22 Best and Worst Store-Bought Protein Shakes, According to Experts
What if we told you there is a magic potion that helps you lose weight and build muscle—and it tastes great, too? And what if we said you could buy it by the bottle? Would you? Sure you would. Especially if it's as easy as picking up one of the best protein shakes.
Ready to drink protein shakes are the busy dieter's best friend. "Sometimes there isn't time to put a meal together or to blend all the ingredients for a protein shake, so a drink that's already made can save time and help refuel when we are too tired or can't get to a meal after working out," Carla Dueñas, RD a dietitian at 54D Miami tells Eat This, Not That.
If you're a heavy exerciser, don't eat enough protein, or follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, protein shakes can help fill in nutritional gaps in your diet, says dietitian Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, and CEO of NY Nutrition Group.
What are the benefits of bottled protein shakes?
There are countless benefits of adding protein to your diet.
- Protein boosts satiety by filling you up and by helping to slow the digestion of carbs, which stabilizes blood sugar levels.
- Your body burns more calories digesting protein compared to fat or carbs.
- Protein helps maintain muscle mass tissue, which burns more calories at rest than body fat.
One of the most convenient ways to consume more protein is through ready-to-drink protein shakes. "Bottled protein shakes offer easy, affordable, and convenient protein sources when you need them the most, such as post-workout or exercise," says Moskovitz. "In addition, many are fortified with hydrating electrolytes, bone-building calcium, vitamin D, fiber and iron."
When should you drink a bottled protein shake?
"Following a heavy workout, it is important to get in an adequate amount of protein and carbs for sufficient recovery in a timely manner. This means consuming around 15 to 30 grams of protein, depending on individual factors, within 30 to 60 minutes after you've completed the exercise. A protein shake can be a lot more convenient and nutritionally balanced compared with other foods," says Moskovitz.
How we chose the best protein shakes.
The trouble with buying grab-and-go protein shakes is that many are made with sub-par protein sources, are teeming with artificial additives, tablespoons of added sugar, and nasty chemicals. But that's where we come in. We consulted experts to determine what ingredients to consume and avoid when determining the best and worst grab-and-go protein shakes.
The best protein shakes contain no artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, or hydrogenated oils.
In addition, Dueñas recommends aiming for between 15 and 20 grams of high-quality proteins that deliver the right blend of amino acids required to build and repair muscle tissues. Following a heavy workout, Moskovitz notes you can aim for 30 grams of protein.
The best protein shakes you can buy for when you're on the go.
1. Orgain Clean Grass-Fed Protein Shake
For the whey protein crowd, this grass-fed milk protein shake is prime. The Orgain brand is a favorite of Moskovitz. "These protein shakes are] loaded with extra nutrients such as calcium, iron, and fiber," she says. The milk is sourced from cows that are raised without growth hormone rBST, steroids, antibiotics, and GMOs. This shake is free of refined sugars (instead, sweetened with agave, monk fruit extract, and stevia), and it's free of carrageenan. With its low sugar count, this shake is perfect for busy professionals, moms on-the-go, or students who need something to get them through that 3-hour seminar.
2. Fairlife Core Power Protein Shakes
Upgrade your protein shake with this offering from Fairlife. "When my clients ask for a protein shake, I to grab Fairlife Core Power. This packs about 26 grams of protein, which can occasionally be considered a meal replacement, made from real milk to provide a complete protein and lower in added sugar while still tasting great. These shakes have a great finish in taste without leaving an annoying residue in your mouth," says dietitian Emily E Tills, MS, RDN, CDN, a Nutrition Coach at Nourished With Emily.
3. CalNaturale Svelte Organic Protein Drink
Organic soy milk (and thus, non-GMO soy) is both the source of protein in this resealable shake and the first ingredient, followed by rice syrup and cane sugar (there's also some stevia added). Rice syrup is being used more often in products because of its high glucose and low fructose content, meaning its sugars are mostly used for energy and fewer (i.e. the fructose) molecules are sent to be processed by the liver, where they could cause fatty liver disease. The high fiber count will help slow digestion and give you sustained energy. This certified gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, and kosher shake boasts 8 vitamins and minerals, has 35 percent of your daily value of calcium, and 30 percent of your DV of vitamin D (which can not only help strengthen bones, but it can also help you lose belly fat). It also has the perfect 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein optimal for muscle recovery.
