The 8 Best Protein Shakes of 2021, According to a Dietitian

Boost your nutrition with these protein-packed drinks

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Protein Shakes

Verywell Fit / Chloe Jeong

Our Top Picks
100 percent certified vegan and contains 20 grams of plant-based protein per serving.
Super clean ingredient list and impressive nutritional stats.
Made up of only five ingredients.
The BPA-free bottle is easy to toss into your bag for a quick and filling snack on the run.
Provides easily digested, plant-based protein that will give you an extra boost without tummy troubling dairy proteins.
Perfect as a breakfast on-the-go, a quick snack, or a post-workout beverage.
Contains 97 milligrams of caffeine in addition to 20 grams of protein.
Sourced from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows.

Do you ever feel like you need a protein boost? While meeting all of your protein needs through food is ideal, sometimes life gets in the way. When that happens, a protein shake can help give your body the nutrients it needs. That said, protein shakes aren’t always essential for muscle building.

In general, a protein-rich meal consumed three to four hours before a workout will suffice. But, on those days when you need a grab-and-go source of protein, a convenient, ready-to-drink shake or a scoop of high-quality protein powder mixed into your favorite beverage are great options.

Here, the best protein shakes.

Best Overall: OWYN Only What You Need 100% Vegan Plant-Based Protein Shakes | Dark Chocolate

OWYN, short for Only What You Need, combines pea protein, organic pumpkin seed protein, and organic flax oil to create their proprietary protein blend. This ready-to-drink protein shake is 100 percent certified vegan and contains 20 grams of plant-based protein per serving. It requires no refrigeration before you open it, so it’s great to take on-the-go while commuting, hiking, or anywhere you need to refuel along the way.

The incredibly versatile drink takes the top pick because of its clean ingredients that appeal to a wide range of people, from vegans and omnivores to everyone in between. If you have allergies, OWYN is likely safe for you, as it’s gluten-, dairy-, egg-, soy-, and tree nut-free. If you prefer a fun taste, it comes in delicious flavors like Smooth Vanilla, Dark Chocolate, Cookies N' Cream, and Cold Brew Coffee.

Best Vegan: Vega Protein Nutritional Shake

Made with real, plant-based food ingredients, Vega is committed to providing a superior product with no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. Vega's ready-to-drink protein nutritional shake takes the top vegan pick for its super clean ingredient list and impressive nutritional stats. The Certified Vegan shake provides 20 grams of protein from a blend of organic pea, sunflower seed, and pumpkin seed proteins.

Each ready-to-go bottle contains 170 calories with only 7 grams of sugar. You'll also get 25 percent of your daily value of 11 key vitamins and minerals in each serving, all derived from veggies, greens, and plant-based proteins. The convenient four-pack comes in a chocolate or vanilla flavor, and it is great to stash in the fridge before bringing with you on-the-go.

Those with allergies and sensitivities can rest assured, as the drink is free of dairy, soy, and gluten.

Best Plant-Based: Sunwarrior Brown Rice Protein Powder

Sunwarrior’s Classic Protein is a clean and simple organic brown rice protein powder made up of only five ingredients: brown rice, vanilla flavor, guar gum, stevia extract, and ancient sea salt. One scoop provides 20 grams of protein with 100 calories and zero added sugar. Interestingly, one study suggests that rice protein may be just as effective as whey protein in supporting body composition and exercise performance in resistance-trained athletes.

The plant-based powder blends well into your favorite beverage and comes in three delicious flavors, including vanilla, chocolate, and natural. The vegan powder is sprouted and fermented, which leads to increased bioavailability of nutrients such as vitamins and fatty acids and decreased amounts of potential anti-nutrients such as phytates and tannins. It's also free of gluten, soy, and dairy.

Best for Athletes: ICONIC Low Carb High Protein Drinks

Typical pre-made and powdered protein beverages contain tons of added sugar or tummy-troubling artificial sweeteners, which may slow athletes down. Iconic Protein's Grass-Fed Protein Drinks contain an impressively low 3 grams of sugar per bottle and are sweetened with a mix of agave, monk fruit, and stevia. They come in seven diverse flavors, including Vanilla Bean, Café Au Lait, Chocolate Truffle, Coconut Matcha, Golden Milk, Turmeric Ginger, and Cacao + Greens.

