Protein shakes and protein powder have historically been the preserve of bodybuilders and fitness fanatics, but the science behind the performance-enhancing supplements is universal.
When you work out, your body’s muscle fibres become slightly torn and damaged, before repairing themselves by fusing together. This process – known as muscle hypertrophy – is what increases the size of muscles.
Protein is key in this process because it is made up of amino acids, which, when digested, are the building blocks that help repair and maintain muscle tissue. The NHS recommends 55.5g per day for men and 45g for women, although it adds that, if working out or exercising, increasing this slightly can help with recovery.
While it is possible to get all the protein you need from food in your diet, a protein shake offers an easy way of consuming a definite amount.
It’s also quicker than preparing a meal and allows the protein to get to work straight after a workout, with research showing that there are benefits to taking on protein shortly after exercise.
When it comes to protein shakes themselves, there are a variety of types, all having different benefits. Whey is milk-based, digests quickly and is shown to help build and maintain muscle mass.
Casein is another milk-based protein, but it is digested more slowly, and consequently better at reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown.
Pea is the most common vegan protein around, and is shown to be as effective in increasing muscle growth as the animal-based alternatives.
Finally, each protein shake and powder will claim to be packed full of BCAAs, amino acids and minerals. Ultimately, amino acids are the building blocks of protein, so you won’t have one without the other.
Nine of them – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine – are considered essential, but can be sourced from a healthy, well-balanced diet. So any in a protein shake should be seen as a bonus, rather than a key source of your daily intake.
To help you find the right protein shake, we put several of the best powders to the tests of taste, nutrition and cost-per-serving, and shared our findings below. We mixed all of the powders with water, but opted for flavoured shakes where available.
From muscle-building whey protein to vegan-friendly supplements, these are the best protein shakes to buy in 2021.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
Bio-Synergy whey hey, 908g
Whey protein powders are an essential supplement in the armoury of any gymgoer looking to maximise muscle growth and recovery. The whey hey from Bio-Synergy was the best on test thanks to its great taste (the coconut flavour was something we looked forward to drinking after a workout) and its impressive nutritional profile. Although it has less protein (21.4g) than others on this list, it was more than enough for a supplement. It also came in at roughly 77p per serving, which was only bettered by the Healthspan offering (£24.99, Wiggle.co.uk).
Buy now £20.99, Wiggle.co.uk
Science in Sport Rego rapid recovery, 500g
Shakes aren’t just for a post-weight-room hit of protein, they are just as important in helping to rebuild muscle after cardio exercise. A serving of Science in Sport’s Rego rapid recovery not only ticks the protein box (20g), but also helps replenish your body with carbohydrates (23g), electrolytes and minerals that are used up during a running or cycling session. It was the most calorific on test (184 kcals per serving), but this is understandable given that it packs in protein and carbs.
Buy now £13.25, Freewheel.co.uk
Protein World whey protein concentrate, 1.2kg
The whey protein concentrate from Protein World claims to be the tastiest protein on the market, and its milk chocolate flavour was only bettered by Bio-Synergy’s whey hey (£20.99, Wiggle.co.uk). Each serving contains a serious amount of whey protein (30.1g), and all for just 160 kcals. Its £1 per serving was the median price point of the shakes we tested, but drops to 66p (making it the cheapest) if you opt in to a regular subscription.
Buy now £33.32, Proteinworld.com
Grenade hydra 6 protein powder, 1.8kg
Unlike other offerings above, the hydra 6 protein powder from Grenade is a 50:50 blend of whey and casein. This combination leaves you with a good all-rounder – a pairing of quickly digesting whey that gets to work building muscle mass, with a muscle protein breakdown-reducing casein – but it might not be specialist enough if you have specific needs from your supplements. It’s worth noting that it only comes in 1.8kg tubs, which isn’t ideal if your kitchen storage is on the small side.
Buy now £42.95, Amazon.co.uk
Nuzest clean lean protein, 500g
Nuzest’s clean lean protein certainly lives up to its name and was the shake with the lowest amount of calories per serving (100 kcals) that we tested. At 19g, it also has the least amount of protein per serving, while at £1.75 a go, it is on the pricer end. That said, it was the nicest tasting pea protein-based vegan powder that we tested, with its rich chocolate a particular favourite.
Buy now £34.69, Amazon.co.uk
Ringana sport protein, 616g
The Ringana sport protein was the most premium powder that we tested. But aside from a nicely designed box and carefully measured, individual sachets, what do you get for your £3.29 per serving?
Its 26g blend of vegan protein sources – including sunflower seed, brown rice and pea protein isolate – was only bettered by the Protein World offering (£33.32, Proteinworld.com). It also features substantial amounts of your daily recommended vitamins (including D and B12). Its unflavoured taste wasn’t as hard to stomach with water as some, but was improved when blended into a smoothie.
Buy now £46.07, Ringana.com
Healthspan elite complete vegan protein, 1kg
The elite complete vegan protein from Healthspan was one of the leanest and cheapest that we tested – only 101 kcals and 68p per serving, which is always a bonus in our book. But was it any good?
When mixed just with water, the unflavoured powder was pretty hard to finish because of an unpleasant taste and texture, and even spiking it with peanut butter couldn’t save it. That said, when mixed into a smoothie or food, it wasn’t noticeable, and an easy way to add 20g of vegan protein to our daily diet.
Buy now £24.99, Wiggle.co.uk
The verdict: Protein shakes
Bio-Synergy’s whey hey is tough to beat on taste and price, and its 21.4g of whey protein per serving seems to be more than enough from a supplement. The hydra 6 protein powder offering from Grenade is a good introduction to protein powder, while Science in Sports Rego rapid recovery is great for those looking for a post-cardio session shake. Although on the lean side, if you’re after a vegan option, it’s tough to beat Nuzest’s clean lean protein.
If you’d rather something plant-based, here are the best vegan protein shakes and powders that support your workouts