Pea Protein IBS: Is Pea Protein Bad For IBS?

Written by Ben Carlisle

Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022

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No, pea protein powder shouldn't be bad for IBS. The manufacturing process reduces the powder's carbohydrate content. This greatly reduces the probability of IBS sufferers experiencing issues.

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The issues irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) sufferers can encounter because of a high carbohydrate content in protein powders include: bloating, cramping and diarrhoea (1). Due to the pea protein used in pea protein powders being an isolate this should not be an issue. However, artificial sweeteners added to make pea protein powders taste better may cause problems. It is recommended to read the ingredients carefully when choosing a pea protein supplement. This is to ensure your supplement contains low levels of artificial sweeteners. There is evidence to suggest artificial sweeteners can cause stomach upset (2).

When checking the label be sure to check any items listed are placed low on the FODMAP. The low FODMAP diet originated from Australia and provides a guide for foods to avoid to help stop an IBS flare up. Pea protein has been used in products which have been certified as suitable for a low FODMAP diet. Other protein powders suitable for a low FODMAP diet include whey protein isolate and brown rice protein. Pea protein isolate is also hypoallergenic and naturally free from lactose. Research has shown lactose can trigger issues for those who suffer from IBS (3).

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder which causes a variety of symptoms, including: abdominal pain, diarrhoea and/or constipation, bloating, gassiness, cramping (4). Recent studies indicate IBS is a condition which is seen in approximately 10 to 20% of the general population (5).

It is a condition which is hard to pinpoint the exact cause of and studies have shown each individual will have slightly different, unique triggers. Some of these triggers are foods, this has led to lots of people who suffer from IBS following a diet which is restrictive in certain areas. Often those who suffer from IBS find by lowering their fibre intake their stomach feels more settled. Australian specialists developed a guide to help those with IBS avoid flare ups, it is called the low FODMAP diet (3).

What Is The Low FODMAP Diet?

During investigations into the causes of IBS and how it can be treated, scientists discovered the small intestine struggles to absorb foods found on the FODMAP. Further to this, they can cause an increase of fluid within the bowel and gassiness (3). These two side effects combined can affect the speed at which food is digested and lead to diarrhoea.

This is why the different tiers of the FODMAP where created and lots of practitioners recommend IBS suffers to follow the FODMAP to support their stomach health. A study into the effectiveness of following the low FODMAP diet showed 76% of IBS patients following this diet reported improvement with their symptoms (3).

The FODMAP is formed of six levels. The sixth level depicts high-protein foods, of both animal or non-animal origin. It consists of meat, fish, eggs, legumes, soy, nuts, and seeds. The recommended intake of this food level is 2-3 servings per day (3).

The FODMAP recommends to limit intake of lactose, fructose, fructans, GOS (galacto-oligosaccharides) and polyols (3). This is why some people worry about pea protein effecting their IBS. Polyols include artificial sweeteners which are sometimes added to protein powders. Additionally yellow split peas which pea protein supplements are derived from fall into the category of GOS. However, the manufacturing process for pea protein isolate powder greatly reduced the probability of any issues for people who suffer with IBS.

How Is Pea Protein Isolate Powder Manufactured?

Whilst it would be understandable, to assume all plant-based proteins are high in fibre, the process used to make pea protein isolate powder helps explain why it should be safe for IBS sufferers. Firstly, it is important to understand there are two types of fibre; soluble and insoluble fibre.  Both of these fibres are needed by the body (6). Split peas, which are used to make pea protein powder, contain soluble fibre.

During the manufacturing process the shell of the split pea is removed.  The pea is then added to water, this is the important part of the process when thinking about whether pea protein is safe for IBS suffers to consume. When added to water, the soluble fibre within the split pea dissolves and forms a gel (2). This gel is removed and then the remainder of the split pea is left to dry out. The result is pea protein isolate. Finally the isolate pea protein is ground into a fine powder. This process results in a higher protein content, with the fibre and starch removed and a lower carbohydrate level. This makes pea protein supplements more digestible.

