Written by Ben Carlisle
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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With a rise in allergic reactions to a variety of food and food additives, it’s only natural to question whether a supplement is bad for you. When it comes to the question of pea protein being bad for you, the answer is a definitive no, it is not.
Pea protein is hypoallergenic, which means that if you are someone who suffers from one of the eight most common allergies, you’re safe. That is, of course, if you’re not allergic to peas. Pea protein is hugely beneficial for anyone looking for a safe alternative to animal-based protein. So, what is pea protein and where does it come from?
Pea protein powder is a plant-based supplement derived from yellow peas. It has gained in popularity amongst vegetarians, vegans, and people who suffer from allergies to whey or soy protein products.
With the low cost of producing pea protein and well-documented health benefits, it is proven to be a very effective alternative to soybean proteins and animal-based supplements (1).
One of the many positives of pea protein is it has good levels of the branched chain amino acids. It also contains good levels of all nine essential amino acids which your body is unable to create by itself.
Studies have shown that supplementing with pea protein powder is an effective alternative to whey. It produces similar results to whey supplements with equivalent muscle growth, strength gains, and contribution to lean body mass when used in tandem with a weight training program. It was also found that exercise performance improved when adding pea protein to subjects’ diets (2).
When pea protein is produced, it is broken down into various forms, each with its own specific characteristics.
Pea isolate is obtained by milling yellow split peas and then extracting the protein structures. The protein is separated from the starch and fiber, resulting in a reduced number of lectins, no saturates, and no sugar. This powder then contains about 75% protein and is used in various combinations in powdered supplements (3). The makes pea isolate a popular way to increase protein intake using plant based proteins.
For individuals with digestive issues, pea protein hydrolysate may be a more attractive option as opposed to traditional protein supplements.
Pea hydrolysate is extracted by breaking down the pea protein into its constituent amino acids and peptides. This is done via hydrolysis. Through the process of various enzymes and lactic fermentation, any potential pea allergens are altered to provide a more easily digestible and less allergenic supplement (4).
The resulting protein powder was found to have less bitterness and higher functionality. An additional benefit of the hydrolyzed pea protein was that it showed promising blood pressure lowering effects (5).
Pea protein powder blends are made up of a variety of different isolated plant-based proteins. The reason for blends is to give the pea protein powder supplement a complete amino acid profile. This is due to the low levels of methionine.
Popular blends normally contain at least one of brown rice or hemp protein. Some of the best pea protein powder supplements contain other added ingredients to provide health beenfits as well as good levels of all nine essential amino acids.
These different protein supplements are aimed at individuals looking for weight gain, weight loss, and the overall health benefits associated with plant-based protein supplements.
Pea protein contains methionine, but has lower than the minimum level many people believe is required to be considered as a complete protein. While it is possible to obtain sufficient methionine through specific food choices, the ease of using a pea protein blend to do so makes it a popular choice for many.
While pea protein contains only half the methionine found in whey, individuals with a sensitivity to dairy products can successfully use pea protein blends to enjoy a complete amino acid profile (6).
While the side effects are usually minimal, some individuals find pea protein can cause gas and bloating.
This is due to the additional fiber intake when supplementing with plant-based supplements.
However, pea protein isolate is lower in fiber than whole peas, so the effects are much less. On first adding pea protein supplements to their diets, some individuals may experience stomach trouble as their bodies adjust to the new food source.
To mitigate some of the negative effects that plant-based protein powders might have on your digestive organs, try reducing the quantities and only increase the supplements gradually. This gives the body time to adjust (7). However, if you continue to experience discomfort, it is best to consult a physician.
Pea protein supplements are usually high in sodium. If you are on a low-sodium diet, then it’s wise to shop around for a pea protein powder supplement low in sodium.
Pea proteins are high in oxalates. For people who are susceptible to kidney stones, high levels of oxalates in their diet can be a cause for concern (8). Before supplementing with pea protein, anyone who has suffered from kidney stones in the past should consult their doctor to get the all-clear first.
Despite the concerns over bloating and digestive problems, it is common for those switching from whey protein to pea protein to actually experience less bloating and digestive issues. This is ascribed to vegan protein powders being hypoallergenic and lacking the eight most common allergens.
An oft-asked question is, “do pea protein powders contain heavy metals?”
The “Clean Label Project”, a study that called into question the levels of heavy metals in vegan protein powders, raised serious concerns over the safety of supplementing these proteins.
However, a risk assessment of human consumption of vegan protein supplements revealed that the risks were very small and of no real concern for those worried about adverse health effects (9).
To allay fears that their pea protein supplements may be endangering health, leading suppliers now use third-party testing to check for heavy metal contamination.
It has been found that protein shakes can contain sugar alcohol. While checking the ingredients will help you to avoid sugar alcohol, it is worth bearing in mind that it has been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and flatulence (2).
The ingredients you need to look for include xylitol and erythritol. As protein powders can be slightly bitter, manufacturers will add sugar and flavors to mask the taste and make them more palatable. If you experience any stomach upsets when supplementing with pea protein, look for a product that contains lower levels of sugars or sweeteners.
Research shows that elevated levels of sweeteners can cause stomach discomfort (10, 11). If you are trying to lose weight, then the added sugar in your protein shake could make your job more difficult. It is worthwhile calculating just how many calories your protein shake contains as high levels of sugar can increase calorie levels beyond 1,200 calories per serving. It also has the potential to spike insulin levels, which is bad for those trying to lose weight.
FODMAPs are groups of sugars that attract water as they pass through your intestines. The gut bacteria then ferment these sugars, causing gas and bloating.
If you have IBS, then these sugars can cause excruciating pain or discomfort due to gasses stretching the intestinal walls.
While pea protein is described as a low-FODMAP food by Monash University, this was restricted to 2 tablespoon servings and a study of multiple brands shows varying levels of these sugars.
It is for this reason that it cannot be definitively stated that pea protein supplements are low-FODMAP foods and it is up to you to determine your susceptibility when adding pea protein to your diet.
When compared to other supplements, both plant based and animal based, pea protein compares exceptionally well. Its hypoallergenic nature makes it suitable for just about everybody and its comparable muscle-building characteristics when compared to whey protein make it especially suitable for individuals who are in weight training programs. Many other protein sources contain at least 1 of the 8 most common allergens in their ingredients.
Pea protein is not bad for you. It is a great way to get more protein into your diet, has high levels of BCAAs and all the essential amino acids necessary for human survival.
Being hypoallergenic, it is the perfect supplement for those with food sensitivities and it has been shown to promote similar levels of muscle growth as whey protein. Finally, its bio-available iron content makes it a suitable supplement for those suffering from anemia and lack of iron.