Everything You Need to Know About Protein Shakes

Nutrition and Diet, Sport Nutrition

“Should I be drinking protein shakes?” If there’s one question I hear more than any other as a Dietitian, this has gotta be it. Protein supplements (shakes, powders, bars) are the most commonly used products on the market. I mean, everyone and their grandma has got protein powder in their kitchen! Today, we’re talking all about protein supplements in general, and who they might be right for. And, I also taste tested some different store-bought protein shakes to find one which one is the best. So if you are in the market for a little extra protein in your day, I’ve got you covered!

Why are we so confused about protein?

One doesn’t need to look far to figure out why people are feeling hella confused about how much protein they need. Two of the most popular dietary patterns of the moment are plant-based/vegan eating, right alongside the keto diet. Keto technically should be a high fat/low protein/low carb diet, but it has morphed into a higher protein version now that fitness-minded folks have picked it up. It seems the sky is the limit on how much protein we can get in with only positive effects. On the other hand, some of the vegan-leaning posts I’ve seen actually talk about low little protein we actually need.

So our protein intake should be somewhere between “meh, you actually don’t need very much protein at all, don’t even stress about it”, and “DRINK ALL THE PROTEIN SHAKES OR ALL YOUR MUSCLES WILL FALL OFF!”

Yup, it’s no wonder people aren’t quite sure what to make of it all.

Protein has really become the latest darling of the food industry. Since the low-fat craze of the 90’s and the low-carb craze of the past few years, protein is really having a moment right now. It’s being added to everything from granola bars to water. Even milk companies are filtering their milk in new ways to bump up the protein content, increasing their product’s marketability.

Is all this extra protein really necessary?

To me, the issue is that we’ve got a variety of people out there who follow a variety of dietary patterns. And, they often give advice based on their personal philosophies rather than the evidence. The tendency, unfortunately, for people who give advice on the internet is they think most people eat like them. Or should be eating like them. So, if they take protein shakes (or don’t), or eat meat (or don’t), or prioritize protein in their diet (or don’t), chances are they’ll be projecting that into their social media posts. Which might wind up with you getting some very bad advice.

No one should be saying “you don’t need to think about protein in your diet” without first conducting an actual nutrition assessment to find out what you’re eating. By the same virtue no one should be recommending protein supplements to anyone either without first finding out what you’re eating. It’s too bad I even have to say this.

Another great reason to always go and talk to an RD if you have questions about the best dietary approach for you!

How much protein do we really need?

So, how do we go about estimating how much protein someone needs? Well it depends on two main factors. Your body weight (more mass means more protein needed), and your goals/activity level. More active people with more muscle mass require much more protein per day to support compared to a sedentary person. This is because more muscle mass requires more protein to support that muscle. Other health conditions can also impact protein requirements like surgery or kidney/ liver disease. Pregnancy and breastfeeding also increase our protein requirements.

Protein needs can range from:

  • About 0.8g per kilogram of your body weight is required for a sedentary population to maintain muscle mass.
  • Up to 2.0g per kg for athletes.
  • Some newer research is even looking at really high protein amounts; upwards of 3.0g/kg in athletes, but this is extremely sport-specific.

We also need to keep in mind other important nutrition factors such as:

  • Total energy balance (getting the right amount of calories)
  • Getting enough fibre, vitamins and minerals
  • Optimizing intake of our other macronutrients (fat and carbohydrates)

If we’re hyper-focused on consuming huge quantities of protein, we may wind up lacking in other areas. It’s all about getting the right balance.

Why Whey Protein?

Why Whey? Whey protein is by far the most commonly used non-vegan protein in both pre-made shakes and powders. There are two reasons for this:

1. Whey protein is inexpensive and abundant in our food system (it comes from milk, and would normally be thrown away as part of the cheese-making process).

2. When it comes to research on different types of protein and their impact on exercise recovery, whey protein appears to be superior to other protein types because of it’s rapid digestion. It’s also a complete protein, meaning it provides all of the essential amino acids.

So, where do protein shakes or supplements come into the picture?

Protein supplements (including protein powders, and pre-made shakes) can be a convenient way for people to reach their protein targets. This is especially true if their requirement is quite high (say, an athlete trying to get 2.0 grams/kg per day). The reality is many high-protein foods require some level of preparation before we can eat them. For example eggs, beans, meat, or fresh fish. So, sometimes they’re not the quickest or most convenient foods to eat. That’s really where protein supplements come into play. They’re an easy way to get your protein in without a whole lot of cooking skills or effort.

Protein supplements come in two main forms: powders and pre-made shakes. There are far too many protein powders on the market these days for me to taste test even a fraction of them, but the pre-made drinks seem to be an emerging market for both athletes and ‘protein enthusiasts’ alike. Because I like to compare different products and give my clients advice on which protein drink they might like the best, I taste tested and compared ten different pre-made protein drinks to see which one comes out on top!

