23 Best and Worst Grab-And-Go Protein Shakes
What if we told you there is a magical fairy dust that helps you lose weight and build muscle—and it tastes great, too? And what if we said you could buy it—by the tub? Would you? Sure you would. And you wouldn’t be alone. Protein powders have cast a spell on the diet industry, and smart users know that the stuff works by blasting fat in three key ways: 1) Protein boosts satiety by filling you up and by helping to slow digestion of carbs, which stabilizes blood sugar levels; 2) your body burns more calories digesting protein compared to fat or carbs; and 3) protein helps maintain muscle mass tissue, which burns more calories at rest than body fat. See, magic!
The trouble is that many are made with inflammatory protein sources teeming with artificial additives, tablespoons of added sugar, and nasty chemicals. But that’s where we come in. After our report on The Best Protein Powder for Every Goal, we decided to examine the best and worst grab-and-go protein shakes that’ll slim you down faster than you can say abracadabra. Read on—and for maximum weight loss, blend one at home, using a plant-based protein. It’s weight loss at the press of a button!
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First… The Best
Our top picks for the best grab-and-go protein shakes contain no artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, or hydrogenated oils. In addition, each one has at least 12 grams of high-quality proteins that deliver the right blend of amino acids required to build and repair muscle tissues. Unless otherwise mentioned, all products are sweetened with either stevia or stevia and monk fruit extract, two of our favorite non-nutritive sweeteners.
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).
Organic Valley Organic Fuel High Protein Shake
Upgrade your Core Power High Protein Milk Shake with this organic version from Organic Valley. Made with filtered skim milk, cream, and fair-trade unrefined cane sugar, this product is likely safe for those with lactose intolerances due to the addition of lactase enzyme. There’s no carrageenan like there is in Core Power. Instead, the emulsifier is replaced with gellan gum—a water-dwelling-bacterium-derived product hasn’t been studied as well in humans, but the few studies that are out there have found no ill effects from ingestion.
Organic Balance Milk 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.
Orgain Organic Nutritional Shake
Besides Organic Valley’s Organic Fuel, this is the only protein shake we could find on the market that isn’t sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners like monk fruit extract, stevia, or sugar alcohols—just good-old-fashioned sugar and brown rice syrup. So if you’re looking for a real-sugar sweetened drink that doesn’t have as much protein as Organic Fuel, Orgain has you covered with this blend of only 16 grams of protein, 23 vitamins and minerals, as well as 10 fruits and veggies with the perfect 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein optimal for muscle recovery.
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.
Orgain Vegan Nutritional Shake
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. Sweetened with stevia and monk fruit extract, this nutritional shake gets its protein power from a blend of brown rice, chia seeds, flax seeds, and hemp. This combo is ideal as single plant-based varieties aren’t complete proteins, which means you’d miss out on key muscle-strengthening amino acids. Along with protein, this box comes with an additional 21 vitamins and minerals as well as an organic fruit and veggie blend.
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.
Coco Libre Protein Coconut Water
Sweetened with a touch of erythritol and stevia, this is a new breed of protein shake; made primarily of electrolyte-rich coconut water, Coco Libre also supplies more protein than three eggs with the addition of organic, grass-fed milk protein concentrate—for a fraction of the morning prep time. 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.
Orgain Grass-fed Protein Shake
For the whey protein crowd, this choice of grass-fed milk protein concentrate is prime. The cows are free of growth hormone rBST, steroids, antibiotics, and GMOs, it’s free of refined sugars (instead, sweetened with agave, monk fruit extract, and stevia), and it’s free of inflammatory 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.
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 Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RD, CDN.
Stonyfield OP Organic Protein Vanilla Smoothie
Exactly what we want to see in any product made with yogurt: “live active cultures!” Which means this shake is full of healthy-gut-promoting probiotics. Made with Orgain’s Organic Milk Protein Concentrate along with cultured low-fat milk, two natural prebiotics (pectin and inulin), and 9 vitamins and minerals, this shake is a great pick for your daily dose of protein. Although the milk and cane sugar (it’s also sweetened with erythritol) drive both the protein and sugar content, we can’t scoff at the 1:1 protein to sugar ratio when most companies struggle to get close to 1:2.
And Now… The Worst
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.