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Low FODMAP Protein Powder: Choosing the Right Protein Supplement for IBS

Protein is vital for muscle building, tissue repair, and overall health, but not all protein powders are gut-friendly, especially for those with IBS or FODMAP sensitivities.

I’m often asked about protein powder and whether there are certain types that are better than others for IBS. For people on the low FODMAP diet, there are certainly some guidelines to follow when choosing a low FODMAP protein powder, so today we’ll go over those and look at some options on the market.

Why is Protein Important and How Much Do You Need?

Why is protein important?

Protein plays many roles in the human body.  It builds muscle, repairs body tissues, makes enzymes and hormones, transports nutrients, and provides energy.  Protein forms the basic structure of all the tissues in your body.  So ya, pretty important.

How much protein do you need?

The average adult needs about 0.8 to 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight

This means a 64kg woman (140lb) needs 51-64 grams of protein per day.  To put this in perspective, chicken breast the size of a deck of cards contains about 24 grams of protein, a bowl of oatmeal contains 4 grams, and a cup of milk contains 8 grams.

So you can see that it’s not too difficult to eat enough protein, and in fact, evidence suggests that most adults are meeting their protein requirements without supplementation.

Extra protein is helpful for people healing from significant wounds and people who are very ill, such as patients in the intensive care unit.  Protein supplements are also useful for people with low appetites who can’t eat enough food to meet their protein needs.

IBS is not a condition that requires extra protein above and beyond what is recommended for the general population (see above).

Most people who take protein powder do so to achieve certain physical and health goals. People who engage in intense physical activity or are seeking to build muscle need extra protein.  People seeking weight management or trying to round out an otherwise low-protein meal, like a smoothie at breakfast, also find protein powders helpful.

Ultimately, protein supplements are designed to boost protein in a person’s diet, not replace nutritious, high protein foods.

Does Protein Powder Contribute to Digestive Symptoms?

Protein powder with a high FODMAP content can certainly contribute to digestive symptoms in people who are sensitive to FODMAPs, like those with irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance. 

Common symptoms people report when they don’t tolerate their protein powder include bloating and cramping.

The FODMAP content of a protein supplement depends on the protein source and degree of processing it undergoes, as well as other added ingredients.

1) Protein source

Protein powders made from foods that were high in FODMAPs in their original state are possible sources of FODMAPs.  For instance, whey protein is extracted from milk which is high in the FODMAP lactose.  

Plant foods are major sources of FODMAPs, so when certain plants are processed to make plant-based protein powders, there’s a real chance that residual FODMAPs can end up in the final product.  Pea protein powder, for example, will contain the FODAMP GOS.

2) Degree of processing

The degree to which a food is processed for protein extraction influences the FODMAP content. 

Protein “isolates” have undergone greater extraction and purification compared to protein “concentrates” and are therefore likely to have fewer residual FODMAPs. 

For example, whey isolates should have very small amounts of lactose while whey concentrates will have more.

Another kind of processing that can take place in the creation of protein powder is exposure to enzymes that break down compounds people don’t tolerate.  Case in point: lactase. 

The enzyme lactase is used to break down lactose and guarantee a lactose-free whey protein product, which is useful for people who are highly sensitive to lactose.

3) Added ingredients

Ingredients that are added to protein powders can also be sources of digestive distress, especially when they’re high FODMAP.  A common example of a high FODMAP ingredient is sugar alcohols (referred to as polyols in FODMAP parlance) which are added to impart flavour without extra calories.

Since checking the labels on protein powders is an important step in choosing a product that you’re likely to tolerate, we’ll take a closer look at ingredients and low FODMAP certification symbols to check for.

4) Possible other reasons

Even when a person uses a low FODMAP protein powder in isolate form and with minimal ingredients, sometimes I hear reports of digestive discomfort with protein powders.

Since some amount of protein resists digestion and lands in the large intestine, it’s possible that bacterial fermentation of the protein is adding to bloating and gas. 

It’s also possible that the person has a sensitivity to the protein itself, which may manifest more acutely in the large, concentrated portion that’s typically consumed in protein powder form.  For instance, eating two eggs exposes you to 14 grams of egg protein, which you may tolerate perfectly fine, but when you consume 25-30 grams of egg protein, your system may revolt.