4. Organic Valley Fuel Protein Shake
When you're drinking milk products, ultrafiltered milk products, or protein products with "milk protein concentrate (not necessarily isolate)" you want to see words like grass-fed or pasture-raised, and organic. This means that the cows aren't fed a conventional diet of corn and soy products that for starters, can sicken cows enough to require the use of antibiotics, and two, cause high levels of unhealthy fat build-ups, like bad saturated fats and inflammatory omega-6s—which all get passed on to you. Sweetened with unrefined cane sugar and a touch of stevia, this Organic Balance is a great option after a workout but may be a little high on the sugar front for a meal replacement or snack.
5. Odwalla Strawberry Protein Shake
This real-fruit-puree-, cane-sugar-, and stevia-sweetened strawberry shake from Odwalla contains about 300 calories and a ratio of carbs to protein that is ideal to refill your fuel tank and to build and repair muscle tissue after a long cardio workout. The protein source is both milk protein concentrate and isolated soy protein—both are organic. If you're looking for flavors with more carbs, Odwalla's vanilla and chocolate flavors each come with 46 grams and 53 grams, respectively, but note that these are almost entirely simple sugars—great for after a workout, but not so great if you're just sipping on this flavor at your desk job.
6. OWYN Vegan Protein Shake, Cookies and Cream
We're big advocates for using plant protein powders. Unlike whey powders, plant protein won't lead to bloat, are less likely to include nasty artificial sweeteners, and have been found to be just as effective in building muscle and strength, according to a Nutrition Journal study.
"OWYN are 100% plant-based, with no artificial sweeteners, and contain a good source of protein and fiber. This winning combo helps keep blood sugars stabilized and hunger at bay. They are also a good source of iron and plant omega-3s!" says Moskovitz.
7. FitPro GO!
These hormone-free, milk-based drinks are lactose-free due to an ultrafiltration process, which removes most of this naturally occurring sugar (the sugar you see is from added cane sugar, and it's also sweetened with stevia and monk fruit). FitPro is flavored with natural vanilla and cocoa, emulsified with gellan gum instead of carrageenan, and is an excellent source of 18 vitamins and minerals. This shake stands alone in providing the most protein with the fewest ingredients.
8. Harmless Harvest Protein & Coconut Toasted Coconut
Sweetened with a touch of cane sugar, this is a new breed of protein shake; made primarily of electrolyte-rich coconut water, Harmless Harvest also supplies more protein than two eggs with the addition of a plant-based protein blend of pea protein, pumpkin seed protein, and sunflower seed protein—all organic. The benefits of coconut water are that its electrolytes will help rehydrate you while the nutrients in milk proteins replenish glycogen stores and help muscles recover. After a particularly strenuous workout, pair it with a piece of fruit to boost healthy carbs available for your body's recovery.
9. Iconic Lean Protein Shake
Made with clean ingredients like grass-fed milk protein isolate, cocoa powder, sea salt, and real Colombian Coffee (yes, there are 180 mg of caffeine—about what's in two 8-ounce cups of coffee—in this bottle!) this is one of the better bottles in the supplement store. "It's very rich in protein, and it's perfect for muscle building and maintenance because it also contains calcium and vitamin B12," says dietitian Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RD, CDN.
10. Koia Chocolate Banana Plant Protein Drink
Made with a proprietary blend of brown rice, pea, and chickpea protein, this plant-based shake is a great pick for your daily dose of protein. Although the coconut milk and cane sugar drive most of the sugar count, it's also sweetened with a touch of monk fruit extract.
The worst ready-to-drink protein shakes you can buy.
Like protein powders, many of the labels of these shakes read like the stock list of a chemistry lab and are made with obscure protein sources, artificial sweeteners, too much sugar, chemical additives, and trans fat.
1. Ensure Plus
Don't be fooled by Ensure's claims that this is "complete, balanced nutrition." With more sugar than protein, this shake won't be of much help when it comes to weight loss. That's not even mentioning the fact that the product is full of artificial flavors, conventional nonfat milk, inflammatory vegetable oils, and carrageenan.
