A guide to meal replacement powders, protein sources and label considerations.
*Note we are NOT talking about weight loss products.*
As our time becomes a more and more valuable, powdered meal replacement shakes and powders have become more and more popular. They often provide fast, nutrient dense meals at a relatively low price.
They are also super lightweight and can provide a huge amount of nutrition without the bulk. Powders hardly take up any space in your pack and are easy to prepare - just add water, stir and drink.
For most, the big hurdle to overcome is the "ick" factor. Some people find the idea of powdered beverages repulsive - bland tasting food with an underwhelming eating experience. We cordially disagree.
1) CLEAN LABEL. Keep it as natural as possible, please. The label should have pronounceable ingredients and not be a complete lab experiment. This also means no artificial additives and preservatives.
2) FULL MEAL NUTRITION. Active lifestyles require adequate levels of nutrition. The powder mix should have a sufficient level of macro nutrients, protein, carbs, calories, and fat. The more balanced, the better. Generally speaking, a protein powder alone is not enough to justify a nutritionally "complete" meal.
3) NOTHING "WEIGHT LOSS". We steer away from talking about anything marketed as a weight loss drink. Instead, we believe staying healthy should be the main goal. Sorry diet peeps.
VITAMIN FORTIFICATION. A lot of meal replacement shakes add or “fortify” their recipe with synthetic vitamins and minerals. These will be the long list of hard-to-pronounce words towards the bottom of the ingredient label, oftentimes prefaced by "vitamin and mineral blend".
This is still a hotly debated practice as a growing body of research suggests synthetic vitamins are less nourishing than you'd expect. Some argue having some is better than not having any at all. Others argue these synthetic vitamins have no health benefit and, on the contrary, can actually be dangerous. Just a heads up, we'll leave it up to you to decide though.
MAIN INGREDIENTS. As you know, the FDA labeling guidelines require ingredients to be listed "in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first, followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts".
In other words, the product's main ingredients will be listed at the beginning of the label. This is where "weight gainers" and other high calorie powders with maltodextrin as the number one ingredient come under fire. Keep in mind what you actually want to be consuming in large quantities.
MORE ON STEVIA. Stevia is a sweetener extracted from the leaves of the Stevia plant which is native to South America. The natural sweetener is commonly used as a sugar substitute because it is 100-200 times sweeter than sugar. It doesn't raise blood sugar level like sugar, and other artificial sweeteners do. T
This has made it an extremely popular sweetener. It is generally considered safe, however, it's safety is still hotly debated as well. It definitely has a slightly metallic taste thanks to it's "Stevioside" component.
POWDERED OR PRE-MIXED. Meal replacement drinks are available in two forms - powders that you mix yourself and pre-made liquid beverages. The drinks may be convenient in town, so you don't have to mix up your own concoctions. Obviously, they are not recommended for the trail because they take up a lot of space and are water heavy. Powders, however, are ultralight making them great for packing and carrying over long distances.
WHEY: Whey is the liquid part of milk that separates out during the process of making cheese. This by-product used to be discarded, but now it is processed and used as a protein supplement. It is low in lactose content and contains all nine essential amino acids. You can easily add 25–50 grams of protein to your diet with whey. Keep an eye on the ingredients though, whey tends to be associated more with artificially sweetened mixes. Because it is derived from milk, it is not vegan. Sorry vegans.
SOY: Soy protein is extracted from soybeans which are ground up into a meal and then processed to produce a soy protein isolate that is 90% protein. Similar to whey protein, soy protein contains all nine essential amino acids and is often flavored and supplemented to improved the taste and texture. Note a lot of people have soy allergies so make sure you are not one of them ;)
PEA: Pea protein is extracted from split peas and dried into a powder. The protein is then added to foods such as energy bars and a veggie burger or sold as a powder used in shakes. Pea protein is plant-derived and suitable for vegans and those who have lactose intolerance or other allergies. It contains all nine essentials amino acids but is low in methionine so it should not be used as a sole source of protein.
BROWN RICE: Extracted from brown rice, rice protein is a favorite vegetarian protein powder. It's also hypoallergenic so it is safe for people with food allergies and easily digested. Unlike soy or whey protein, brown rice protein is deficient in some amino acids and is not considered a complete protein.
HEMP: Hemp protein is derived from the seeds of the cannabis plant and is considered to be a superfood because of its beneficial fatty acids, fiber content, and antioxidants. It has nutty and earthy taste and is grittier than most other powders since it not as highly processed. Hemp protein is one of the more expensive protein powders because of its association with cannabis. It does contain all nine essential amino acids but at levels that are low enough that it should not be used as your only source of protein.
SACHA INCHI: Found in the rain forests of South America, Sacha Inchi is widely touted as a superfood. The bulk of the nutrition is found in the plant's seeds which are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A and E, calcium, zinc, potassium, and tryptophan. These seeds are roasted and pressed for oil. After pressing, the remaining seed waste is collected and used as a protein powder.
PEANUT: Peanuts are perhaps the most popular powdered protein source because they are widely available and relatively inexpensive. Powdered peanut butter is made from roasted peanuts that have been pressed to remove the oil and then ground into a powder. Because all the fat has been removed, powdered peanut butter is lower in calories than regular peanut butter. When reconstituted with water, powder peanut butter also has a different texture and taste than regular peanut butter. It is perfect as a shake, not so good as a spread.