Image of me (Andrea Senchuk, Monash FODMAP trained dietitian) and text inviting people to work with me to tame their IBS symptoms.

How to Choose a Low FODMAP Protein Powder

As an educator, I can’t resist teaching you how to fish so you can eat for life.  To that end, let’s look at how you can select a protein powder that’s likely to be low FODMAP, and then we’ll dig into specific low FODMAP protein products on the market.

1. Low FODMAP Certification Symbols to Look For on Labels

The first thing to check for on a protein powder label is a low FODMAP certification symbol.

Two organizations test products for FODMAP content and then certify products as low FODMAP: Monash University and FODMAP Friendly.

If a protein powder label has a certification symbol from either of these institutions, you can trust that it is low FODMAP regardless of the protein source or added ingredients.

If there is no certification symbol, pull up your Monash or FODMAP Friendly app to double-check and see if the product is listed there. 

Should the product not appear in either app, then it’s time to channel your inner Sherlock Holmes and inspect the ingredients list.

Low fodmap certification symbols by monash university and fodmap friendly.

2. Protein Powder Ingredients to Watch Out For on Labels

People don’t buy nasty, chunky protein powders, so supplement manufacturers need to add ingredients that make their products readily disolvable, tasty, and long-lasting (ie. shelf-stable).

They also add ingredients to boost the health profile of the protein powder. One such ingredient that is high FODMAP and potentially troublesome for IBS sufferers is prebiotic fibre such as inulin.  

High FODMAP ingredients that can potentially trigger symptoms:

  • Inulin or chicory root – used as a prebiotic.
  • Fructo-oligosaccahrides (FOS) – used as a sweetener or as a prebiotic.
  • Sugar alcohols like sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, mannitol, etc.

Other ingredients that can potentially trigger symptoms:

  • Sugar – high sugar content can aggravate symptoms in some people with IBS.
  • Sucralose – though this artificial sweetener is tolerated by many, it can be fermented by bacteria in cases of SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).  If you know you have SIBO, steer clear of sucralose.
  • Caffeine – a stimulant to boost performance.

Low FODMAP Protein Powder Options

The following low FODMAP protein powder options are either certified low FODMAP or likely to be low FODMAP based on the protein source and ingredients.

Certified Low FODMAP Protein Powder

  • Better Blends – Oat & Collagen Protein (Available in the US)
  • Casa de Sante – Vegan Protein (Available in the US; available in Canada with high shipping fees)
  • FODMAP Foods LLC – Protein Meal Replacement (Available in the US)
  • Gutly (Available in Australia; working on shipping internationally)
  • Stellar Labs Nutrition (Available in the US; available in Canada with high shipping fees)
  • Superflora protein powder (Available in the US)
  • TumLove (Available in the US)

Low FODMAP Protein Powder

  • Brown rice (sprouted) protein powders –  Monash gives it a green light their app.
  • Soy protein isolate  – FODMAP Friendly gives it a “pass” in their app.
  • Pea protein isolate – FODMAP Friendly gives it a “pass” in their app.

Likely Low FODMAP Protein Powder

These protein supplements are not found in the Monash or FODMAP Friendly apps, but eggs and beef contain no FODMAPs, so as long as the ingredients in these powders are low FODMAP, you very likely have a low FODMAP product.

  • Egg white protein powder
  • Beef protein powder

High FODMAP Protein Powders

The following protein powder options are likely high FODMAP, as the protein sources tend to be higher FODMAP and concentrates undergo less processing so there’s a greater chance of residual FODMAPs in the final product.  Without lab testing, we can’t be completely certain though.

  • Pea protein concentrate 
  • Soy protein concentrate

Tips for Taking Protein Powder When You Have IBS

Because protein powders can potentially trigger or aggravate digestive symptoms, there are some tricks to tolerating them better.

