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

How to choose a protein shake that is right for you

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Best Protein Shakes

Verywell / Chloe Jeong

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.

“Everybody needs a certain amount of protein in their diet. Most people need between 45 and 56 grams per day for regular activities” says Dr. Kathryn A. Bohling, MD, a family medicine specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Maryland. “People who may benefit from protein shakes include people who aren't getting enough protein in their diet because of dietary restrictions, those who are trying to lose weight, or anyone trying to build muscle”.

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.

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.

Protein Shakes Dosage

Always speak with a healthcare professional before adding a supplement to your routine to ensure that the supplement is appropriate for your individual needs and which dosage to take.

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for daily protein intake is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for adult men and women, and it is widely recommended that protein needs increase the more active a person is. Studies have shown no safety concerns at daily recommended intakes up to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • 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 homemade 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 protein requirements for strength trainers are 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.

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

We support supplements that are evidence-based and rooted in science, as well as clinically tested and approved for use in humans. We value certain product attributes that we find to be associated with the highest quality products. These attributes include non-GMO, Organic, and allergy-friendly products that are free of most artificial ingredients including colors, flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners. When possible, we recommend products that are third-party tested and certified.

It's important to note that the FDA does not review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they go to market. Our team of experts has created a detailed, science-backed methodology to choose the supplements we recommend.

Here, the best protein shakes.

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

OWYN Only What You Need 100% Vegan Plant-Based Protein Shakes Dark Chocolate
Pros
  • Suitable for consumers with dietary restrictions

  • Just 4 grams of added sugar per serving

Cons
  • Expensive

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.

The 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. It comes in delicious flavors like Smooth Vanilla, Dark Chocolate, Cookies N' Cream, and Cold Brew Coffee.

Key nutrients: Pea protein, pumpkin seed protein | Vegan: Yes | Gluten free: Yes | Organic: No | Non-GMO: Yes | Additives: Natural flavors, guar gum

Best Plant-Based: Sunwarrior Brown Rice Protein Powder

Sunwarrior Brown Rice Protein Powder
Pros
  • Single ingredient protein powder with no additives

Cons
  • Lower in essential and branched-chain amino acids than other protein sources

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.

Sunwarrior’s Class Protein is not third-party tested, but we like it because it is a single nutrient product and a fermented protein, which may improve bioavailability. 

Key nutrients: Brown rice protein | Vegan: Yes | Gluten free: Yes | Organic: Yes | Non-GMO: Yes | Additives: No

Best for Athletes: ICONIC Low Carb High Protein Drinks

ICONIC Low Carb High Protein Drinks
Pros
  • No added sugars

  • Highly bioavailable whey and casein protein

Cons
  • Expensive

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. 

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. They come in seven diverse flavors. ICONIC is not a third-party tested protein drink, but we appreciate that it is allergy-friendly and low in added sugar.

Key nutrients: Milk protein isolate | Vegan: No | Gluten free: Yes | Organic: No | Non-GMO: Yes | Additives: Locust bean gum, gellan gum

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

Best Dairy-Free: ALOHA Organic Plant Based Protein Shake

ALOHA Organic Plant Based Protein Shake
Pros
  • Only 5 grams of added sugar per serving

Cons
  • Higher in saturated fat than other options on this list

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.  It comes in three craving-worthy flavors, including Coconut, Chocolate Sea Salt, and Vanilla. It's also gluten-, soy-, and dairy-free.

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. ALOHA’s Protein Drink is not third-party tested, however, we like that this plant-based option provides high-quality protein combined with MCT oil.

Key nutrients: Pea protein, brown rice protein | Vegan: Yes | Gluten free: Yes | Organic: Yes | Non-GMO: Yes | Additives: Natural Flavor, Gellan Gum

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

Koia Ready To Drink Plant Protein Shake Vanilla Bean
Pros
  • Just 4 grams of added sugar per serving

  • Good source of iron

Cons
  • Needs to be stored in the refrigerator

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.

It’s not third-party tested, but we like Koia as a nutritious and refreshing option to add more protein to your diet.

Key nutrients: Brown rice protein, chickpea protein, pea protein | Vegan: Yes | Gluten free: Yes | Organic: No | Non-GMO: Yes | Additives: Gellan gum, locust bean gum

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

OWYN
Pros
  • Shelf stable for easy storage

  • Complete vegan protein source

Cons
  • Some may be sensitive to caffeine

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.

OWYN does not third-party test their shakes, but we like this option for its moderate, naturally occurring caffeine content with just 5 grams of added sugar.

Key nutrients: Pea protein, pumpkin seed protein, cold brew extract | Vegan: Yes | Gluten free: Yes | Organic: No | Non-GMO: Yes | Additives: Natural Flavors, Guar Gum

Best Whey: Natural Force Grass Fed Organic Whey Protein Powder

Natural Force Grass Fed Organic Whey Protein Powder
Pros
  • Highly bioavailable whey protein concentrate is the only ingredient 

Cons
  • Small package has just 15 servings per bag

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.

Key nutrients: Whey protein concentrate | Vegan: Yes | Gluten free: Yes | Organic: Yes | Non-GMO: Yes | Additives: No

Best Vegan: Evolve Plant Based Protein Shake, Double Chocolate, 20g Vegan Protein

Evolve Plant Based Protein Shake, Double Chocolate, 20g Vegan Protein

Made with plant-based pea protein, Evolve provides a superior product with no artificial flavors, colors, or sweeteners. Evolve’s ready-to-drink plant-based protein shake takes the top vegan pick for its clean ingredient list and impressive nutritional stats. The Certified Vegan shake provides 20 grams of protein from pea protein isolate, as well as 10 grams of dietary fiber from soluble corn fiber. Each flavor has just nine or ten ingredients. 

Each ready-to-go bottle provides 140 calories with only 4 grams of added sugar, from cane sugar. You'll also get 15 percent or more of your daily value of calcium, iron, zinc, and Vitamin B12 — all nutrients that can be difficult to get enough of on a vegan diet

Those with allergies and sensitivities can rest assured, as the drink is free of dairy, soy, and gluten. Even though Evolve protein shakes are not third-party tested, we like them because of the minimal, clean ingredient list and additional beneficial nutrients like fiber.

While this shake is not third-party tested, we like it because it is Certified Vegan and allergy-friendly.

Key nutrients: Pea protein isolate | Vegan: Yes | Gluten free: Yes | Organic: No | Non-GMO: Yes | Additives: Gellan gum

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). The plant-based protein shake offers a complete protein source for vegans.

If you prefer a protein powder, try SunWarrior Classic Protein (view at Amazon). This powder is vegan but highly effective for protein supplementation, thanks to fermented brown rice protein powder. 

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