Let's consider the pea: small, green, relatively sweet. Though they're traditionally served and thought of as a vegetable – much to the chagrin of many children – peas are actually a legume and a good source of protein.
People are gaga for extra protein these days. More and more products are being formulated (or reformulated) to boost their protein content. Consumers are looking for food products with added protein for several reasons: Some think the product will provide a feeling of fullness, and therefore help promote weight loss. Others look to the nutrient to provide them, or their kids, with an energy boost. Baby Boomers seek it out to help preserve lean muscle mass.
In February, Larabar came out with ALT, an energy bar made with protein from peas, and it piqued my interest. I've been a dietitian for more than 15 years, but I had never heard of using peas as a protein source in bars or anything else. Most energy bars and mixes rely on protein from milk (whey or casein), egg whites or soy protein isolate, which is refined soybean protein. It turns out that peas have been used for a while in protein powder mixes, but with the rise of veganism, and concerns over soy and egg allergies, consumers are looking for protein that doesn't come from animal sources or soybeans. And now pea protein and pea protein isolates are being used to replace eggs, soy and dairy in a range of products, including pasta, crackers, salad dressing, cereal, smoothies and even (shocker!) brownies.
OK, so peas are a relatively cheap, easily renewable plant-based source of protein. How do they go from being a plump green orb to being something you might blend up in a smoothie? It turns out that the English pea – the sweet, green variety that comes in a pod – is not the type of pea being used in these new protein-packed products. Rather, the field pea is the new protein star. Field peas are grown for the purpose of drying, not to be eaten fresh, and can be either green or yellow. They are dried and often split and sold as "split peas." These same peas can be ground up, de-fatted, and then used as a powder. Pea protein is often combined with rice protein in products to make a complete protein.
So, should you try pea protein? If you're happy with your soy or whey-based energy bar or powder, then stick with what works! But if you have a soy allergy or are following a vegan diet, you may want to check it out. The Larabar ALT bar goes national in June, and I wouldn't be surprised if more companies jump on the pea bandwagon. Peas out.
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Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, is a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Her cookbook, Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family will be published in January 2014. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.