Protein is on a winning streak with customers these days—and not just among sports enthusiasts. With demand coming from everywhere, ingredient sources of all kinds are now jockeying for a piece of the market. And while animal and soy proteins continue to dominate, pea protein is now breaking into the mainstream as a serious plant-based contender.
“Pea protein has the strongest message right now” among all other legume-source proteins outside of soy, according to Frost & Sullivan’s Christopher Shanahan, global program manger, food and agriculture. Shanahan spoke on the expanding protein market at April’s Ingredient Marketplace trade show. Frost & Sullivan predicts an 11.3% CAGR for pea protein through 2020, an estimate that Shanahan says may even be somewhat conservative. If all pans out well for pea protein, he says, that number could even go as high as 15%–20% through 2020.
What’s driving pea protein upward among plant proteins? With its combination of non-allergen, non-GMO, and vegan appeal, pea protein can compete with soy and even go places soy can’t. Couple that with pea protein’s low environmental impact and versatility, and you’re looking at a protein source that both consumers and manufacturers can find reasons to root for.
Pea Protein’s Rising Star
Don’t get us wrong; soy is still the undisputed champion of the plant-protein world. In 2014, soy-protein products accounted for 38% of the global protein-product market, compared with 26% for all other non-soy plant-protein products, according to a Frost & Sullivan analysis. But soy may be reaching market maturity and leaving room for fresher options—like pea protein.
A little less than 5% of all protein products were formulated with pea protein in 2014, according to Frost & Sullivan. But among the segment of non-soy plant proteins, pea protein presents serious competition. Within the global non-soy category, legume-based proteins were used in 34% of products, and within that legume segment, pea protein was formulated in fully 55% of products. Compare that with the next most popular legumes—beans (16%) and chickpeas (15%)—and there’s no doubt that pea protein is now the legume-protein heavyweight.
What’s most remarkable about the market for pea protein is how quickly it’s anticipated to grow. In a recent survey released by Global Food Forums (Saint Charles, IL), 78 “protein-knowledgeable food technologists” were asked to answer the following question: “Do you see the use of the following protein types (as a powdered ingredient within formulated products) as decreasing, increasing, or remaining the same in the United States in the next two years?”
A striking 89% of the respondents said pea protein use would increase in the next few years—the highest mark given to any protein source in the survey. Only 36% predicted an increase in the use of proteins from soy.
Of all the possible alternatives to soy in the plant-protein market—rice, potato, microalgae, and wheat gluten proteins—pea may also be the most cost-effective, said Shanahan.
“There’s a lot of peas grown already in the world, so it would be pretty quick to increase capacity, availability, and make it price competitive, even though now it’s still a little bit more expensive than soy,” said Shanahan. He added that prices will likely come down as pea protein suppliers gain capacity.
Beyond just the predicted rise in sales, pea protein can also be found in more products than in the past, says Neelesh Varde, PhD, senior product manager, Roquette (Lestrem, France), supplier of Nutralys pea protein.
“The last three to four years has seen a growing consumer demand for pea protein to the point where pea protein has expanded from a niche to a mainstream product,” says Varde.
Between 2013 and 2014, the number of global food and drink product launches featuring pea protein increased by 49%, according to a report by Stephanie Mattucci, global food science analyst, Mintel. Snacks, baked goods, desserts, and processed fish, meat, and egg products were the top four categories using pea protein in global food and drink launches in 2010–2014, says Mattucci. She also mentions the wide range of products that include pea protein, including mayonnaise, granola bars, pasta, and meat-substitute products.
One major driver of the growth is likely that pea protein is free of two features that have been problematic for soy: GMO and allergens. Consumer concerns around soy allergies and genetically modified soybean have led many in search of a plant-protein alternative.
“Many proteins have problems with either allergenicity or non-GMO status, and pea protein is an exception on both accounts. It’s not one of the seven major allergens, and it is non-GMO,” says Varde.
There’s another reason why pea protein may get a boost—the sheer number of soy-based products that saturate the market. Quite simply, pea protein is a fresh face that may attract consumer attention for its sheer novelty.
Pea vs. Whey
Aside from the unique factors that set pea protein apart, how effective is it where it actually matters—for instance, in the sports nutrition industry where protein is so prized? And how does it stack up against the efficacy of the sports industry’s undisputed leader, whey protein?
From a plant-protein standpoint, Nutralys has a comparable amino acid profile to soy and exceeds the FAO/WHO 2008 suggested amino acid profile for all but one of the nine essential amino acids—methionine—according to Roquette. Ingredients supplier Cosucra (Warcoing, Belgium) promotes a similar amino acid profile for its pea protein ingredient, Pisane.
Whey protein still outpaces pea protein when it comes to content of most essential amino acids, but the difference isn’t all that dramatic, says Roquette’s Varde. According to Roquette, Nutralys has significantly more phenylalanine than whey, significantly less threonine than whey, and comparable if slightly lower levels of the other amino acids.
A clinical trial1 published in January in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition also speaks to the potential of pea protein to promote muscle thickness and strength. The study compared the effects of Nutralys pea protein, whey protein, and placebo supplementation on increasing muscle thickness in young men.
For 12 weeks, 161 men aged 18–35 underwent resistance training on upper limb muscles three times per week and were given either pea protein, whey protein, or a placebo to take twice daily. Training exercises involved the elbow flexor and extensor muscles, including arm curl, lateral pull-down, and bench press. The three supplements all came in the form of 45-g sachets of banana-flavored cocoa powder that were identical in appearance, texture, and taste. The powders were then diluted in 300 ml of cold water. The study was randomized and double-blinded.
At the 6-week and 12-week mark, participants were measured for right-side biceps brachii muscle thickness with an ultrasound machine to determine muscle thickness. Parameters of muscle strength, including right-arm circumference, maximal voluntary torque, and the maximum load that could be lifted during an arm curl, were also studied at the same intervals.
Based on the muscle thickness increase of the participants who were weakest at inclusion, researchers discovered a statistically significant difference between participants who took the pea protein and the placebo. The thickness increase for the pea group was +20.2 ± 12.3%, compared with +15.6 ± 13.5% for the whey group and +8.6 ± 7.3% for the placebo group.
Although muscle strength improved over time in all three groups, with no statistically significant difference between the three protein interventions, researchers said that when it came to muscle thickness, they did observe a statistically significant difference between the muscle-thickness gains from pea protein over placebo. (Between whey protein and pea protein, however, researchers said there was no statistical difference in muscle-thickness gains.)
They concluded: “In addition to an appropriate training, the supplementation with pea protein promoted a greater increase of muscle thickness as compared to placebo and especially for people starting or returning to a muscular strengthening. Since no difference was obtained between the two protein groups, vegetable pea proteins could be used as an alternative to whey-based dietary products.”
The researchers hypothesized that the lack of statistical difference between the pea and whey protein results may have been due to the similar amino acid content of the two sources. Also, they noted, the Protein Digestibility Acid Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) for Nutralys closely corresponds to the values for whey or casein.