, 5 grams vs. dairy's 2.4 grams, but all of the fat in the pea protein milk is unsaturated, where more than half of the fat in the dairy milk is saturated. Additionally, the pea protein milk is vegan, Non-GMO, gluten-free and does not contain allergens like dairy, soy or nuts.
"Growing peas is good for soil fertility and biodiversity," said Rossettini. "Farmers typically rotate peas, putting nitrogen back into the soil." Growing peas has a significantly lower carbon footprint than raising dairy cows, and peas also have a lower water footprint than almonds, a common ingredient in some other non-dairy milks.
"You can use this milk in recipes like any other milk," Rossettini said. "It replaces any traditional dairy or alternative milk." One of her favorite uses for the pea-protein milk is overnight oats.
The milk won over my teenage sons, too. I put several options in the refrigerator without saying a word. Curiosity about the chocolate variety got the better of them, and before I knew it, the entire bottle was gone. The chocolate variety was thinner than chocolate dairy milk, but they liked it. One commented that it reminded him of Yoo-hoo. They drank the original and unsweetened versions. Neither enjoyed the vanilla-flavored. And in case you are wondering, none of the varieties tasted anything like peas.
Considering how much they like chocolate milk, I'm going to have to add it to my grocery list, and I see from Bolthouse's store locator that it's available at my grocery store. There are other brands of pea protein milk on the market, too.
Other pea protein products
Pea protein is in a number of products, replacing ingredients that were traditionally animal proteins. You may already be eating some of these without realizing their source of protein.
- Hampton Creek's Just Mayo replaces the eggs in mayonnaise with pea protein, creating what some people find to be a tastier version of mayonnaise. (That product also got the thumbs up from my sons.)
- Some packaged granola products are using pea protein, including Cascadian Farm Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Protein Granola Bars and Trader Joe's Peanut Butter Protein Granola.
- Ben & Jerry's Non-Dairy flavors contain pea protein, including the Coconut Seven Layer Bar, which I love.
- Beyond Meat, the company that makes veggie-based burgers "that food lovers love," uses pea protein in its products.
I'm going to be reading the ingredient list more carefully now when I'm buying plant-based products to see which ones contain pea protein.