A guide to meal replacement powders, protein sources and label considerations.
*Note we are NOT talking about weight loss products.*
Updated: July 28th, 2020
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.
INGREDIENTS: KEEP IT AS NATURAL AS POSSIBLE
The label should have pronounceable ingredients and not be a complete lab experiment. This also means no artificial additives and preservatives.
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. See ingredients to watch out for.
MACROS: FULL MEAL NUTRITION - NOT JUST A "PROTEIN SHAKE"
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.
Protein shakes and meal replacement shakes are easily confused, but the two are intended for quite different purposes. Whereas protein shakes are designed to be taken as added supplements alongside a healthy diet, their lack of calories, fiber, and other nutrients makes them an insufficient complete meal option. Meal replacement shakes, however, contain enough protein, fiber, carbs, and calories to keep you full, and they provide many valuable micro and macronutrients to create a satisfying meal substitute.
Although nutritional needs can vary greatly depending on a person’s build and activity level, the best place to start in picking a powder is to check the nutritional label of the shake to distinguish whether the product is better suited as a protein supplement or if it works as a meal. To be a meal replacement, the mix should have a fairly equal split between fat, protein, and carbs.
This, of course, might be different if the product is made for a special diet - Keto, Low Carb, High Protein, etc. But generally speaking, the below nutritional breakdowns are standard for meal replacement shakes:
FORMAT: POWDERED OR PRE-MIXED
Meal replacement drinks are available in two forms - powders that you mix yourself and pre-mixed liquid beverages. The pre-mixed drinks may be convenient in town, so you don't have to mix up your own concoctions. Obviously, they are probably less convenient for the outdoors because they take up a lot of space and are water heavy. Powders, however, are much lighter weight making them great for backpacking and carrying over long distances.
LABELING: 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.
Note, if you are wanting to use these as backpacking meal replacements, you might not need to worry too much about weight loss ;). If hiking for extended periods of time (like a 6 month thru hike), your body will probably be burning calories faster than you can replace them. Weight loss shakes range around 120 calories or less and won't be ideal as a complete meal. Instead, pick a powder with more calories from complex carbs, healthy fats, and clean protein for a well-rounded, nutrient-dense meal.
VITAMIN FORTIFICATION: SYNTHETIC VS NATURAL VITAMINS
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.
ADDITIVES AND PRESERVATIVES: THE DOWNSIDE OF 'CHEAP'
Many meal replacement powders found on store shelves have enticing price-tags, but these low-end options can do more harm to your health and digestive system than good. One look at the ingredients label will tell you plenty about whether a powder is “clean,” or stocked full of additives, preservatives, fillers, extra sugar and even chemicals.
Steer clear of options including these six ingredients:
ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS: WATCH OUT FOR POTENTIAL GUT BOMBS
Many meal replacement powders like to advertise how little sugar they use, yet they still taste as sweet as a bowl of ice cream. How do they do this? They are probably full of sweeteners, and some of these have been known to wreak all kinds of havoc on the body.
To keep things clean, try to avoid these 5 common sweeteners:
Opt for a healthier and natural alternative like Stevia, a sweetener extracted from the leaves of the Stevia plant which is native to South America. It 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.
This has made it an extremely popular sweetener. It is generally considered safe. However, Stevia's safety is still hotly debated as well. It has a slightly metallic taste thanks to its "Stevioside" component.
Or dare we say it, moderate amounts of SUGAR might not be the worst sweetener.
|Per 100 Grams||Calories||DV||Protein (g)||DV||Fat (g)||DV||Fiber (g)||DV||Carbs (g)||DV|
Garden of Life
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
Taste Opinion: Good balance of mild taste and healthy ingredients.
See Garden of Life.
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.
Taste Opinion: Somewhat "like seaweed and fish food" combined. Best when mixed with something.
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.
Taste Opinion: Very tasty. Too sweet though.
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 strong artificial metallic flavor.
Taste Opinion: Sweeteners made it taste metallic and artificial.
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.
Taste Opinion: Good. Like a glass of oat milk.
Also started in Silicon Valley, Ample entered the market in 2015 as a healthier alternative to Soylent. Ample's meal replacement powder is non-GMO, gluten-free and made from quality ingredients like grass-fed whey, yellow split pea, grass-fed collagen, coconut, macadamia and organic greens. It also includes a 4 billion CFU probiotic blend.
Although it contains a fair amount of carbs—40% of which is fiber, Ample packs a mere 1g of sugar per 100 calories without sacrificing taste, a definite plus. Some may find the taste a bit chalky though compared to alternatives.
Ample gives you the option to buy their powder in bulk canisters or single-serving plastic bottles of either 400 or 600 calories. Compared with ready-to-drink options, this format is much lighter and just as convenient. Simply add water or milk, shake, and drink.
Note that Ample also offers a vegan and keto-friendly version of their powder.
Taste Opinion: Good. Creamy and nutty.
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.
Taste Opinion: Good. Fairly plain.
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.
Taste Opinion: Similar to VegaOne. Too many weird sweeteners.
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.
Taste Opinion: Good. A little veggie-esque.
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.
Taste Opinion: Pretty plain and bland.
See Optimum Nutrition.
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.
Read Next: 6 Best Meal Replacement Bars
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 to Fast Company. He wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe. Instagram: @chrisrcage.
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