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The Best Store-Bought Protein Shakes, According to RDs

June 12, 2024

If you’re trying to increase your protein intake, adding a shake can be a convenient option. Making one yourself is ideal, so you can control the ingredients — but sometimes life gets in the way and you find yourself relying on a ready-to-drink protein shake. With so many on the market, it’s hard to know which ones offer the best ingredients and nutrients, not to mention how they taste. To help cut through the confusion, we consulted nutrition experts Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD/LDN, and Jessica Garay, Ph.D., RDN, for their takes on store-bought protein shakes. 

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How much protein we need

The optimal amount of protein for your diet comes down to several factors, including your gender, height, weight, activity level, any health concerns, and goals. 

Though the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for adults, or about 0.36 grams per pound, “For most of my clients, I recommend more than that,” says Garay. She particularly encourages “athletes and older adults who are naturally losing muscle protein with aging’” to consume between 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight. (For a 140-pound woman, Garay’s range works out to about 76 to 127 grams per day.)

To give you an idea of how much protein is in common foods:

  • Tofu: 12 grams per 4-ounce serving
  • Lentils: 9 grams per ½ cup
  • Egg: 6 grams per large egg
  • Chicken: 28 grams per 4-ounce serving
  • Peanut butter: 7 grams per 2-tablespoon serving

You asked: Are drinking protein shakes good for you? 

When it comes to protein and other essential nutrients, Both Gomer and Garay recommend a food-first approach, before turning to supplementation. “Protein in food will not only include specific amino acids, but it will also include many other important nutrients related to absorption and other factors,” says Gomer. 

“Usually, you can follow your hunger signals, and if you’re eating whole, unprocessed foods, you can include 4 to 8 ounces (or approximately 20 to 30 grams) of protein at each meal” to reach your daily goals, says Gomer. She adds that more protein isn’t always better. “If a person consumes more protein than they need, it will be stored via gluconeogenesis — meaning the extra protein converts into glucose, which is stored as fat rather than being helpful in building muscle.”

Who should consume protein shakes?

Gomer recommends supplemental protein to specific groups of people: athletes and people trying to build muscle in a “bulking” phase. She says protein can be especially helpful immediately after a workout to replenish tired muscles. 

A store-bought shake also can come in handy occasionally, on days when you’re especially busy, or when you don’t have access to protein, such as when traveling. 

Related: What to Eat Before a Workout, According to An Expert Trainer

What to look for in a store-bought protein shake

Ready-to-drink protein shakes rely on various protein sources, from animal-based whey and milk to plant-based peas and seeds. Both Garay and Gomer prefer whey protein. Garay likes whey “because it is an excellent source of leucine, which is a key branched-chain amino acid that is needed in your body to help stimulate muscle protein synthesis.” 

You’d need to consume significantly more plant-based protein, such as soy or pea, to get the amount of leucine in a single serving of whey protein. 

The sweet spot of protein per serving of a shake is between 20 and 30 grams, though “people who are trying to gain weight, or who worked out a large muscle group, could take in closer to 40 grams of protein,” says Garay. 

What to avoid in ready-to-drink protein shakes

As with anything you eat, it’s important to check the ingredients of store-bought protein shakes. Though carbohydrates can be helpful post-workout, it’s best to avoid drinks loaded with added sugars or artificial sweeteners. Garay recommends consuming all artificial sweeteners in moderation, especially sugar alcohols like erythritol, which can cause stomach distress. (Recent research linked high blood levels of the sweetener to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.)  

As for sugar, you may have to be a bit of a detective when reading the ingredient list on protein shakes. Companies often hide it by using alternative names such as dextrose, maltose, and maltodextrin. According to Gomer, since it’s “almost impossible to find a protein shake without either sugar or an artificial sweetener, the lesser of the two evils would be the artificial sweetener.” This is another reason to think of store-bought protein shakes as a once-in-a-while thing, rather than a frequent habit; neither sugar nor artificial sweeteners are optimal for health.

It’s also worth noting the calorie content of your shake. Protein shakes are best consumed as a snack, not a meal replacement, says Garay. Ready-to-drink shakes that contain 300 or more calories may be designed for people with dietary or eating limitations who may not be able to get the necessary calories. Your supplemental shake does not need to contain more than 200 calories per serving. 

The best store-bought protein shakes

If you’re looking for a convenient way to increase your protein intake with a store-bought shake, consider these RD-approved options as an occasional addition to your diet: 

1. Slate Core Protein

These canned shakes have a light texture that’s thinner than most protein drinks, easily sippable, and not overly sweet or cloying. They’re made from lactose-free skim milk and have a delightfully creamy texture and flavor. With around 100 calories, 20 grams of protein per can, and no added sugar, these chocolate- and vanilla-flavored shakes are a favorite of Gomer’s.
Buy it: Slate Core Protein

2. Fairlife Core Power

Garay is a fan of Fairlife Core Power ready-to-drink protein shakes, which contain 26 to 42 grams of protein per serving, derived from cow’s milk. They’re lightly sweetened with monk fruit extract and stevia. “They contain real milk, are an excellent source of protein along with calcium, potassium, and vitamin D, and can be tolerated by most people, even those who are lactose intolerant,” says Garay.
Buy it: Fairlife Core Power

3. Chobani Complete

For similar reasons, Garay also recommends the yogurt-based shakes from Chobani. With 20 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber per serving, sweetened with monk fruit and stevia, these shakes are a good option, even if you’re lactose intolerant.
Buy it: Chobani Complete

4. Owyn 

Owyn makes vegan ready-to-drink shakes with 180 calories, made from a blend of pea and pumpkin seed proteins. These contain 4 grams of added cane sugar and have a rich, milkshake-like texture. Each bottle also offers 3 grams of dietary fiber.
Buy it: Owyn

5. Quest Nutrition

Quest Nutrition’s ready-to-drink shelf-stable protein shakes offer 30 grams of protein derived from milk. Each carton includes 1 gram of added sugar and 3 grams of carbohydrates.
Buy it: Quest Nutrition 

Read next: 7 Low-Calorie Protein Shakes That Still Fill You Up

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