It's an agricultural market that is expected to triple in size over the next six years.
As a plant, it requires no fertilizer and leaves the soil richer than you found it.
Its largest U.S. manufacturer, Puris, a Cargill-backed firm with operations in Iowa, Wisconsin, and at a newly-expanded plant in Dawson, Minn., has called their product nothing less than "the future of food" on the company blog, a platform with its own TED Talk. And it's the centerpiece of Beyond Meat, the plant-based burger that experienced the largest IPO on Wall Street this year.
We're talking about peas. Or pea protein, to be specific.
Once a food served alongside meatloaf and then flicked by warring siblings via fork-propelled catapult, the lowly pea is having a moment. Depending on who you consult, the protein isolated from dried yellow peas is either an organic-friendly, non-GMO, non-allergenic commodity crop here to wean the globe off animal foods and feed a growing planet, or it's the underwhelming face of a green-food future in which ingredient lists grow longer as a food's claim to virtue gets louder.
Mostly, there's the matter of protein. As in, if peas are promoted as substitutes for the protein-rich, highly digestible animal foods eaten by humans for millennia, how much of that highly-processed pea protein can the body actually use? After all, for all their liabilities, animal foods are efficient byproducts of nutrient up-cycling. Sustainably-raised, small-operation livestock take nutrition from inedible-to-human plants grown on marginal lands and convert it into nutrient-dense, highly bio-available protein.
Can the same be said of pea protein? According to manufacturers, it's the tops.
"Many times, people will claim that plant proteins are not complete," writes Puris president Tyler Lorenzen on his company blog. "This is true for some plant proteins but not pea protein. This is where pea protein is great as it is highly digestible — 98% of the amino acids within the protein reach your bloodstream."
Pea protein has all nine essential amino acids, the ones your body must get from foods in order to avoid nutrient deficiencies and the physical problems that accompany them. But some essential amino acids in pea protein are only present in low quantities, according to dietary research, reducing the food's quality on a marker known as bio-availability.
"Pea protein is inferior a little bit compared to soy protein in terms of nutritional quality," says Pam Ismail, associate professor of nutrition and an expert in protein bio-availability at the University of Minnesota. "It is deficient in one of the essential amino acids which is methionine."
"Soy protein has a complete nutrition, whereas pea protein is not complete. In order to get a complete protein," from pea protein, Ismail says, "formulators or food producers would have to blend another source in their product."
Nutritionists use a so-called PDCAAS Score to rank the usefulness of food proteins, and on that ranking pea protein is considered of medium to above average quality. A newer scoring system being developed known as the DIAAS takes into account the effect of other plant chemicals on the digestibility of a protein. It ranks the usefulness of pea protein as medium. Cooking lowers the bio-availability of plant-based proteins even further.
"Processing of these proteins impacts their digestibility," says Ismail. "The more there is heat, you are losing digestibility and PDCAAS will go down. That is the caveat, especially with alternative meat sources, as they are potentially more processed than other types of foods. I'm not sure if anybody has looked at the digestibility of a protein after going through that process. That's an area that needs to be investigated."
In the meantime, she says, read the label.
"Every company has a daily value that is coming out of that protein on their label. If a serving contains 15 grams of protein, all of that protein might not be available in terms of digestion. We’re supposed to have 50 grams of protein a day as our recommended intake. If a serving is giving us 20% of the daily value, then I'm getting 10 grams out of the 15 grams in that product. So you will have to supplement that food. You can't survive on that one burger for one day."
To fill the gap, it's always good to combine plant proteins.
"You need methionine and lysine for a complete amino acid," Ismail says. Grains, like rice, have high methionine, "while pulses are rich in lysine." In other words, don't forget to eat some rice.