(I also must give credit to my main man Dan who was my dedicated partner for these taste-tests. I always like to get a second opinion on these things!

So, here are the contenders at a glance!

I’ve compared each brand’s nutrition facts and summarized here, but read on to check out each drink in more detail and get my thoughts on which one tastes the best. This product comparison was done without any influence or partnership with any of the listed brands, all statements made are my own opinions.

GNC Lean Shake (chocolate flavor) 

If you don’t have these in your area, GNC is a nutrition supplement store that’s in pretty much every mall in my city. I definitely had to check out what protein shakes they stock and was surprised to find they’ve got their very own store brand. Naturally I had to give it a try!

Taste and texture wise it was very similar to the other shakes, with that little bit of cooked milk flavor shelf-stable drinks tend to have. This is because in order to make their beverage be able to sit on a store shelf (vs in a refrigerator) and not spoil right away, manufacturers need to treat it with something called UHT or Ultra-High Temperature Processing. This is basically taking the pasteurization process that all milk gets one step further. They ‘pasteurize it’ for longer and at a higher temperature, then seal it for a longer shelf life. The downside is that it gives the product a bit of a ‘cooked’ flavor, which I noticed in these shakes. So if you really aren’t a fan of any pre-made protein drink, this might be the reason why.

Oh Yeah Chocolate Milkshake 

Oh Yeah Brand tends to rank pretty high on my list when it comes to the flavor of their products. They usually contain a little extra fat or sugar to give that flavor boost, so their products are often a little higher in calories than others. This particular protein drink was also a little higher in protein than some of the other brands, so if your protein goals are particularly high this might be a better choice for you.

(PS, I’ve reviewed their protein bars too here!)

Premier Protein High Protein Shake (chocolate flavor)

Guys I hated this one. I thought the flavor was really terrible, especially compared to some of the other beverages that had similar nutrient profiles. If I had to put a word to the flavour that came to mind when I had my first sip I’d choose “expired”. Perhaps one of their different flavor options is better, so don’t let me stop you from giving it a go, but I just couldn’t get past the taste of this one. Especially given that it’s price point and nutrition wasn’t superior to any of the other products out there.

Six Star Clean Protein Shake (chocolate flavor)

Probably one of the better options in terms of flavor (which is definitely strange considering it’s almost EXACTLY the same in terms of packaging, price, and nutrition content as the Premier protein drink which I didn’t like at all). It’s not very thick, and it tastes like a simple chocolate protein shake. Nothing weird or extra about it.

Vega Protein Nutrition Shake (chocolate flavor)

Unfortunately, for all my vegan folks out there, options for you guys in the pre-made protein shake market are slim. Vega was the only one I could even find which is really too bad, because the flavor was awful. Like, really awful. You can definitely taste all those vegetables that are in there… in a bad way. I appreciate the effort to turn this into a “superfood” by including all sorts of extra ingredients, but the end result is that it tastes like old mushy spinach. Vega bars on the other hand are delicious (particularly the Vega Sport Chocolate Coconut flavor), so if you want a vegan protein option that’s mega convenient- I’d definitely suggest going for those over the shakes. The market for vegan protein powders is definitely expansive as well, so there are plenty of good options there!

Hopefully as the plant-based protein market expands more companies will start offering better options! Especially because vegan athletes do sometimes need to pay more attention to protein in their diets, making sure they’re getting enough to meet the increased needs for athletes.

Muscle Milk Protein Shake (chocolate flavor) 

Muscle milk is definitely one of the OGs on the protein shake market. They’ve been around since the ’90s, and sell a huge variety of pre-made shakes and powders.

When taste testing this product we thought overall the flavor is pretty good. I thought the chocolate:sweet ratio was decent (not too sweet and not too chocolatey) although the texture is noticeably thicker than some of the other shakes. This may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal preference. Dan for example HATES super thick protein shakes so this one was actually his least favorite. Me on the other hand, I despise a super watery shake, so this one was not too bad in my opinion.

An important note:

One strange thing I noticed on the packaging though is that it says “Non Dairy Protein Shake”. Except, this drink is most definitely made with milk protein, is not vegan, and would not be safe for people who have a milk protein allergy to consume. It’s very misleading and I’m not entirely sure how they can justify that wording. So just be aware that if you have special dietary requirements, always check the ingredient list not just the front of package statements.

Fairlife Core Power High Protein Milk Shake (chocolate flavor)

Fairlife is a new(ish) company that specializes in higher protein dairy products. Through a filtration process they are able to concentrate the protein in their milks, which means no added whey powder required in their protein products.

When tasting this shake I definitely noticed it had a different flavor and consistency than most of the other brands, probably due to the fact that it’s made from regular milk. I noticed a little artificial sweetener taste but honestly would be difficult to tell the difference between it and regular chocolate milk. It was a little pricier than some of the other brands I tried, but is widely available at gas stations, convenience stores, and in vending machines for when you need something in a pinch. The only downside is that it’s pretty low carb (only 8 grams per bottle) for a post-workout situation, meaning you’re probably still going to need to pack some fruit or something to have with it.

