Is Pea Protein a Complete Protein? The Ultimate Guide

In recent years, pea protein has become increasingly popular among protein powder supplements. Its consumption is increasing not only among people on plant-based diets but also among fitness enthusiasts and health-conscious individuals who seek diversity in their diets.

While pea protein is easy to digest and naturally free of common allergens, making it suitable for individuals with soy or gluten intolerances, there is some controversy over whether it can be considered a complete protein. Here, we discuss its nutritional profile and potential benefits and answer whether pea protein is a complete protein.

What is pea protein?

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Pea protein is a vegan protein that is produced from the yellow split pea (Pisum sativum L.) in either fresh or dried form. It is an alternative to soy protein, which may not be suitable for everyone. Pea protein has fewer allergens — it is free of milk, milk sugar (lactose), and gluten, which is especially important for people with food intolerances.

Pea proteins are made up of albumin (10–20%) and globulin (70–80% of the total seed protein).

The most common forms of pea protein source options that are commercially available include:

  • Flour (20–25% protein)
  • Concentrate (50–75% protein)
  • Isolate (>80% protein)

What is considered a complete protein source?

A protein is made from 20 different types of amino acids — 11 of these are produced by the body. The remaining nine types of amino acids, known as essential amino acids (EAA), are sourced from food. The ‘complete proteins’ contain all nine EAA in sufficient quantities that the human body needs. The nine EAA include:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Is pea protein a complete protein?

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While pea protein is gaining more interest among health and fitness enthusiasts, some questions arise about whether pea protein can be considered a complete protein.

The table below specifies the essential amino acids available in the 100 g of pea protein and compares it to the intake recommended by WHO:

Type of essential amino acid (EAA)Recommended intake of EAA(g/100 g)Average amount of EAA in pea protein (g/100 g)
Histidine1.52.4
Isoleucine3.04.4
Leucine5.97.6
Lysine4.56.7
Methionine3.80.9
Phenylalanine3.85.7
Threonine2.33.8
Tryptophan0.60.9
Valine3.94.9

Unlike some other plant-based proteins, pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids. Still, it is not considered a complete protein in the strictest sense due to the low levels of methionine. This amino acid may have antioxidant properties and plays an important role in the breakdown of fats and collagen production. Pea protein also contains some fiber, which may help slow down the protein digestion speed and result in the gradual release of essential amino acids.

Benefits of pea protein

Incorporating pea protein as a part of your pre-workout or post-exercise nutrition might provide certain benefits. These include:

  • Muscle growth and strength training. Protein is an important component of muscle development and tissue regeneration. Pea protein may support protein synthesis, making it suitable for muscle growth. The study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition evaluated the effect of supplementation with pea protein on 161 healthy participants who underwent resistance training. The use of pea protein for 12 weeks increased muscle thickness by an average of 20.2%, which was higher compared to whey protein (an increase in thickness of 15.6%).
  • Post-workout recovery. Pea protein, due to the presence of fiber and its unique composition of EAA, is considered a slow-release protein. The slower protein absorption makes it an alternative for individuals seeking to maintain a protein synthesis peak level, especially between meals or overnight.
  • Muscle strength. Pea protein might be an option to support muscle strength training. A study published in Nutrients compared the effects of pea protein and whey protein consumption among healthy sedentary adults who underwent a 12-week resistance training program. Supplementation with pea protein resulted in an increase of 16.1% in whole-body muscle strength compared to 11.1% achieved by whey protein.
  • Weight management. Incorporating pea protein supplements might be suitable for individuals aiming to lose weight. The high amount of protein consumption, together with other healthy dietary practices and regular exercise, might contribute to weight management.

Overall, the daily protein intake recommendation depends on age, sex, weight, and physical activity. Individuals might opt for either animal-based or plant-based proteins, which are recently becoming more popular. Plant-based proteins may be more sustainable choices due to their potential lower environmental impact. The lack of common allergens such as milk or gluten makes them suitable for people with food intolerances.

How to choose the best protein for you

Choosing the right protein for you will depend on many factors, including your fitness routine, dietary habits, or medical conditions such as potential allergies or intolerances. These are the factors which you might take into consideration while making a choice:

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  • Daily protein requirements. The optimal amount of protein your body requires is based on your age, sex, or weight. Most individuals should consume between 0.8 and 1.2 g of protein per kilogram of body weight.
  • Workout performance. If you want to enhance your workout performance, you might opt for fast-acting protein. For instance, whey protein is an option to support muscle repair and growth. Used alongside pre-workout nutrition, it may support muscle synthesis.
  • Post-exercise recovery. If you are looking for post-workout recovery, you might consider a slow-digesting protein such as pea protein or casein, which may support muscle repair and prevent muscle breakdown, especially overnight.
  • Allergies, intolerances, and food preferences. If you are lactose, gluten, or soy intolerant, make sure that you select a protein that is hypoallergenic. Individuals who follow vegetarian or vegan diets can select among protein sources such as peas, rice, or hemp protein, among others.
  • Protein quality. It is important to select protein supplements that are of good quality and provide essential amino acids. Depending on the protein content and your budget, you might choose between protein concentrate or isolate, which may deliver a higher amount of protein. Aim to purchase your protein supplement from known and reputable providers.

The list of available proteins currently available on the market is long, and you have many options to choose from. The most common options include:

  • Animal-based proteins. These are suitable for individuals who do not follow vegetarian or vegan diets and might be appropriate for people on paleo or keto diets due to their carb and high protein content. These include whey, casein, and egg protein.
  • Plant-based proteins. These are suitable for followers of vegetarian or vegan diets; some of them are good for individuals with certain food intolerances. They include pea, hemp, and soy protein.

Final word

Pea protein has gained attention due to its potential nutritional benefits and lack of common allergens, making it suitable for individuals with certain food intolerances. While pea protein delivers all nine essential amino acids, it is not considered a complete protein by many, as some of the essential amino acids are present at lower than recommended levels.

If you aim to increase your protein intake, it is important to analyze your fitness goals and dietary needs to ensure that you choose the protein that is right for you. You might consider consulting a healthcare professional to optimize your dietary plan. It is important to combine protein intake with healthy dietary practices like drinking water and consuming an adequate amount of micronutrients and macronutrients.

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