  • Choose low FODMAP protein powders.
  • Opt for protein isolates rather than concentrates.
  • Stick with products that are free of the troublesome ingredients mentioned above, like sugar alcohols.
  • If you’re not sure how your gut will react, start with half a scoop (around 15 grams) and increase based on your personal tolerance.
  • Take protein powder alongside food you know you tolerate well.
  • Don’t have a protein powder smoothie just before you go to bed.  Any big snack just before sleeping can produce some morning bloat and discomfort.
Two glasses of low fodmap kiwi smoothie and a kiwi cut in half
Click HERE for 5 low FODMAP kiwi smoothie recipes

Protein Powder Contains Heavy Metals, But Is It Safe?

There have been investigative reports in the media about harmful contaminants in protein powders, such as heavy metals, BPA and even steroid drugs used in sport doping.

A 2020 study looked at the health risks of heavy metals from protein powders in humans and concluded that “exposure to As [arsenic], Cd [cadmium], Hg [mercury], and Pb [lead] from protein powder supplement ingestion does not increase the non-carcinogenic risk to consumers”.

This study was reassuring but it is still concerning that in the US, protein powders are not tightly regulated so they do not need to meet rigorous safety and quality standards.

Thankfully though, consumers in Canada can have more confidence in their dietary supplements because they’re regulated under the Natural Health Products Regulations.  This means that protein powders sold in Canada have been approved by Health Canada as safe, effective and of high quality.

If you want to minimize health risks associated with protein powders:

  • Eat food sources of protein instead (see below).
  • Stick with 1 scoop or less of protein powder daily.
  • Check to see if the product you’re interested in has been tested by NSF or Informed Choice, non-governmental, third-party organizations that independently test protein powders for contaminants.

Food First!  Best Food Sources of Protein

Ah, the dietitian in me wants you to get your nutrients from whole foods, though I understand that supplemental protein can be useful for some. 

High protein whole foods give you more than just protein:

  • They contain other important vitamins and minerals, like iron, calcium, zinc, and B vitamins. 
  • Some contain antioxidants, like lutein in egg yolks, and vitamin E in nuts. 
  • Anti-inflammatory omega-3s are found in fatty fish, walnuts and hemp hearts.
  • Legumes are great sources of fibre.

In addition to contributing to a balanced diet, protein-rich foods also help us feel full and satisfied after a meal. 

Common animal-based protein sources:

  • Poultry: chicken, turkey, duck
    • Chicken breast, cooked  (75 grams contains 23 grams of protein)
    • Chicken thigh, cooked (1 thigh / 116 grams contains 28 grams of protein)
  • Red meat: beef, lamb, pork
    • Extra-lean ground beef, cooked (75 grams contains 23 grams of protein)
    • Beef sirloin, cooked (75 grams contains 25 grams protein)
  • Seafood: Fish, shellfish, etc
    • Salmon, cooked (75 grams contains 16 grams protein)
    • Sole, cooked (75 grams contains 11 grams protein)
  • Eggs
    • Egg, cooked (1 large egg contains 7 grams protein)
  • Dairy: milk, yogurt, cheese
    • Milk, 1% (1 cup contains 8 grams of protein)
    • Greek yogurt, 2%, plain (1/2 cup contains 12 grams of protein)
    • Cheese, cheddar (30 grams contains 8 grams of protein)

Common plant-based protein sources:

  • Beans and legumes: lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, etc
    • Lentils (1/4 cup contains 5 grams of protein)
  • Soy: tofu, edamame, tempeh, soy milk
    • Tofu (150 grams contains 12 grams of protein)
  • Nuts: peanuts, almonds, walnuts, etc
    • Peanuts (1/4 cup contains 9 grams of protein)
  • Seeds: hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, etc
    • Hemp hearts (2 Tbsp contains 6 grams of protein)
  • Grains: oats, quinoa, barley, pasta
    • Quinoa, cooked (3/4 cup contains 6 grams of protein)
    • Oats, cooked (3/4 cup contains 4 grams of protein)

Bottom Line

Foods are your healthiest sources of protein, but if you’re on the low FODMAP diet and want to augment your diet with protein powder, follow a couple of tips:

  • Choose isolates rather than concentrates
  • Check the Monash or FODMAP Friendly apps to see which types and brands are low FODMAP, and if you can’t find answers there, then…
  • Check the ingredients list for sneaky FODMAPs like inulin and sugar alcohols.
  • Try to limit your intake or protein powder to no more than 1 scoop per day.

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