Fairlife also makes an ‘elite’ version of their Core Power shake, which boasts 42 grams of protein per bottle. This is quite a bit more than most of us need for a meal or post-workout snack, but when I tried one I just drank half and saved the other half for my next meal. 

Ensure Protein Max (chocolate flavor)

I wanted to include something from the family of non-traditional “protein shakes” since there are some great, cost-effective options out there. These provide more of a full meal replacement vs a ‘supplement’. Since most pre-made shakes contain little to no carbohydrate, you still need to pair your shake with a more substantial snack to get the glycogen replenishment that your body really needs post-workout. Ensure Protein Max was significantly less expensive than some of the other shakes I bought ($6.97 at Wal Mart for a 4-pack, whereas some of the other shakes were around $5.00 each). It had a good carbohydrate:protein ratio for a post-workout recovery beverage, and includes some intriguing added nutrients. One of which is choline.

Choline for muscle growth

Choline is a key nutrient involved in the pathway of muscle recovery post-exercise, and some people may need more choline than others to ensure they’re getting the most out of their workouts. The other interesting ingredient in Ensure Protein Max is a substance called Calcium beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate. I won’t get into too much detail here as to the exact pathways CaHMB is involved in, but evidence suggests that taking CaHMB as a dietary supplement can help prevent muscle breakdown in older adults. This may not be relevant to a younger active population (the research just isn’t really out there), but Health Canada has approved the addition of CaHMB to Ensure Protein Max. If you’re reading this as an older adult wanting to build and preserve muscle, this may be a good choice for you.

How did it taste?

This one was definitely on the thicker, more milkshake-y side of things when it came to the texture. It comes in a smaller size than a lot of the other shakes (only 235ml) so it’s more concentrated than some of the larger ones. Again this can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal taste. Overall though I thought the flavour was nice, and was a pretty great all-in-one post-workout meal replacement. For a great price too!

Now what about protein…waters?

I happened to find a few protein drinks that weren’t your typical “shakes”. Rather than being a milk-based chocolate or vanilla flavored shake they were fruit flavored beverages with whey protein added in. A decent option if you really can’t stand the milky texture of most shakes, but I thought it was too bad they’re completely artificially sweetened and don’t contain any carbs at all.

Power Whey to Go (the fruit punch one)

 If you’re not a big sweets fan, then this particular beverage is definitely not for you. It gets the fruit punch flavor down pat, but it’s mega sweet. Like MEGA sweet. It probably would be ok served with a lot of ice where you’d get some dilution with the ice melting, but I don’t think I’d run out to buy it again.

Fizzique Sparking Protein Water (strawberry watermelon flavor)

I have to say this drink really surprised me. I was expecting something as super overly sweet as the Power Whey, but it actually had a much lighter flavor. The carbonation also cuts through some of the sweetness and actually made it not too bad. After a long run on a hot day it might be downright refreshing. (I personally have a bad habit of downing a couple of popsicles after these runs without a single gram of protein in sight)

So, do you really need to drink protein shakes?

Whether or not you truly need protein shakes is definitely a personal choice depending on your fitness goals and lifestyle. Like most things when it comes to nutrition, there’s a time and a place for just about everything. Sure, real food has plenty of benefits and is often the preferred choice, but sometimes we need to aim for convenience over what’s “perfect”. If you’re an athlete who doesn’t eat meat or dairy you may also find that a protein supplement is the easiest way for you to consistently hit your protein target, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Overall the pre-made protein shakes do their job of being a convenient option for a post-workout snack or meal replacement. Especially compared to other food options you might find at a convenience store or gas station if you’re seriously on the go. That said, companies certainly want more than just athletes buying their product since the actually population of people who NEED protein shakes is rather small. They tend to formulate their products based on appealing to the greatest market possible rather than something that’s best for an athlete. Which is why these products tend to be formulated with artificial sweeteners vs real sugar when post-workout is when we definitely want to be replenishing those glycogen stores along with our protein. The exceptions to this were few and far between, but they do exist and fortunately are a heck of a lot more cost effective than some of the others!

The Bottom Line

The bottom line? There are plenty of whole food post-workout options you can choose vs picking up a pre-made shake or whipping up one of your own with protein powder. And yes it’s a great idea to plan meals, prep ahead of time, and bring your food with you for the day so you don’t need to rely on things like this too often. But we live in the real world where sometimes things get busy, sometimes we don’t plan ahead, and sometimes we find ourselves looking for a post-workout meal at a gas station. That’s life!

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About the Author: Stephanie Hnatiuk is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer who specializes in helping athletes reach their peak potential with nutrition.