When you think of protein, you might not think of peas. But as protein from peas makes its way into everything from plant-based burgers and nuggets to puffed snacks and protein bars, the legume is taking the spotlight.
Rebecca McGee has worked with peas for her entire career. As a plant breeder with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) at Washington State University, she’s now working to develop peas with more protein—a food source that could help feed a population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2025.
It all begins with about 400 lines of yellow peas from the USDA’s collection of pea genetic material on the WSU Pullman campus.
Clare Coyne is the curator of the USDA Cool Season Legume Collection. She says yellow peas offer color and taste that consumers enjoy, as well as a structure that can be processed into plant-based food products, such as the Beyond Burger.
For the past three years, the two plant geneticists have been planting different lines at test sites in eastern Washington and Montana to catalog the protein content.
The effort is part of the Pulse Crop Health Initiative, a nationwide research project funded by Congress which seeks to find solutions to sustainability and nutrition challenges.
Most peas are about 18 to 22 percent protein. “A 25 percent protein pea would be stunning, a 27 to 28 percent protein pea would be amazing,” McGee says.
Ultimately, they want to pinpoint sequences in the DNA of yellow peas associated with high protein concentration and share it with plant breeders who can develop protein-rich varieties for growers.
“We’re focused on helping farmers,” Coyne adds. “The hope is that it will bring increased value to their crop.”
According to the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, the United States has produced a 10-year average of 1.025 billion pounds of yellow peas. The bulk of yellow peas grown in the United States comes from North Dakota and Montana, but peas also have their place in Washington state, where farmers grow both green and yellow peas. The peas are also successful rotation crops and promote good soil health.
“Yellow peas are great for pea protein. Our green peas are some of the best in the world,” McGee says. “Maybe there’s room for both.”
For people who are allergic to dairy or soy, pea protein offers a protein powder alternative. It can also add a boost of protein to foods like smoothies or baked goods that people make at home.
“It’s really exciting for a breeder,” McGee says. “And as a consumer, here I am on the other side of that, buying products made with plant protein.”
Girish Ganjyal, WSU’s food processing specialist, is helping improve the experience of plant protein for consumers around the world.
Last year, in Thailand and the Philippines—where snacks made with green peas are quite popular—he worked with food processors to help them tailor products based on the latest research. Meanwhile, he’s also working with Palouse growers who often donate some of their peas for research.
Working with both green and yellow pea varieties, the lab deconstructs peas into their macronutrients and wants to find out how different varieties might work in different food products.
As the go-to lab for extrusion processing, which forces a flour mix through an opening in a plate or die to produce a textured or puffed product, they can also test how particular varieties of pea protein translate into puffed snacks or textured proteins, like nuggets or patties.
He says the ultimate goal is to strike just the right balance between texture and nutrition.
“We look at the nutrition and we study functionality,” Ganjyal says. “Then we ask what type of product it should go into and find a home for it.”
From finding a home for peas to exploring the possibilities of new varieties, the research could bring high-quality, protein-rich peas and innovative products to the market and help feed the world.