The BPA-free bottle is easy to toss into your bag for a quick and filling snack on the run. Each drink contains 20 grams of grass-fed milk protein with 4 grams of fiber, 130 calories, and only 4 grams of net carbs. The sustainably farmed products are free of lactose, gluten, soy, GMOs, and carrageenan.

The high-protein drink can also be used as an alternative to coffee creamer, as a smoothie base, or even mixed into pancakes and waffles instead of regular milk or water.

Best Dairy-Free: ALOHA Organic Plant Based Protein Shake

ALOHA Chocolate Sea Salt Protein Drink

Research suggests that pea protein may be just as effective as dairy-based whey protein for resistance-trained athletes looking to build lean muscle mass. Made from a mix of organic pea and brown rice proteins, ALOHA's Protein Drink provides easily digested, plant-based protein that will give you an extra boost without tummy-troubling dairy proteins. The USDA Organic beverage is perfect for those who have a sensitivity to dairy or those who prefer plant-based products.

Crafted with 18 grams of plant-based protein and organic MCT oil from coconuts, ALOHA's Protein Drink uses both organic coconut sugar and monk fruit to create a deliciously sweet vegan drink. It comes in three craving-worthy flavors, including Coconut, Chocolate Sea Salt, and Vanilla. It's also gluten-, soy-, and dairy-free.

Best Gluten-Free: Koia Ready To Drink Plant Protein Shake Vanilla Bean

Most protein powders are naturally gluten-free—however, it is always important to double-check the label for gluten-containing ingredients. Made with almonds and a unique blend of brown rice, pea, and chickpea protein, Koia Protein is a creamy, ready-to-drink beverage that's 100 percent gluten-free. Each 12-ounce drink provides 18 grams of plant-based protein with only 4 grams of sugar. And with 190 nutrition-packed calories, the drink is perfect as an on-the-go breakfast, a quick snack, or a post-workout beverage.

Note that Koia Protein is perishable and requires refrigeration, so it's better downed in one sitting. The versatile product is delicious on its own but also works well as a substitute for coffee creamer or as a base for smoothies. It's also vegan, kosher, non-GMO, and free of soy and dairy.

Best with Caffeine: OWYN Only What You Need 100% Vegan Plant-Based Protein Shakes | Cold Brew Coffee

OWYN

OWYN protein shakes come in lots of delicious flavors, but the cold-brew coffee is a standout. It not only tastes delicious, but it also contains 97 milligrams of caffeine in addition to 20 grams of protein. It'll fill you up and pick you up. In fact, research suggests that a low dose of caffeine may boost exercise performance, with little side effects.

An added bonus: it contains kale, spinach, and broccoli, so you can grab some greens while you're on the run. The allergy-friendly, ready-to-drink beverage is 100-percent plant-based and free of dairy, gluten, soy, tree nuts, and eggs. Even if you're not an athlete, the extra boost of caffeine and protein can be beneficial, especially because caffeine is shown to enhance problem-solving abilities.

Best Whey: Natural Force Grass Fed Organic Whey Protein Powder

If you're looking for a pure whey protein, try Natural Force Grass Fed Organic Whey Protein Powder, containing just organic whey protein concentrate sourced from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows. Whey protein has high bioavailability (meaning the body can easily digest, absorb and utilize the protein) and contains essential amino acids that plant-based powders often lack.

Natural Force Grass Fed Organic Whey Protein Powder is third-party tested for quality and purity standards. One serving contains 100 calories, 20 grams of protein, and 2 grams of sugar. If you're looking for more flavor, try the cacao bean and vanilla bean varieties.

Final Verdict

For a great-tasting, protein-packed beverage that's ready-to-drink and full of high-quality ingredients, try OWYN (view at Amazon).

What to Look for in a Protein Shake

Type

Protein shakes, both pre-made and powdered, can come from a variety of animal and plant-based protein sources, including whey, pea, brown rice, and hemp. Depending on your goals, consider choosing a product that contains the best protein to meet your needs. For example, whey is a top pick for athletes, whereas pea and hemp are excellent choices for vegans.   

