Fresh, dried, crisped, and powdered—peas come in many forms, but some of them provide more health benefits than others
By Sally Wadyka
If the idea of peas brings back images of hiding them in your napkin during childhood dinners, it might be time to rethink this much-maligned vegetable. Fresh green peas can be delicious raw or cooked, and dried peas are a hearty soup staple. These days, peas are also showing up in less likely places, thanks to the proliferation of snap pea crisps, roasted pea snacks, and powdered pea protein.
No matter what form you choose, you’ll be getting some valuable nutrients. But as peas go from fresh to dried to powdered, their nutritional profile does change. In other words, while peas in every form offer some nutritional value, not all peas are equally healthy. Here’s how they stack up.
The Benefits of Green Peas
When they come fresh from the garden (or by way of the produce aisle or even the freezer), green peas are classified as a starchy vegetable, but that doesn’t mean they’re off-limits.
“Even at triple the calories of some other veggies, peas are still a relatively low-calorie food and one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables. So garnering the benefits of those nutrients outweighs any extra calories or carbohydrate,” says Marc O’Meara, RD, a nutritionist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. A cup of cooked peas (fresh or frozen) has about 135 calories and 25 grams of carbs. Compare that with about 45 calories and 10 grams of carbs in a cup of green beans, or about 150 calories and 34 grams of carbs in a medium red potato.
It also supplies 9 grams of protein and about a third of the daily value for fiber and vitamin K. (The daily value is a measurement used on food labels and represents an average level of a nutrient someone eating 2,000 calories a day should consume.) And a cup of peas has 25 percent of the daily value for the B vitamins folate and thiamine, along with decent amounts of niacin, vitamin B6, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
Plus, peas contain phytochemicals that help support the body’s antioxidant defenses, says Karen Collins, RDN, nutrition advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research. Antioxidants disarm free radicals, compounds that may cause the kind of cell damage that contributes to inflammation in the body and an increased risk of diseases such as heart disease and cancer. The antioxidants in peas include polyphenols, vitamin C, and lutein and zeaxanthin (important for eye health).
Fresh peas also come in edible podded forms, such as sugar snaps and snow peas. These are less starchy, so they’re lower in calories and carbs than green peas you pop out of the pod, but also lower in protein and fiber. One way they stand out from green peas is in their vitamin C content. While cooked garden peas have 25 percent of the daily value in a cup, a cup of cooked edible podded peas has 85 percent.
Dried Split Peas
When they’re dried, fresh garden peas typically lose their skin and split open. Dried split peas are part of the family of foods called pulses (a category that also includes dried beans and lentils).
“Drying peas makes some nutrients (like fiber and protein) more concentrated, but you do lose some heat-sensitive nutrients (like vitamin C, lutein, folate, and vitamin K),” Collins says. One cup of cooked split peas provides 16 grams each of protein and fiber and 2.5 milligrams of iron (14 percent of your daily value). “The high protein makes them a good replacement for animal protein in a vegetarian diet,” says O’Meara. Split peas are also a rich source of magnesium and potassium–essential minerals that can help regulate blood pressure.
Once cooked, you can use split peas in soups, salads, hummus, or even roast them in a pan for a crunchy snack. “In general, Americans don’t get enough fiber, and dried peas—like other legumes—are a good source,” says Collins. Research has shown that getting more fiber in your diet may be linked to reduced inflammation, a healthier gut microbiome, and a lower risk of colorectal cancer.
Pea Crisps and Roasted Pea Snacks
When you grab a bag of snacks made from peas, it sure seems like they should be better for you than your typical chips. But is that really true—or are they just junk food wearing a health halo? “In most cases you’re still getting some protein and fiber, so snacking on peas is going to be a better option than chips or pretzels when you’re craving a crunchy snack,” says O’Meara.
The key, as with all snacks, is keeping an eye on how much you eat. For example, a serving of Harvest Snaps Green Pea Snack Crisps is 1 ounce (or about 22 crispy pea pods). Limit yourself to that portion and you’ll consume 130 calories, 5 grams of fat, and just 75 mg of sodium—while still getting 4 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein. Compared with pea snacks, the same-sized portion of potato chips has about 150 calories and about twice as much fat and sodium, less than half the protein, and virtually no fiber.
Wasabi peas are a popular version of a roasted pea snack, but some are higher in fat (thanks to added oils) and sodium, and may contain food coloring or other chemical additives. For a healthier option, season fresh peas and roast them in the oven or air fryer until crisp.
Pea Protein Powder
As more people shift toward plant sources for their protein, isolated pea protein has found a niche–turning up in protein powders, veggie burgers, snack bars, and other vegetarian foods. But there’s debate on the necessity of using protein powder to supplement the diet, rather than just eating the unprocessed food (in this case, peas).
“Most Americans are not short on protein to the point where they need a supplement,” says Collins. And the steps taken to turn peas into powder does make pea protein fit the definition of an ultra-processed food. Her concern is that by isolating just the protein from peas, you’re missing out on all the other nutritional benefits the legume offers. “The processing removes all of the fiber and most of the nutrients and phytochemicals you’d get if you eat peas,” she says. Whenever possible, opt for the whole food instead.