Meal Replacement Shakes vs Protein Shake
The demands of everyday modern life have made many individuals consider both convenient and health alternatives to preparing meals. On the market, protein shakes and meal replacement shakes are convenient options when looking to meet nutritional needs. While both of these share some similarities, they also have large differences in their nutritional profiles and how they may be regulated. Let’s explore these differences as well as when each one is used in order to determine whether it is suitable for your meal plan.
What is a Protein Shake?
Protein shakes (ready to drink protein shake), as the name suggests, primarily offers concentrated amounts of protein. Individuals who consume protein shakes are often those that have higher protein needs such as athletes, outdoor adventurers and regular gym users. These individuals may not be meeting their protein needs through protein-based whole foods alone and can meet their needs by supplementing with a protein shake. Its intended purpose is to act as a supplement to an existing diet, but not to replace one. For this reason, it usually does not have a complete nutritional profile (ie. will usually be low in carbohydrates and fat) and is not fortified with all vitamins and minerals to meet an individual’s nutritional needs.
What is a meal replacement shake?
Meal replacement shakes are designed to offer a good balance of essential nutrients in the amounts that most adults need. The term “meal replacement” is a regulated term in Canada which means it must meet specific nutritional standards (it must have the standard amounts of carbohydrates, fats and protein in addition to added vitamins and minerals). These clearly defined standards means that a meal replacement made in Canada must (1):
Provide at least 225 kcal per serving
Meet minimum macronutrient requirements for protein, carbohydrates and fat
Contain adequate amounts of essential Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, and within an acceptable Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio
Contain a protein source that is of high nutritional quality when compared to casein protein
Meet the minimum amounts and not exceed a maximum amount for 25 vitamins and minerals
What is the difference between protein shakes and meal replacement shakes? Who can consume meal replacement drinks?
As you may be able to tell from the above, the notable difference between a protein shake and a meal replacement is that protein shakes focus on protein supplementation while meal replacements can be a sole source of nutrition (all nutrition needs can be met by the meal replacement). This can be beneficial for anyone who may not be able to meet their nutrition needs through food alone.
For example, Sperri’s line of products qualifies as a meal replacement and consuming a full bottle of Sperri allows an individual to meet all their nutrition needs required in one meal. This is important for individuals who are not able meet their nutrition through whole foods or have health conditions (ie. IBS/IBD) that prevent them from consuming certain foods. The additional advantage of Sperri’s meal replacements is that it can also be consumed by healthy individuals seeking convenience and the need for something to eat while on-the-go; knowing that they can fully meet their nutrition needs by having one bottle of Sperri in lieu of a meal from time to time.
Another notable difference is the quality of protein used. Meal replacements must contain a protein source(s) that is of high nutritional quality (ie. good absorption, have adequate amino acid profile) that is comparable to casein protein. Protein from protein shakes may use a combination of different proteins such as whey, pea and rice which may or may meet an adequate protein profile depending on the amounts of each used. This may not be of great concern to an athlete as they are likely getting quality protein sources from food as well however, would be more important for someone who is unwell and is not getting enough essential nutrients.
Are there any benefits to using protein shakes compared to meal replacements?
Both serve different purposes and have different nutrition profiles. For those who engage in athletic performance and routine high intensity exercise, protein shakes can be a good option to meet higher protein needs. Note that some protein shakes on the market, such as Premier Protein, have disclaimers on the bottle that indicate serving size limits (ie. 1 shake per day) and direction to not consume more than this limit per day (3). This is likely aligned with Health Canada’s maximum limits of use set out for certain food additive ingredients/sweeteners (4,5) used in such products. With meal replacements, each serving consumed is intended to replace one meal and the nutritional standards ensure that individuals are not likely to consume nutrients or other ingredients in excess amounts.
For those who have specific health conditions and are unable to meet their nutrition needs or are healthy individuals who have modest activity levels and are needing something quick to consume on the go, meal replacements can be a convenient option. Notably, the purchase of meal replacements is considered as a ‘basic grocery’ in Canada and are non-taxable (2), which is an additional benefit for consideration.
Are meal replacements right for me?
At the end of the day, having a variety of food and whole foods alongside a meal replacement when needed, can ensure that we are getting enough nutrients. If you are uncertain about which products are right for you, consult a healthcare professional or Registered Dietitian (RD) to help with your nutrition goals.
"Division 24 Foods for Special Dietary Use." Canada Justice Laws Website Food and Drug Regulations (25 May 2023), laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/regulations/c.r.c.%2C_c._870/page-48.html#h-574120
"Products Commonly Described as Dietary Supplements." Government of Canada , Canada Revenue Agency (Aug. 2004), www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/forms-publications/publications/gi-001/products-commonly-described-dietary-supplements.html
Vanilla Protein Shake (n.d.). Premier Protein. https://premierprotein.ca/products/vanilla-protein-shake
Lists of Permitted Food Additives (May 2017). Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/food-safety/food-additives/lists-permitted.html
9. List of Permitted Sweeteners (Lists of Permitted Food Additives) (2023, February). Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/food-safety/food-additives/lists-permitted/9-sweeteners.html