Macronutrient Breakdown

One of the appeals of a protein shake is that it often comes with ingredients other than protein. Look for powders that also have a balance of carbohydrates, fat, and fiber. Try to avoid products with added sugar. Consider choosing a shake that contains additional beneficial ingredients, including added greens, BCAAs, digestive enzymes, or probiotics.

Flavor

Protein shakes and powders come in a wide range of flavors from chocolate and vanilla to golden milk and banana. Depending on the ingredients, some may taste more chalky or artificial than others, even if the sweetener is technically plant-based. Always try to choose a product with natural flavor and no artificial ingredients.

FAQs

How many protein shakes can I have each day?

Protein shakes are one way to incorporate additional macro and micronutrients into your diet. They are best consumed as part of a balanced diet, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and protein.

Recommended daily intake of protein shakes depends on individualized nutritional needs. For example, a high-endurance athlete may require a higher daily intake of protein and calories. Therefore, they may want to incorporate more protein shakes in their diet to meet their needs. You should consider your daily intake goals for protein and calories to determine the quantity of protein shakes to consume.

Are protein shakes good for weight loss?

Protein shakes can support weight loss but must be considered within the context of the diet in its entirety. Effective weight loss plans consider the overall nutrition value of the diet as well as macronutrient intake, including protein and overall calorie intake. Whether protein shakes serve as meal replacements or snacks, they should be incorporated into a balanced diet, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and protein. 

Keep in mind that drinking calories in the form of a shake versus eating calories may result in suboptimal satiety levels, which can lead to compensatory overeating come your next meal. Additionally, many protein shakes contain a significant amount of calories and added sugars, so it’s important to ensure you are not consuming excess calories and sugar through shakes when trying to lose weight.

Try swapping in a home-made protein smoothie for breakfast with one serving each of protein powder, fruit, leafy greens, and unsweetened nut milk—you’ll get the added benefits of fiber, antioxidants, and protein to keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Can protein shakes help you gain muscle mass?

Adequate dietary protein intake is essential for optimal muscle protein synthesis. Protein shakes are one way to increase your daily protein intake, but they are not necessary for gaining muscle mass. Incorporating protein at each meal through animal and plant-based proteins should be considered. The American College of Sports Medicine estimates that the requirements for strength trainers is at 1.6 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (about 0.8 grams per pound) and may require an intake of up to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.

Some evidence suggests that protein supplementation before and/or after endurance or resistance training may enhance muscle recovery and rebuilding. Incorporating a shake with one-serving of protein powder, fruit (try banana), and milk or plant-based milk alternative may help to replenish carbohydrates and electrolytes lost through exercise and support muscle recovery post-workout.

When should I drink a protein shake?

Depending on the protein shake's nutrition profile, it can serve as a meal replacement or a supplemental snack. Consider your daily routine and overall dietary intake to determine when a protein shake may fit best into your diet.

For example, a protein shake may be a good option for an on-the-go breakfast if you don’t have time to prepare a meal. If you practice resistance or endurance training, some evidence suggests that protein supplementation before and/or after training may enhance muscle recovery and rebuilding.

What Experts Say

“Protein shakes are a great way to get easily digestible protein to your muscles right after a workout, which can help speed recovery and build muscles more efficiently. They can also be used as a quick on-the-go meal replacement to help with satiety, keeping you full until your next meal or snack.”—Rebekah Blakely, RDN

Why Trust Verywell Fit?

A personal note on my recommendations written above. As a dietitian, I am careful to recommend supplements, including protein beverages and powders. I spent years volunteering, interning, and working in a clinical setting where various ready-to-drink protein supplements were recommended to patients to increase protein and caloric intake.

Many of those supplements contain subpar ingredients such as corn maltodextrin, vegetable oils, and soy protein isolate, and I had trouble ethically recommending those protein supplements. However, there are many great protein drink options on the market today, as shown by the products above.

I believe the ready-to-drink protein supplements in the round-up are made by trusted brands that I would feel comfortable recommending to my clients, friends, and family. The supplements are superior in quality and taste when compared to typical protein drinks on the market. Eliza Savage, MS, RD, CDN

Anne Cook Carroll, MS, RD, contributed to the FAQs.

How We Select Supplements

Our team works hard to be transparent about why we recommend certain supplements—you can read more about our dietary supplement methodology here

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Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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