The mighty pea is everybody’s new favorite plant-based protein

You can call it an overreaction to some bad soy headlines, or
chalk it up to concerns about the environmental impacts of meat.
Either way, it’s hard to ignore the food industry’s new
favorite protein source: peas.

Earlier this month, meat-substitute producer Beyond Meat made IPO
history when its shares nearly tripled in value on their first day
of trading. The company’s vegan burgers and sausages are leading
the fake meat revolution, with the pea as their star ingredient.
The protein from the legume has surged in popularity, especially
among manufacturers of meat, dairy and seafood substitutes.

Beyond Meat’s pea-based offerings are joined by the new Lightlife
burger, which arrives in U.S. supermarkets this month. There’s
also Ripple Foods, with a line of pea-based dairy substitutes.
These foods also use peas: JUST’s eggless egg products, Good
Catch Foods’ fish-free tuna and UK-based Nomad Foods’ Green
Cuisine line that includes meatless burgers, sausages and Swedish
meatballs.

With peas becoming such a hot commodity, big players are preparing
to ramp up supply. Global pea protein sales will quadruple by 2025,
says Henk Hoogenkamp, an adviser and board member for several food
companies, with most of the increase stemming from more consumption
of plant-based meat products.

Peas thrive in northern climates, and Canada is expected to
become the global production leader and account for 30% of output
in 2020, Hoogenkamp says. New processing facilities are being built
there, as well as in France, Belgium and Germany. Agriculture giant
Cargill has an agreement with Puris, a producer of plant-based food
ingredients, to significantly expand its pea protein operations.
Some mothballed soy protein factories in China will probably be
converted to pea protein facilities, Hoogenkamp says.

Companies are racing to secure supplies. “You need to lock up
your supply chain,” says Chris Kerr, founder of Good Catch and
chief investment officer at private venture fund New Crop Capital.
“It’s not a crisis, but you definitely want to plan
ahead.”

In anticipation of its new products, Lightlife bought more than a
year’s worth of the ingredient. “We went really long on pea
protein,” says Michael Lenahan, its vice president of marketing.
“There was uncertainty at the time about how much would be
available.”

Ripple Foods has created its own supply chain, working with farmers
and developing its own proprietary process for cleaning the peas
and extracting their protein. The peas are grown in North Dakota,
Montana and Saskatchewan, Canada, before being processed in
Northern Illinois.

Supply worries are likely to be short-term if demand continues to
grow as projected.

“I’m never too concerned about the supply of agricultural
products,” says Peter Golbitz, founder of Agromeris, an
agriculture consulting firm specializing in plant-based products.
“They can expand production lines, or more competition enters the
space. Making pea protein is not rocket science.”

Nonetheless, Beyond Meat is already looking to mix up its
ingredients list.

“Pea protein is an amazing resource for us, it works well, but
there’s nothing particularly special about it,” Chief Executive
Officer Ethan Brown says. “If you think about the plant kingdom,
there are so many other stocks we can use—mung bean, brown rice,
mustard seed, lentils. We will have a much more diverse bench of
proteins.”

Using a variety of ingredients, he says, will give the company’s
products a “more varied bite” and a texture that’s closer to
animal meat.

Not too long ago, soy ruled the plant-based kingdom, becoming the
go-to base of many well-known meatless products, like Morningstar
Farms Grillers veggie burgers, Lightlife’s Gimme Lean sausage and
Gardein Chick’n Strips. But over the past several years, food
trends have turned against it. While soy is easier to buy than pea
protein, it’s also an allergen, is often genetically modified and
has been the victim of conflicting headlines about health
risks.

In the U.S., 30% of consumers ages 18 to 34 say they or someone in
their household is avoiding soy, according to data compiled by
Mintel for the American Pulse Association.

Ripple uses peas, its founders says, because they’re the most
available plant protein that isn’t soy.

“Soy just has a bad consumer rap for no good reason,”
co-founder Adam Lowry says. There is nothing keeping the company
from using soy for products in other countries that do not have an
aversion, like in Asia, they says.

And soy certainly isn’t disappearing in the U.S. either: The
increasingly in-demand and now gluten-free Impossible Burger uses
it.

“The only reason pea protein became popular is because people
didn’t want soy protein,” says Golbitz of Agromeris.
Even so, soy-loyal brands might be considering new strategies.

“We think the most important thing is choice, so we recognize
certain people want to stay away from certain things,” said
Kellogg Co. CEO Steve Cahillane, whose portfolio of brands includes
Morningstar Farms, during a January interview. “Our job is not to
try and convince you as a consumer, you’re wrong, there’s nothing
wrong with soy, go ahead and eat it—that’s not a winning
strategy.”

Kellogg won’t reformulate existing products, but may look to
create new ones for new niches that emerge, Cahillane says.  Pea
protein could prove to have its own concerns, however. The Detox
Project, a research organization that tests foods for the pesticide
glyphosate, has been looking at it over the past year, and the
results, like those for other products tested for the popular
pesticide, aren’t pretty.

“We can hardly find a clean pea protein source anywhere,” says
Henry Rowlands, the project’s director. In fact, products labeled
as organic had much higher levels of the pesticide than
conventional versions, he says. The group tested eight top-selling
protein powders on Amazon, using a laboratory that’s approved by
the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

In spite of this,  the shift toward a new plant
protein—especially one that hasn’t been genetically engineered
to withstand a barrage of herbicides—is still a win for the
environment, says Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center
for Biological Diversity.

“Any chance you have to break up these large commodity crop
monocultures like corn and wheat and soy, it’s going to be such a
benefit, even if it’s with a single other crop,” he says.

—Bloomberg News

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The mighty pea is everybody’s new favorite plant-based protein