Written by Ben Carlisle
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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There’s a good reason pea protein powder is so popular amongst plant-based protein powders.To discover why, we’ve compiled an analysis of what amino acids are present in pea protein, a comparison of pea protein with whey protein powder, and whether or not pea protein is a good choice for building muscle.
The science is far from clear when it comes to optimum levels of amino acids required for optimal health. There is even less clarity when it comes to enhancing athletic performance through supplementation.
First, let’s look at the essential amino acids present in a complete protein and how pea protein stacks up against this standard.
The complete protein minimum percentage is only a guide as there is no set standard. Some may argue a complete protein is any protein which contains all 9 amino acids.
Here’s a table comparing standard minimum percentages of amino acids to those present in pea protein powder.
If we compare the percentages, then you’ll notice pea protein comes out ahead of all but one of the nine essential amino acids. With the exception of Methionine, which is not far behind, you could reach your protein intake requirements by supplementing it with pea protein so long as you ingested sufficient quantities.
To bump up the methionine levels, mixing in hemp or rice protein powder has become the way to solve the problem. Obviously, not all your protein requirements will be met through protein powder supplements, but the point is clear, pea protein can go a long way in helping you to achieve your strength, health, and fitness goals.
Pea protein is considered to have a good amino acid profile. It also has great levels of the branched chain amino acids Isoleucine, Leucine and Valine. These branched chain amino acids support muscle protein synthesis. This is especially true of leucine which is a precursor to muscle protein synthesis.
While pea protein does contain all the essential amino acids, it lacks high levels of the essential amino acid methionine. For this reason, some individuals question whether it can really be classified as a complete protein.
What may not be apparent is pea protein contains about 3 times more arginine than whey protein powder. While it is not a branch-chain amino acid, it is an essential factor when it comes to building muscle (15). Anecdotal evidence of the excellent gains which are comparable to those of athletes supplementing with whey protein is borne out by the clinical studies conducted so far.
The essential amino acids are the building blocks on which all protein structures in the body are based. They cannot be stored or manufactured by the body and so one needs to obtain them from food sources.
1. Histidine: is used by the body to grow and repair damaged tissue. It is utilized to make blood cells and protect nerve cells. The body makes use of it to create histamine. Histamine is released by white blood cells as part of the body’s response to allergens and is the trigger for allergic reactions (1).
2. Isoleucine: helps to regulate blood sugar levels in the blood and promotes wound healing. It helps in the production of hemoglobin as well as the formation of red blood cells. This amino acid plays a fundamental role in helping to detoxify the blood and excrete toxins via the kidneys (2).
3. Leucine: stimulates protein synthesis. It plays a vital role in preventing the breakdown of protein structures, especially muscle tissue following trauma. Leucine plays a role in elevating insulin levels in the blood (3).
4. Lysine: It is thought amino acid helps the body to absorb calcium. It is essential for helping to create collagen, which is an important building block for the formation of bones, skin, and connective tissues (4).
5. Methionine: is an essential amino acid which helps the immune system function as well as your digestion. It’s a precursor in the creation of homocysteine, cysteine, carnitine, and creatine which form part of and regulate the creation of muscle. Pea protein lacks sufficient quantities and is usually blended with rice or hemp powder to increase this vital amino acid (5).
6. Phenylalanine: Synthesizes proteins, the pigments in melanin and catecholamines, and is a precursor of L-tyrosine (6).
7. Threonine: is involved in protein synthesis, specifically mucin (7).
8. Tryptophan: is involved in the creation of melatonin and serotonin (8).
9. Valine: helps to produce energy and stimulate muscle growth. It also has a role in fat metabolism and the immune system (9).
Whey protein powder is considered an excellent source of amino acids with an optimal balance of the essential amino acids. Despite pea protein powder containing all the essential amino acids, it lacks sufficient quantities of methionine and is a less optimal protein source than whey.
Despite this, pea protein does contain more essential amino acids, such as phenylalanine and histidine, than whey protein (10). With the addition of other plant-based sources of amino acids, pea protein stacks up well against whey protein as a source of amino acids. Whey protein is considered a complete protein, which is in keeping with all animal protein supplements. The majority of plant-based protein powders are incomplete proteins.
Plants lack some essential amino acids. However, pea protein is the exception to this rule. It contains the nine essential amino acids and is a complete protein. Combined with anecdotal evidence of similar performance when supplementing with pea protein and clinical trials producing promising data, the debate on pea protein vs whey protein is far from over.
No it is not an issue, you can easily obtain Methionine from other dietary sources, both plant, and animal-based. A single factor does not negate the performance and muscle-building boost athletes experience when supplementing with pea protein powder.
Here are some excellent sources of both animal and plant-based methionine:
Animal proteins high in methionine
Plant based proteins high in methionine
• Brazil nuts
• Wheat Germ
It is increasingly common for fitness and health enthusiasts to make use of pea protein blends to get all nine essential amino acids in the required quantities from one supplement.
Pea protein powder is often blended with a plant-based protein which is high in methionine to create a complete protein supplement. The most frequent blend is pea and brown rice. However, a pea and hemp protein blend is now becoming more popular due to hemp’s superior amino acid profile.
Yes, there is plenty of research which supports the use of pea protein as a substitute for whey protein when training for strength improvement, performance enhancement, and muscle mass in combination with resistance training (11, 12). To stimulate the muscles sufficiently to cause protein synthesis, resistance training is required.
With the combination of an optimal diet and resistance training, hypertrophy programs benefit from protein supplementation in the form of protein powders. These may help to enhance muscle and strength gains (13). It is possible for protein supplementation to increase muscle mass and strength gain during prolonged resistance-type exercise training. This is possible in both younger and older subjects (14).
Pea protein has proven to be an excellent plant based supplement for both vegan and non-vegan athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and bodybuilders alike.
When compared to a standard amino acid profile, pea protein has a great amino acid profile. This is a major reason why it’s one of the most popular protein sources in vegan protein powders. The only downside is the low methionine level, which is why many plant-based protein powders also add in some other ingredients like brown rice protein powder as well. In direct comparison to other whey alternatives such as "Collagen Protein vs Pea Protein" and "Hemp Protein vs Pea Protein" pea is a clear winner.
However, when comparing pea protein directly with whey protein isolate, it is clear overall plant-based protein powders struggle to achieve protein contents as high as their animal-based competition. Despite this the popularity of plant based supplements, especially pea protein powder is likely to grow. This is for a number of reasons including; more people following vegan lifestyles, concerns about the amount resources required to create an animal-based protein supplement and long-term effects on the environment.
It is not hard to see why pea protein is one of the leading plant based protein powders. Research shows it to produce similar results to whey protein powders. It has a good amino acid profile, despite the less than optimal methionine content. However, methionine is an easy amino acid to add to one's diet through both plant and animal-based food sources. This more than makes up for the lack of this essential amino acid in pea protein powders.