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A man lifts weights in a gym

The sports nutrition market is a great opportunity for food producers – but for decades, dairy protein products have been the dominant choice. With plant protein on the rise, many want to know whether it can help muscle recovery in a similar way. What does the data show?

In 2020, Roquette and a North Carolina research partner found the answer. Demonstrating the effectiveness of NUTRALYS® pea protein took 5 days – and almost 100 very sore volunteer subjects. Here’s how it was done.

Helping your muscles work again

“We already had a study on muscle mass increase,” says Laetitia Guérin-Deremaux, Head of Nutrition and Health R&D at Roquette. “But there were no accredited claims around muscle recovery. We wanted to bring something new.”

The focus on recovery is important. For this study, researchers wanted to learn if pea protein could help sore muscles get ready to work again after a strenuous exertion. It wasn’t about looking good or even feeling good – it was about helping the human body be prepared to move and work again.

“A lot of people don’t exercise much during the week – and then they overdo it on the weekend,” David Nieman says. Nieman, a biology professor at Appalachian State University, directs the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus, the organization that designed the muscle recovery with Roquette and oversaw it. He says part of the study’s goal was to clarify which nutritional choices could help people bounce back after an intense bout of exercise.

He notes that several things were known already: Protein helps most when it’s taken in relatively large doses. And it helps most when these doses are spread out over a day or several days.

But most existing data was for dairy proteins. How would pea compare?

Tracking five-day recovery

To capture data, the research partners decided to measure muscle recovery using biochemical analysis. Muscles damaged from a workout “leak” specific enzymes, Nieman says. By testing blood for enzymes like creatine kinase and myoglobin, researchers could track muscle recovery in a quantifiable way.

They assembled a list of male volunteers, ages 18-55, who were all in relatively good health and did not already participate in regular resistance training. They divided volunteers into 3 groups. On the first day, volunteers were asked to drink a sample of either NUTRALYS® pea protein mix, whey protein mix, or water. The protein mixes (both pea and whey) provided 0.9g of protein for every kg of body weight.

Then volunteers were guided through a 90-minute training session that included 16 different resistance exercises like bench presses, vertical jumps, squats and crunches. They drank a second sample of the same product after the workout, then a third before bed that first night.

The workout was designed to induce the type of muscle damage that hard training sessions often do – and it worked. Participants’ blood enzyme levels and other blood parameters were measured before and just after exercise the first day. On four following days, they came back to participate in lighter physical activity and to be tested for blood parameters again. They continued to drink samples 3 times every day: Before exercise, after exercise and before bed at night.

After 5 days of measurements, researchers could graph their results and watch the levels of blood parameters associated with tired muscles rise, then fall again.

They didn’t rise or fall at the same rates. The protein made a difference.

Pea protein helped – and could help even more

“We saw an intermediate level effect of pea protein on muscle recovery,” says Guérin-Deremaux. Whey protein seemed to help muscles recover fastest of all, she says – but drinking NUTRALYS® pea protein still led to faster recovery than drinking no protein at all.

That makes pea protein a great option for those who want to help muscles recover faster while reducing their reliance on animal products, too – provided that the quantity is adapted. Nieman notes that pea proteins contain 22% less leucine, an amino acid that helps with recovery, than whey.

“The effect size was less for pea protein because there’s less leucine,” Nieman says. “But if people took 20% more NUTRALYS® pea protein, they could probably expect similar results to whey.”

The joint study was published in the scientific journal “Nutrients” in 2020.

See all NUTRALYS® Health Benefits & Studies

*NUTRALYS® health benefits are supported by one single clinical study. Food manufacturers who would like to use NUTRALYS® pea protein for these benefits will have to run its own studies based on its own formulation.

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