Pea Protein Powder as a Bodybuilding Supplement

By James Collier BSc (Hons) - MuscleTalk Co-Owner, Registered Nutritionist & creator of Huel
May 2016

The use of protein powders in bodybuilding has been focused around whey and other milk-based powders. This is due to marketing and has lead some people to believe that you can't grow muscle without animal protein. But this is simply not the case; there's no reason why gym-goers can't get just as good results from plant-based protein powders. It's been claimed that only animal proteins are complete proteins and, whilst this is true to a point, let's be honest, who only ever consumes one source of protein in their diet? This issue is quite easy to resolve: combine two different proteins and you have a complete protein.

The Rise of Vegan Bodybuilding
Being vegan is becoming increasingly popular, with an estimated 550,000+ UK citizens currently vegan, an increase of nearly one third from 10 years ago (Vegan Society 2016). In the USA there are estimated to be 2.5 million vegans (howmanyvegans.com 2016). Worldwide, the figure is a lot more and the percentage is increasing. The rise in people choosing to follow a vegan diet is is partly due to changing attitudes and animal welfare, but also due to more concern regarding the environment, with livestock farming being a major contributor to the production of greenhouse gases. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has urged people to not eat animal products for one or two days a week in order to help the environment.

It used to be quite rare to hear of a vegan bodybuilder, but there are no a large number of recreational gym-goers who enjoy a vegan diet and Mr Universe Barny DuPlessis is doing very well with his vegan lifestyle.

What is Pea Protein Isolate?
Pea protein is one of the most popular vegan proteins used in bodybuilding; others include brown rice protein and soya protein (although, soya protein has had some negative press). Pea protein is relatively cheap when you look at the protein it supplies gram for gram; in fact it's cheaper than whey protein. It's available from many of the major protein powder suppliers at competitive prices.

How is Pea Protein Isolate Produced?
The easiest way to show how pea protein powders are produced, is via the following flow chart:

Quality of Pea Protein Isolate
There are a number of methods used to look at the quality of different proteins; these have been summarised in our protein guide. One of the methods is the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Scoring (PDCAAS) and this is the most up-to-date and reliable. Sure, it does have its flaws, but it's more accurate and reliable than any other method, especially the popularly used biological value (BV) method, which is extremely unreliable despite the fact that protein companies use it.

Using the PDCAAS, the best quality proteins will have a score of 1.0. Pea protein isolate has a PDCAAS of 0.7-0.8, depending on the brand, therefore it isn't a complete protein. But I don't know anyone who's going to live off pea protein and eat nothing else! Non-vegans will be be consuming meat, dairy products as well, and vegans will be consuming pulses, nuts and seeds. Furthermore, bear in mind that many foods that we consume primarily as sources of carbohydrate, do actually contain significant amounts of protein as well. If you consume rice, oats, other pulses, nuts or seeds together, then the PDCAAS of your protein will be 1.0 and more than enough to, not only meet basic nutritional requirements, but also to provide plenty of protein for hard training and optimum muscle growth.

Nutritional Value of Pea Protein Isolate
A typical pea protein isolate powder will contain per 100g over 80g protein, less than 4g carbs with zero sugars and around 8g fat plus some dietary fibre. As well as this, pea protein powders are significant contributors to calcium intake with over 150mg per 100g and they are also rich in zinc, iron and phosphorous.

Amino Acid Profile of Pea Protein
These are typical values of each amino acid in mg per 100g of an 80% pea protein isolate:

Alanine3300
Arginine6200
Aspartic acid / asparagine8600
Cysteine1000
Glutamic acid / glutamine12000
Glycine2800
Histidine1500
Isoleucine3800
Leucine6600
Lysine6300
Methionine600
Phenylalanine4000
Proline2700
Serine 6500
Tryptophan600
Tyrosine3200
Valine100

As you can see, pea protein is quite low in the amino acids cysteine, methionine, tryptophan and valine which is why it doesn't score so high on the PDCAAS. However, it's high in all the other amino acids, and especially so in lysine, glutamic acid and glutamine, aspartic acid, serine and leucine; glutamine being favoured for muscle growth and leucine being the single branch chain amino acid (BCAA) bodybuilders love the most.

Pea Allergy and Pea Protein?
If you have a genuine allergy to peas then, as it's the protein fraction of peas that is the allergen, you will have to avoid pea protein and products that list peas or pea protein on their ingredients completely. However, if you have an intolerance to peas, for instance you have diverticular disease and the pea husk might be an irritant, then pea protein will be fine to use.

What are the Benefits of Pea Protein?
Pea protein benefits include:

  • It's vegan
  • It mixes easily
  • It's comparatively inexpensive: pea protein isolate vs whey protein isolate - pea wins
  • It's rich in some amino acids including the glutamine and the BCAA leucine
  • It's low carb with zero sugar
  • It's low in fat
  • It's high in calcium

Where can I find Pea Protein Isolate?
Many well known brands now include a pea protein formula as part of their range either as pea protein isolate or as part of a vegan protein formula. It's available in different flavours or as unflavoured; the latter is rather unpleasant as pea protein has a very strong 'earthy' flavour.

Pea protein is also one of the main ingredients in Huel, vegan friendly nutritionally complete powdered food.

Pea Protein Powder Recipes
Pea protein powder can be consumed simply mixed with water, or it can be incorporated into a number of recipes. One significant drawback is that pea protein isn't the best tasting protein, it has a strong taste so in recipes it needs masking with other ingredients. It can be baked, so it can be incorporated into home-made flapjacks, but you'll need to add some strong flavours like cinnamon to mask its earthy unpleasantness.

Pea protein can be made into smoothies along with fruits which should mask the pea protein taste and make it, not only palatable, but enjoyable. It's worth experimenting.