As almonds are lamented for their potentially devastating environmental impact, and the debate over whether or not soya is healthy rages on, consumers are cottoning on to another star ingredient for non-dairy milk: the mighty pea.
Alternative milks are on the rise across the world. In Britain, for example, almost a quarter of people have made the switch from dairy, according to a 2019 survey by market research firm Mintel.
Over in the US, sales of plant-based dairy and egg products are expected to reach $5.2 billion by 2024, according to a 2020 report by Packaged Facts. The market research publisher, which covers the food, beverage and consumer packaged goods industries, asserts retail sales of the products will rise at an average annual rate of 6 per cent over the next four years.
Why? Well, for a start, people are beginning to realise how bad milk production is for the environment; producing just one glass of cow's milk results in almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any non-dairy milk, according to a University of Oxford study.
There are health reasons, too, says dietitian Mirna Sabbagh. "Many people would prefer switching to non-cow’s milk alternatives to avoid the hormones naturally found in milk and antibiotics found in non-organic milk."
In response to the high demand, a wide-ranging supply of non-dairy milks have flooded the global market, from more traditional options such as oat and soya, to lesser-known varieties including macadamia and even hemp.
But with a protein and calcium content similar to that of cow’s milk and a tiny carbon footprint, it’s no wonder people are increasingly opting for pea milk, which is made out of yellow split peas, as opposed to the humble green variety.
But how healthy and sustainable is it, really? And can it ever replace the taste and mouthfeel of the real deal?
The pros of pea milk
First, let's break down its nutrition content. One cup of the non-dairy stuff contains eight grams of protein, which is exactly the same as cow's milk. That's far superior to the protein content of almond or oat varieties. "The high protein in pea milk can improve satiety, control blood sugar levels and provide a healthy source of BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) for those all-important gains," explains Jo Owen, a holistic health and nutrition coach at Nourish, Flourish and Fly.
That high protein count doesn’t translate to high calories, either, as one glass of unsweetened pea milk contains 70 calories, whereas a glass of reduced-fat cow’s milk has about 86.
Lina Shibib, a clinical nutritionist at Medcare Hospital Al Safa, also praises pea milk's abundant nutritional value. "It contains potassium, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D and iron. The high content of omega-3 fatty acids from algal oil is a big bonus, improving heart health, immune function, nervous system function and brain health."
It also contains magnesium and plenty of fibre, adds Sabbagh. "It is lactose-free, which can make it much easier to digest for those who have lactose insufficiency." Not to mention it's nut-free, too. "It also works well with a vegan or vegetarian diet."
Purveyors of pea milk also promote its smaller eco footprint. This is because there is a reduced need for nitrogen fertilisers and peas require much less water to grow than many other crops. They’re also commonly grown in areas where water is in abundance, unlike almonds.
The cons to consider
So where’s the catch? Health-wise, there are a couple to note, say our experts.
Shibib, for one, cites the “incomplete” protein count. “The number of amino acids in pea milk is not complete, meaning the consumer would still need to get their essential amino acids from somewhere else.”
She says it could cause digestive upset, too, because of the high fibre content. “However, pea protein generally does not have as much risk of digestive upset as other proteins, especially those derived from oats or almonds.”
Sabbagh says it’s important for consumers to always read the ingredients label before buying a product “to make sure they don’t have added sugars and excess oils that you may not wish to consume for optimal health”.
Owens echoes this sentiment. “If you are not making your own higher-fibre pea milk, make sure you read the labels and aim for brands that are low on added sugars and thickeners, opting instead for varieties that are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals like vitamin D, B12, iron and calcium.
“Although naturally pea milk has literally no fat, vegetable oils are added to improve mouthfeel, making it more palatable and creamy. It is worth noting that this does increase the omega 6 ratio, which should be counter-balanced with eating more omega 3s in the diet.”
As for the environmental claims, consumers do also have to consider where their pea milk has been farmed, made, packaged and shipped from in the first place to determine the product's total carbon footprint. In the UAE, where pea milk is not widely accessible, for example, if you're buying Mighty Pea milk from Spinneys, the yellow split peas used in the British brand's products are sourced from countries within the European Union.
The environmental impact of other ingredients, such as cane sugar, sunflower oil and algal oil, which are often used in pea milk recipes, also need to be taken into account.
Yet, while there are definite pros and cons, when weighed up against the eco-unfriendliness of methane-emitting cow’s milk – the fibre-filled, nutrient-dense, protein-packed, mighty pea will always come out on top.