Written by Ben Carlisle
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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Yes, pea protein is generally considered good for gut health. This is due to pea protein being hypoallergenic, easily digestible and low on the FODMAP. It is also rich in iron and a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids.
Recent studies into the properties of pea protein powder have shown evidence pea protein could actually be beneficial for gut health. This is due to pea protein's anti-inflammatory and hypoallergenic nature (1). Additionally some professionals argue pea protein’s anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating potentials, it could be used as an alternative therapy to prevent inflammatory-related diseases (3).
Yellow split peas are used to make pea protein, whilst they sit quite high on the FODMAP pyramid the manufactory method reduces the amount of fibre and carbohydrate within in them. This process lowers their FODMAP status and makes them easier to digest. The FODMAP originated from Australia and provides a guide on which foods are safer to eat and which ones should be avoided to help those who suffer from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms (2).
There are a few things that you should check before purchasing a pea protein powder supplement. This includes the amount of non- calorific artificial sweeteners (NAS) and the serving and preparation methods. The reason for this is many studies show NAS can cause stomach discomfort (4). Additionally the over-consumption of any protein powder can cause stomach discomfort.
Whilst most of us think of green garden peas when we hear the word ‘pea’, pea protein powder is actually made from yellow split-peas. This is why the powder is a soft beige colour. Yellow split peas are high in soluble fibre. However, due to the manufacturing process a large amount of this fibre is removed. This is why pea protein powder is low on the FODMAP and easy to digest.
During the manufacturing process the shell of the split pea is removed. The remaining pea is then added to water. When added to water the soluble fibre within the split pea dissolves and forms a gel (5). Next this gel is dried out. Once dried out the the pea is ground into a fine powder. The result of this process is a powder with a high protein content and low levels of fat and carbohydrate.
The main reason people take pea protein powder is to increase their daily protein intake. It is especially popular with those who want a plant based protein source to take as a post or pre-workout supplement. Pea protein scores very favourably when compared to other plant based proteins such as soy protein, and even matches up well with whey protein powders. A study into the percentage of protein in a range of different pea protein supplements found the protein content to be between 77 to 81%, demonstrating it is a high quality protein powder (6).
Pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids which helps build lean muscle tissue, making it popular amongst body builders and athletes (7). However, despite being a complete protein it does have low levels of the essential amino acid methionine. This means it is wise to add a food source rich in methionine to your diet if taking a pure pea protein supplement. This is especially true for those following plant based diets. Pea protein isolate also contains good levels of the branched chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine which play critical roles in the regulation of energy homeostasis, nutrition metabolism, gut health, immunity and disease (8).
It is hypoallergenic; it is naturally free from the 8 main types of allergens (9). This includes lactose and milk which are prevalent in western society. This makes pea protein power a great alternative to the milk based whey protein powders. A recent study revealed up to 17% of the American population self-reported as having an intolerance to milk (10).
Further health benefits of this plant based protein include; it is easy to digest and rich in iron. Studies have shown that nearly 50% of women in the UK do not meet the daily recommendation for iron consumption (11). This makes pea protein a great supplement to take for individuals who have low iron levels.
In addition, recent studies have found pea protein may reduce cholesterol levels and fat production. Scientists held an experiment where lab rats were fed pea protein powder for 16 days, after these 16 days the rats had a lower concentration of total cholesterol and fat production. This study suggests pea protein powder has the potential to reduce cholesterol and fat levels (12).
Further to this, research into how pea protein powder can effect blood pressure found; subjects consuming 3 grams of pea protein hydrolysate a day, for 3 weeks had reduced blood pressure. These results were found on both humans and lab rats (13).
Yes, there is evidence to suggest this protein source has anti-inflammatory qualities. A study from 2011 reported it to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating potentials. These qualities have led some medical professionals to believe pea protein could be used as an alternative therapy for the prevention of inflammatory-related diseases (14). Additionally, some pea protein supplements contain extra ingredients which contain anti-oxidants and essential fatty acids which may be anti-inflammatory.
Intestinal microbiomes play an important part in moderating the body’s risk of developing chronic diseases including inflammatory bowel disease. Microbiome is shaped by the foods we consume and experiments have revealed that dietary alterations can induce large microbial shifts within 24 hours (15).There is significant evidence to suggests pea protein can increase intestinal SCFA levels, which are considered anti-inflammatory, and influence positively microbial shifts that promote gut health (15).
It is important to look out for the use of non-calorific artificial sweeteners (NAS) within protein powders as they can cause gut distress. NAS are frequently used world-wide to sweeten food and protein powders. This is due to their low-calorie count. The reason they can cause stomach upset is due to their ability to drive the development of glucose intolerance and cause intestinal trouble in some consumers (4). Studies into the negative side effects of sugar alcohol have shown stevia extracts can affect gut microbiota and increase levels of bloating and discomfort.
Over consumption of any protein powder is likely to cause gut complaints and make you feel bloated or uncomfortable. Therefore, it is really important to ensure you are accurately measuring your protein serving. This will help ensure you are consuming your protein powder safely and meeting your daily recommended intake of protein and other important nutrients.
Additionally, it is not advisable to exceed 2.3 grams of protein intake per pound of body weight or to gain more than 35% of calories from protein. This can be dangerous as your liver struggles to process protein quickly, which results in high levels of ammonia in the bloodstream, nausea, diarrhoea and in extreme cases death (16).
There are many benefits associated with pea protein isolate. Not only is it one of the leading plant based proteins. It contains all nine essential amino acids, has a high iron content and is hypo-allergenic (6, 7, 9, 11). Studies have found pea protein to contain anti-inflammatory qualities, and many believe it is able to positively impact gut microbe (14, 15).
It is worth remembering that not all pea proteins have the same nutritional profile, so it is important to look carefully at the labels to see the different levels of protein, calories and carbohydrates. Try to avoid pea protein powders which contain additional additives like stevia, natural flavourings, and gums. This is because studies have shown non-calorific artificial sweeteners can drive the development of glucose intolerance. And have been found to initiate intestinal trouble and gut complaints (4). Finally, it is important to always carefully measure out the amount of protein powder you are consuming. This is because over consumption can cause gut discomfort.