How do you refuel after a workout when you’re in a rush and still take the time to know and trust the ingredients in your food? Faced with this real-life problem, I sought out protein drinks with natural-foods appeal. I chose 10 of the newest products to put to the test, so you can decide what’s best for you.
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First things first: How much and what kind of protein you need after a workout depends on what you’re doing. Maybe you did an hour of yoga or barre or mixed cardio with light weight training or jogging.
If that’s the case, there’s no need to worry about packing in extra protein, says Chris Rosenbloom, Ph.D., RDN, CSSD, sports dietitian. Recreational athletes should “space protein throughout the day in four to six small meals with equal amounts of protein at each feeding to maximally stimulate protein synthesis,” she says.
How much protein? Probably no more than 30 grams per meal (less for snacks), which is about all that the body can absorb in one sitting, according to Rebecca Rebmann, M.S., RD, CSSD, sports dietitian. That works out nicely to reasonable serving sizes of three to four ounces of grilled chicken or three-quarters of a block of tofu. More isn’t better -- it’s just more.
The takeaway: Include protein in every meal, and don’t overthink your post-workout protein. If you prefer protein drinks, it’s fine to include plant-based protein -- and in smaller amounts than the 20 to 25 grams bodybuilders often want after a bout of resistance training.
Recreational athletes should space protein throughout the day in four to six small meals with equal amounts of protein at each feeding to maximally stimulate protein synthesis.
Chris Rosenbloom, Ph.D., RDN, CSSD, sports dietitian
1. About Time ProHydrate
The most striking thing about this protein drink is that it’s clear, not creamy, yet it contains 20 grams of whey protein isolate per bottle. It has six ingredients, including natural flavors, stevia and evaporated cane juice. There are no artificial colors or flavors, and it’s gluten-free. The stevia aftertaste is minimal but noticeable. There’s also a residual mouthfeel, and the flavors are reminiscent of watered down Kool-Aid. Best consumed cold.
2. ALOHA Protein
ALOHA products haven’t been around long, but the company already has a great reputation for using unique and wholesome ingredients, and its protein powder is no different. It’s organic, plant-based and whole food-based. In addition to being free of soy, GMOs, gluten and dairy, there are no artificial or added flavors. It’s also 100-percent vegan. Each sachet offers 18 grams of a complete protein blend.
I mixed it into cold, unsweetened almond milk, resulting in a mild, pleasant flavor, with little to no graininess. It helps to give it another shake (or stir) midway through because there may be some settling. Best consumed cold.
3. CVS Plant-Based Protein
When a mainstream drugstore lends the power of its wide distribution to a vegan protein powder, it’s clear that health and wellness is important to them. CVS’s protein smoothie powder is gluten-, soy- and -- of course -- dairy-free. In addition to 15 grams of protein per sachet, it also has a host of vitamins and minerals, fiber, digestive enzymes and probiotics. While drinkable, there is a moderately strong aftertaste from the stevia and natural flavors. Best consumed cold.
4. In.Power Organic Whey Protein
The beauty of this option is its simplicity. The one ingredient is organic whey protein concentrate. The whey comes from the milk of grass-fed Jersey cows and is free of GMOs, soy, gluten and casein. It also boasts American Humane and Rich Food certifications. The powder takes longer than some of the others to mix into a liquid, but the flavor is pleasantly mild. Best consumed cold.
5. Locashake Vegan Protein
This protein powder launched in July 2015 and comes in clean brown-paper sachets. It’s a plant-based vegan product that is gluten-, soy- and dairy-free. The primary source of its 11 grams of protein is pea protein, which is fairly common in vegan protein powders, but it also includes protein from brown rice, moringa leaf, hemp, sacha inchi, purple corn and suma root. It blends well with almond milk, and the flavor is mild (if a little pea-leaning). Best consumed cold.
6. Manitoba Harvest Hemp Pro 70
According to the maker, it’s the only water-soluble hemp protein powder on the market. There are four simple ingredients, including organic and fair trade ones. The main ingredient is the hemp protein concentrate. Hemp Pro 70 is Non-GMO Project Verified. It mixes pretty well, and the flavors are mild. There is a hemp aftertaste that can be surprising if you’re new to hemp foods. Best consumed cold.
7. Mosaic Nutrition Protein
Mosaic launched preblended protein powders with a fifty-fifty mix of whey protein isolate and concentrate, to provide both quick- and slower-absorbing protein. It has a simple ingredients list and mixes well, thanks to sunflower lecithin. Its mild flavor is sweetened with stevia. Mosaic nutrition offers customizable protein powders on its website, where some of the factors are male, female, Paleo, vegan, performance and recovery. Best consumed cold.
8. Organic Valley Organic Fuel
Surprisingly shelf-stable up to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (until opened), its 26 grams of protein per bottle comes from organic milk made by cows on Organic Valley’s family farms. Since it’s organic, there are no GMOs, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, toxic pesticides or artificial sweeteners. Because it’s milk-based, it has both whey and casein, providing fast-and slow-acting protein (the natural split is 20/80 whey/casein).
As added bonuses, ingredients are fair trade when possible, it’s packed with calcium and vitamin D and is lactose-free. With a smooth texture and good flavor, it’s easy on the palate, but may taste too sweet for some.
9. PodLife Protein
This brand-new product is launching via a Kickstarter campaign. It’s made up of a unique shaker and pods of pre-measured protein powder. The shaker is BPA-free, and the pods are 100-percent biodegradable. Its 21 grams of protein per pod comes from whey protein concentrate. Each pod also includes some ingredients you might not expect, such as green tea extract, acai, green coffee extract and hydroxy citric acid. The shaker is interesting, though it takes some trial and error: My first shaking session left much of the protein in the pod. The flavor is acceptable, if a little too sweet.
10. Project Juice Protein
This is the most premium natural-protein drink I’ve seen on the market. It is made of real food, freshly pressed and delivered to your door in insulated totes. With a very clean ingredient list, its 17 grams of protein comes from raw almonds, raw almond butter, brown rice, sacha inchi and kale. It’s organic, therefore non-GMO, and the makers strive to source locally. It has great flavor, with just a little bit of graininess. The large serving size (14.5 ounces) makes it easy to pack in a lot of calories, so it may fit better as a meal replacement rather than a supplemental food.
What Protein Drink Is Right for You?
Protein drinks are everywhere, appealing to all kinds of consumer preferences. Are they right for you? Rebmann says, “I have no problem recommending protein shakes to my clients.” Her rationale is practical: “Ideally we would all eat fresh, real food for every meal and snack, but in reality I do think they can be a great option when needed for convenience and in situations when a person has trouble meeting his/her daily requirements through food.”
Her last word of warning: “They typically aren’t appropriate to consume as “drinks” with balanced meals, nor should they be used to replace all meals.”