2. SlimFast Originals
On top of its poor protein showing—there's almost double the amount of sugar than there is protein—SlimFast's downfall is also their addition of mono and diglycerides as well as hydrogenated soybean oil, which all often are sources of the artery-clogging trans fats that are linked to cardiovascular disease. Plus, the drink contains milk protein concentrate from conventional cows, which contains as many risks as it does benefits, artificial flavors, carrageenan, and artificial sweeteners Sucralose and Acesulfame Potassium.
3. Odwalla Original Super Protein
It does have a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein, which experts recommend for post-workout recovery, but that doesn't mean gobbling down 56 grams of sugar with only a gram of digestion-slowing fiber is good for you. The odds are stacked against your favor when it comes to minimizing hunger strikes.
RELATED VIDEO: Recipe for Dark Chocolate Banana Nut Smoothie
4. Boost High Protein Shake
Before milk protein concentrate is even listed, both sugar and corn syrup are the first ingredients behind water. This shake is also made with artificial flavors and inflammatory vegetable oils which have a high omega 6 to omega 3 ratios and can cause weight gain over time.
5. Bolthouse Farms Protein PLUS
They might be naturally sweetened, but that doesn't justify gulping down 50 grams of sugar in a bottle. It'll give you a solid dose of protein along with at least 9 vitamins and minerals, but you'll most likely start to feel hungry soon after guzzling down the 400-calorie bottle—which isn't great news if you're on a calorie-restricted diet.
6. Premier Protein
Commonly used in over-processed breads, DATEM (DiAcetylTartaric acid Esters of Monoglycerides) is used as a shelf-stabilizing emulsifier in both dough and protein shake applications, as protein powder is notoriously difficult to mix with water. Unfortunately, this additive is often made from artery-clogging partially hydrogenated oils, which the FDA will ban from food products starting in June 2018. Premier Protein responded to us and said their DATEM is only made from fully-hydrogenated oil—but why use it in the first place, when so many others don't?
7. Pure Protein Shake
It's low fat and low carb, but Pure Protein is sweetened with artificial sugar, sucralose, artificially colored with carcinogen-containing caramel color, and artificially flavored with who knows what.
8. Odwalla Mango Protein Shake
It may be a mango protein shake, but mango puree isn't even the first ingredient. That spot belongs to sugar-heavy apple and orange juice concentrates, one of the main reasons why this shake contains a whopping 47 grams of the sweet stuff.
9. Glucerna Hunger Smart Shake
We understand that diabetics would be drawn to this product, as it's targeted to their audience—but that doesn't mean Glucerna should be filling their customers up with fructose. This sugar molecule doesn't spike blood glucose levels as glucose does, but experts speculate that it's Americans' increased intake of fructose—which our body turns into fat and inflammatory compounds more easily than it does with glucose—that is to blame for the equivalent increase in rates of metabolic disorders and obesity, not just "sugar."
10. Muscle Milk Protein Smoothie
Don't be fooled by our favorite word "smoothie." Although protein powders and smoothies go together like Brad and Angelina, we're only talking about the homemade versions which use real yogurt. Muscle Milk claims to use Greek yogurt, but they also note that the drink is heat-treated after culturing, which kills off any live cultures that may have had probiotic benefits.
11. Naked Protein & Greens
Just because experts recommend a carb to protein ratio of 2:1 for optimal muscle recovery doesn't mean if a drink has a 2:1 ratio it's good to drink. For example, this Protein & Greens by Naked, which satisfies the 2:1 ratio, but contains an astounding 53 grams of sugar in one bottle. They might not be added sugars, but all are from fruit juice concentrates, which means that most of the sugars are fructose—a sugar compound that can't even be used by your body to replenish its glucose-based energy stores.
12. Nature's Best Isopure Cocotein
Although it boasts one of the shortest ingredient lists out of every protein drink on the market—only including water, Isopure's whey protein isolate, coconut water concentrate, natural flavor, and phosphoric acid—we had to tick this drink off because of the addition of an artificial sweetener, sucralose. Although recent science indicate they're not carcinogenic, as feared, artificial sweeteners have been shown to either increase or show no effect on your appetite (whereas the glucose in sugar can increase levels of the "I'm full" hormone, leptin) and can harm your gut health due to their indigestibility.