Whey Protein Shakes: Are They All the Same?

Just about ever since I’ve been working out, I’ve been drinking protein shakes. To me, having a protein shake right after every workout was a necessity– if I didn’t have one afterwards, a workout sans protein felt like a load bar at 99%, basically there, yet not done, awaiting completion. I needed that fuel for my muscles and to maximize my hard work. How could I deny my body its well-earned sustenance? In my quest to become stronger and faster, it’s always dutifully done its job; every rep, every stride, every time I push my muscles to their limit, they rarely let me down. Of course, there are failed reps that go up halfway before going no further and there are times where I misstep and I am sent tumbling to the ground, but I can only blame myself for not properly preparing for the rigors I subject myself to. And in order to prepare, one has to build a solid foundation, which is where protein shakes come in.

This shake-after-workout habit has been with me ever since I’ve had a gym membership. The membership came with free personal training sessions and after the first session, the personal trainer suggested that I drink a protein shake following every workout. So I picked up a tub from the gym shop right before I left and rushed back home, eager to try out this miraculous muscle-building elixir. Once back, I took out a mug, filled it with water, dumped in a scoopful of the chocolate-flavored powder, stirred it with a spoon, and to my surprise, it tasted pretty good– kind of like chocolate milk only a bit more watery and a bit more artificial, but it was something that I felt I could look forward to next time.

Now, many years later, and having tried out a large variety of different brands, I’d consider myself somewhat well versed in protein powders. Like a cultivated oenophile well versed in the nuances and complexities of wine, I had developed an palate for distinguishing which kind of sweeteners were used and whether they were overbearing, or where the chocolate flavor fell on the wide spectrum of chocolate protein shakes. Although they are both drinks, they serve vastly different purposes. Wine is meant to be enjoyed. Protein is meant for gains. You might be willing to sacrifice a bit of mouthfeel and taste if it meant you’d be getting really great macros, which isn’t something that is always guaranteed. It’s something that took a while for me to realize. They’re all protein shakes, just how different could they be? It wasn’t until I started scrutinizing the labels did I find out how two protein shakes could differ so drastically. So while you might not need to hold up the shake in clear glass to the light, I highly recommend you hold up your tub of protein and take a close look at the nutrition facts.

Let’s do an initial comparison between two very well known brands, Optimum Nutrition and BSN. Both are very established companies and highly regarded for the quality of their products. ON’s Gold Standard 100% whey is basically, as it’s name suggests, the gold standard to which other protein shakes are compared against. It has a solid taste, mixes easily, and has a plenty of protein (24 grams per serving). BSN’s Syntha 6 has a total of 22 grams per serving which might sound like it’s right up there with ON’s Gold Standard but it’s a deceiving number. It’s deceiving because there are a total of 47 grams in a serving of Syntha 6 compared to 31 grams in a serving of Gold Standard! Let’s take a look at the ratio of carbs/fats/protein between these two products below.

The Nutrition Facts

Gold Standard is composed of 80% protein while Syntha 6 barely contains 50% protein. Now that’s not to say that you should absolutely in no situation be drinking Syntha 6… Different people have different demands and if you don’t need a drink that is as protein-dense because you’re not trying to compete then Syntha 6 could work for you. I’d also like to note that Syntha 6 is one of the best tasting proteins out there. It’s rich and creamy without being overly tinged with the flavor of artificial sweeteners. If something like that is what you need then go for it! Just be aware of what you are drinking and make suitable adjustments elsewhere in your diet/training plan.

Now, I actually got a little bit curious about how all the other popular protein powders stacked against each other. I made an arbitrary list of protein powders that I felt like were most commonplace and easily purchased and compared their nutrition facts using the labels from the chocolate flavors. Here were the results, ranked from highest percentage of protein to the least.

Would you look at that! Isopure Zero/Low Carb nabs the top spot with 92.6% protein. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the taste, but if you’re going that extra mile and just want the protein powder that offers the most protein per gram then there’s your protein! Looking at the other brands, you’ll see that there’s not a whole lot of difference between the majority of them. You should expect a product to have at least 80% protein to be considered within the upper echelon of protein powders.

Once again, the macros aren’t everything. They might be the biggest factor to consider when choosing a protein but there are things that the above chart does not capture, such as the composition of the protein. Is the protein comprised of faster digesting whey isolates or whey concentrate? How much saturated fat does the product include? How much sugar is there? Does it taste good? Or perhaps most importantly for some people, how much does it cost? There are many important factors to consider when choosing a protein that will help you reach your fitness goals.