Widely considered one of the healthiest powders on the market, Garden of Life Organic Meal is packed full of organic ingredients including veggies powders, fruit powders and probiotics. The powder uses a plant-based protein that is sourced from 14 legumes, seeds, and grain. It is available in chocolate and vanilla which has a neutral taste and mixes well with other flavors.
The Clean Label Project cited Garden of Life because the company's powders scored poorly in their tests for heavy metals, pesticides, and other similar contaminants. The company refuted those claims in a lengthy blog post that called into questions the methods used in the testing.
See Garden of Life.
Optimum Nutrition has created a plant-based protein power house. This is a clean label powder with a large majority of organic ingredients. Minimal vitamin fortification as well. The relatively high protein content and low calories make it more of a protein powder versus a complete meal replacement though.
See Optimum Nutrition.
Amazing Grass is by far the “greenest” veggie option on the list. The formula is known for its proprietary grass blend which includes homegrown wheat grass, barley grass, alfalfa, and kale.
The Amazing meal uses this grass mixture as a base and adds in 20 grams of plant-based protein (peanut, pea, and hemp), fiber and probiotics. Each serving provides all this goodness and two servings of fruit and veggies to boot. Amazing Grass offers it protein powder in a variety of different flavors, but it is an acquired taste.
Note it tastes somewhat "like seaweed and fish food" combined.
See Amazing Grass.
Ka'chava claims it is the most nutrient dense health shake available, and that claim is not a stretch. This meal replacement powder contains a whopping 70 plant-based superfoods and nutrients. The long list of all-natural ingredients includes fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, greens, antioxidants, probiotics and proteins from yellow peas, brown rice, and sacha Inchi. Ka'chava is available in two flavors - vanilla and chocolate, both of which are sweetened with lo han fruit and stevia. At $70 per bag, Ka'chava is one of the most expensive powders on our list though costing.
Vega One packs 20 grams of plant-based protein (pea and seeds), 4 grams of fiber and 50% of your daily requirements of 8 vitamins and minerals into a single serving. When mixed as a shake, the powder has a distinctive green color thanks to the spinach, kale, and spirulina.
Vega One All-In-One Shake is available in two formulas - the original recipe that the company has been producing for years and a new organic formula that is receiving mixed reviews. Similar to some of the negative reviews, we tried VegaOne and couldn't choke it down due to the overwhelmingly strong metallic flavor. Personal opinion only though.
Soylent launched back in 2013 as a convenient meal for the tech crowd in Silicon Valley. Since then, they secured a total of nearly $75 million in funding and continue to grow.
Instead of a drink based on greens or protein powders, Soylent was designed from the beginning to be a "nutritionally complete" meal replacement system. It's going for more than just a shake - a completely new way of eating food quickly. Each shake serving provides 400 calories with 20 grams of plant-based proteins and 26 essential vitamins and minerals. It has a nice neutral oat taste.
Note maltodextrin is the third ingredient on the label and, due to it's synthetic ingredients, the healthiness of the drink is heavily debated.
Huel has a similar philosophy as Soylent. It's more than just a meal replacement shake - its a new way of convenience eating. It provides 100% of the FDA's "Daily Values" of all 27 essential vitamins and minerals.
Huel aims for a more natural formula than Soylent. It is 100% vegan with plenty of protein from pea and rice as well as other natural ingredients such as oats, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, coconut and more. It's available in both a flavored and an unflavored and unsweetened version. The vanilla flavor has an oaty and light vanilla taste, while other flavors such as banana, cappuccino, and chocolate mint are bolder.
Boku lets you build your meal plan instead of offering an all-in-one meal replacement shake. The company makes a Superfood mix with 55 organic superfood ingredients formulated by a naturopathic medical doctor. In addition to greens and sprouts, Boku Superfood adds both medicinal and edible mushrooms such as reishi, turkey tail and chaga to the mix.
Greens are only part of the meal plan. This super healthy blend can be paired with Boku's Super Protein to create a complete meal replacement an. The protein powder blend delivers up to 19g of plant-based, non-GMO proteins fro Red Dulse, brown rice and cranberry. Available in unflavored, chocolate and vanilla, the Boku protein shake can be mixed with almond milk or coconut water for a pleasing and mild taste. For even more of a punch, Boku produces a Super berries blend and Super matcha green tea.
Orgain not only says it is organic, but it backs up that claim with USDA organic certification. The company uses only organic protein, veggies, and greens in its meal replacement powder. The powder gets it protein from plant-based sources with the bulk coming from pea, brown rice, and chia seed. It also includes a sprout, veggie, fruit, and greens blend for added nutrition. Orgain is available in a chocolate and vanilla bean flavors. The mixture is sugar-free, but it does use erythritol for a sweetener.
Ambronite stands out for its simple ingredient list that uses only whole foods and no artificial flavorings, coloring or fillers. The mixture relies heavily on oats and nuts for protein and uses coconut sugar and apple to add some sweetness. Each meal-sized serving (2.5 scoops) provides 400 calories, 24g of protein, 7.5 grams of fiber, and the equivalent of 5-servings of veggies, berries, and fruit. You'll also get 20% of your daily vitamin and minerals from food-based sources, not artificial supplements. Ambronite comes in one flavor that is well-liked and easily flavored at home with peanut butter, nut milk or your own fruit.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.
*Affiliate Disclosure: Some links on this page may be affiliate links. This means we may receive a small portion of any potentially referred sales. This comes at no extra cost to you. We just want to be completely transparent.
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