Pea protein: the next food safety scandal?

Thanks to its taste and texture, pea protein isolate is finding its way into a variety of vegan convenience foods, but as Nick Hughes reports, this popular ingredient comes with risks attached.

You may never have heard of pea protein isolate but there’s a good chance you’ve eaten it. Extracted from the yellow split pea, the ingredient has rapidly become the go-to protein source for producers of plant-based convenience foods eager to cash in on the burgeoning vegan trend.

Pizza Hut used pea protein in its limited-edition meat-free Pepperphoni pizza launched to coincide with this year’s Veganuary. The Beyond Burger uses it along with mung beans, fava beans and brown rice to replicate the protein naturally found in beef.

The neutral taste and high protein and amino acid content also makes pea a popular alternative to whey protein in dairy products. Unilever, for instance, uses it for its Ben & Jerry’s vegan ice creams, and pea protein is also a common ingredient in meal-replacement shakes.

Joel Gfeller, chief of innovation at plant-based brand Good Catch, told The Grocer last year that pea protein also ticks the sensory box, noting its “gentle, subtle bite and tender texture”.

Throw in the fact that peas don’t carry the negative sustainability connotations of another popular plant protein, soy, and the food industry is onto a sure-fire winner. Or is it?

As the use of pea protein has increased so too have warnings that it could pose a health risk to people with food allergies. An allergy to peas is not uncommon among the UK population; however, there is currently no requirement for producers to highlight pea protein in bold on ingredient labels since pea is not included among the EU’s list of 14 main allergens.

Although producers of pre-packaged foods would have to list it as an intended ingredient (the only exception to this is if pea protein forms part of a compound ingredient that makes up less than 2% of the overall product), the fact that processed plant products often boast a lengthy list of ingredients makes it easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

For out-of-home, meanwhile, there is no requirement for pea protein to be highlighted at all or even for restaurants and caterers to hold information about its presence in products.

In March, I tweeted Chris Elliott, professor of food safety at Queen’s University Belfast, asking for his view on pea protein as an emerging risk in a foodservice setting. He replied: “I see pea protein as a current risk and one that will get more serious in the future.”

Soon, people were weighing into the conversation detailing their own experiences. One mother of a child with food allergies said it was becoming her most challenging allergen to avoid given its growing use in dairy alternatives and other free-from products.

Another pointed out it’s not just vegetarian foods those with allergies have to be vigilant about, noting the presence of pea fibres in certain cooked meat products.

One allergens expert believes there are risks associated with processed vegan products being served in a foodservice setting. “If you’ve got trained chefs they know what’s in a beef burger by the price of it but nobody knows what’s in a vegan burger. There’s a real practical issue with these new vegan products that they can cause inadvertent allergic reactions.”

The same expert goes on to suggest there may be pressure from campaigners to add peas and other legumes such as chickpeas and mung beans to the list of 14 foods that must be highlighted on ingredient labels – and that foodservice staff should be aware of – now that the UK is, in theory, free to make its own labelling rules outside of the EU. “If you put it on the list then it alerts industry to the fact that not only do you have to declare it in a formal way but that the NPD people ought to have a horizon scanning system in place that says don’t use pea protein isolate.”

The best thing operators can do is try to stay a step ahead of changes in the market and keep customers informed, says Vegetarian Express managing director David Webster. “We’re very pragmatic and practical as a business about how we approach this [allergens],” says Webster. “One of the advantages we have when it comes to plant protein is we’ve got a massive range of options, and so if there is a particular issue with pea, for example, we can quickly work with customers to identify potential challenges on the menu and what alternative options they can have.”

Innovation is the lifeblood of the eating-out sector and many plant-based products have turned the sustainability dial in a positive direction. Yet recent history has taught us that risks that might appear insignificant can have tragic consequences. It took the death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who suffered an allergic reaction to a Pret a Manger baguette containing sesame (which does appear on the list of 14), for the government to make full ingredient labelling mandatory on pre-packed foods for direct sale. Businesses must ensure it doesn’t take another tragedy for them to wake up to the danger lurking behind the humble pea pod.

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