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How Much Fibre Is In The Typical Pea Protein Supplement

Studies have shown for some patients with IBS, the use of fibre may actually exacerbate symptoms and increase abdominal pain, bloating and distension (7). This makes the fibre content of a supplement very important to any individuals who suffers with IBS.

A typical pea protein isolate supplement will have a fibre content of approximately 5%. This means a 50g serving would contain 2.5 grams of fibre. The FODMAP suggests the amount of fibre consumed by IBS patients should be between 25 and 30g per day. This means pea protein supplements can be used whilst remaining comfortably inside this range (15).

Artificial Sweeteners And Their Effect On IBS

FODMAP also warns about polyols. These are naturally occurring sugar alcohols. Non-calorific Artificial Sweeteners (NAS) often contain naturally occurring sugar alcohols. NAS are a popular worldwide when it comes to sweeting food and protein powders. This is because this allows sweetness to be enhanced whilst keeping the calorie count low.

The reason NAS are a worry for IBS suffers is because they can drive the development of glucose intolerance and cause intestinal trouble in some individuals (8). Studies into the negative side effects of sugar alcohol, have shown stevia extracts can affect gut microbiota. Depending on the dosage they can also cause flatulence, especially in patients with inflammatory bowel disease (8). This is why they are placed near the top of the FODMAP.

If you suffer from IBS it is important you check the quantity of NAS in any protein supplement you are thinking of taking. It is recommended to purchase one with the lowest level possible. The artificial sweeteners xylitol and erythritol should be avoided. Studies have shown they have the potential to cause stomach upset even in individuals who do not usually suffer with stomach complaints (2). Nearly all the best pea protein powders come free of xylitol, erythritol and any artificial additives.

What Are The Other Benefits Of Pea Protein Isolate For IBS Sufferers?

Pea protein isolate is hypoallergenic and free from the 8 main types of allergens (9). This includes lactose which is found in milk based protein powders like, whey protein concentrate and casein (however, whey protein isolate has a very low lactose level).

Interestingly, when researching the prevalence of food allergies scientists made the following discovery; of self-reported allergens up to 17% of people reported milk (10). Further to this, trials into how IBS symptoms can be eased showed a substantial proportion of symptoms improved in individuals who followed lactose free diet (3). This research implies pea protein powder should be a good choice for IBS suffers.

Pea protein is a great way to increase your daily protein intake when used as a supplement to a healthy diet. It contains good levels of the essential amino acids’ leucine, isoleucine and valine which play critical roles in the regulation of energy homeostasis, nutrition metabolism, gut health, immunity and disease (11).

Research has also found consuming 3 grams of pea protein hydrolysate a day over a 3 week period caused blood pressure to be reduced in both human subjects and lab rats (12). Additionally, other research has found the consumption of pea protein could lower both cholesterol and fat production (13). There is also evidence which suggests pea protein can increase intestinal SCFA levels, which are considered anti-inflammatory (14).

Is Pea Protein Suitable For IBS Sufferers?

Most pea protein isolate powders should be suitable for IBS sufferers. It is a vegan product which means it doesn’t contain any lactose or milk which can affect IBS suffers. Studies into how to reduce the symptoms of IBS have supported the Australian initiative of following a low FODMAP diet.

Due to manufacturing methods the soluble fibre found within split-peas is drastically reduced meaning the consumption of pea protein should not cause any stomach complaints related to fibre consumption. However, it is still important to check the fibre content of any pea protein isolate supplement and calculate whether consumption would prevent daily intake being inside the FODMAP recommendation of 25 to 30g of fibre per day. Additionally to follow FODMAP recommendations packaging should be checked to ensure NAS levels are low and the pea protein does not contain xylitol and erythritol. If any doubts exist you should seek advice from a medical professional.

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