Peas are the new rock stars of the food-tech world. Yes, peas. It turns out the tiny green vegetables you were hiding in that last spoonful of mash as a kid are the new building blocks for many a plant-based product that desires a nutritionally dense yet environmentally sound alternative to animal products. From beef burgers and chicken strips to yoghurt, ice cream, mayo and milk, peas are now forming the bedrock of vegan options for our favourite foods.
Photo credit: R Khalil
You see, scientists have uncovered some very positive attributes that extend beyond the conventional knowledge about these little balls of goodness. It turns out that yellow split peas, used commonly in new pea-protein products, can texturally mimic meat and dairy. They are also nutritionally comparable in a variety of protein, iron and amino acid levels and contain no gluten or lactose, making them rare to cause allergic reactions. Peas are low in calories as well as absent of the unhealthy fats found in meat, but they are naturally rich in protein, so they don’t require much processing to extract this protein. After decades of being pushed to the side of the plate, these tiny protein powerhouses find themselves as the unlikely contenders in the battle taking on the meat, cheese and egg markets.
But, before you place all your pea-based eggs in one basket, peas are still not the only source of protein you’ll ever need. Peas can indeed be a solid source, but they don’t contain everything your body gets from consuming animal products. Functional medicine practitioner and clinical nutritionist Miles Price says, “Pea protein is a great source of amino acids, it has a good BCAA (branched chain amino acid) profile, which is helpful for building muscle, and is quite low on the allergenic profile as it’s gluten and dairy friendly, but it’s still part of the legume family, which means for people sensitive to legumes, they need to be aware. The body recognises and prefers real, wholesome protein choices, either from animal or plant sources, and ensuring one has sufficient digestive capacity to break down proteins is critical and often overlooked.”
In short, do give peas a chance and consider pea-based products as valuable additional alternatives to eating less meat and dairy products, but eat them alongside other proteins and plenty of whole foods to ensure you’re getting the full gamut of nutrition your body needs.
Photo credit: Sunfed Meats
The pea makers impacting the industry
US plant-based start-up Beyond Meat exploded onto the scene in 2016, backed by Bill Gates, amid a rise in consumers choosing flexitarian lifestyles to reduce their own meat consumption in order to improve their health and the negative impact on the environment. The Beyond Burger is completely vegan and made from a pea protein, along with beetroot for colour, that delivers the fibrous texture of ground beef as well as the juiciness and aroma. In addition to being cholesterol, antibiotic, hormone and GMO free, this plant-based patty is richer in both protein and iron than beef. The burger launched in Hong Kong in 2017 (here’s where you can find it), and Beyond Meat has recently announced its UK expansion into Tesco supermarkets as part of its plans to be available internationally.
Similarly, Hong Kong-based company Right Treat has created the increasingly popular Omnipork (here’s where you can find it in HK). It’s also made from a plant-based blend, with the main protein coming from peas, along with non-GMO soy, mushrooms and rice. This pork-mimicking product comes out a whopping 71 per cent lower in saturated fats and 62 per cent lower in calories than conventional pork, as well as being higher in fibre, calcium and iron. This goes alongside the obvious environmental considerations that no smart little piggies were harmed in its production.
What about chicken? In New Zealand, a company called Sunfed Meats recently launched chicken-free chicken made largely of a pea protein. Its growing popularity is leading the food-tech start-up to expand into other mock meats within the country, hopefully expanding to our shores in the near future.
In the dairy sector, our pals at JUST make their popular JUST Mayo with a pea protein rather than eggs. There’s also a dairy-free Greek yoghurt alternative from Daiya that is protein comparable with regular dairy yoghurt, and even the dessert giants at Ben & Jerry’s have used a pea protein to produce a few vegan varieties of their ice cream – all using those humble little veggies that are tough to keep on a fork.
And, now, making waves in the milk world is US-based company Ripple, launching what is said to be the most texturally similar milk alternative to date, using yellow split peas. We were curious to find out more about this pea milk and got in touch with Ripple’s founders, Neil Renninger and Adam Lowry, to find out about the impact their new “milk” is having on the industry. And, no, it isn’t green (or, worse, yellow).
Did it start with the pea or the milk?
Neil (N): In its purest form, protein has no taste. So when we set out to make Ripple, we found that peas are among the most widely available crops in North America today. Strip away everything else, and you’re left with the purest plant-based protein on earth, which we were able to harness and use as the cornerstone of Ripple Foods. Across the board, we found that almost all alternatives to traditional dairy milk lacked not only great taste, but the nutrition that milk is meant to provide. Our mission from the beginning was simple: for food to be good, we think it needs to taste great, nourish your body and leave a small footprint on the planet.
Peas are now being utilised in many alternative products. What is it that makes them so versatile as an animal substitute?
Adam (A): Peas are low in fat, cholesterol free and, most importantly, are an excellent source of protein. Comparatively speaking, almond milk has one gram of protein per serving. Coconut milk has none. Cashew milk has none. And given their abundance, peas were the perfect vehicles to get us where we needed to be. Ripple has eight times the protein of almond milk and half the sugar of dairy milk, while also being lower in calories than milk, and, most importantly, it has the creamy, delicious texture that other dairy-free alternatives are missing. Unlike almonds, which require irrigation, or cattle, which contribute to deforestation and greenhouse-gas emissions, peas have a small environmental footprint and require significantly less water than dairy, almond, cashew or coconut milk.
What does pea milk taste like?
A: Ripple products are rich and creamy and, to the surprise of many, don’t taste like peas! They have a very neutral flavour and a dairy-like aroma. Ripple milks are high in protein, which gives them body and richness, two things that make your coffee or tea creamy. And with their neutral flavour, they don’t make your coffee taste like nuts or soybeans.
What colour is it?
A: The colour is a very pale off-white. It’s not quite as white as dairy milk, but close. It’s the plant sources (peas, sunflowers) that give it that little bit of colour.
Have you had any adverse responses to the term “pea milk”?
A: “Pea milk” is an odd term. Ultimately, the consumer wants to know that it’s plant based and what it is that it’s made from.
When will Ripple be available in Hong Kong and other markets?
A: We don’t have a timeline for entering the Hong Kong market at this time, but we are certainly getting a lot of interest. The opportunity for Ripple in Asia is huge, and one we’re excited to get after. Due to the historical lack of dairy products in the market, combined with a very high rate of lactose intolerance among Asian consumers, I think plant-based dairy is a natural fit.
What kind of feedback have you had? What do children think of it?
A: Kids love Ripple! Because it actually tastes like milk. And that’s generally been the reaction from most people. In fact, we’ve had many lactose-intolerant people try it and say they worried they were going to have an adverse reaction because it tasted so much like dairy milk!
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