The Great Protein Rip-Off

RTDs vs. Protein Powder

RTD or ready-to-drink protein shakes are very convenient… if you're not that smart. Here's why.

I'm a terrible marketer. I have no idea what people will spend their money on. For example, let's pretend I'm the big boss at Starbucks, and some underling proposes an idea:

Underling: Hey boss, let's sell oatmeal.

Me: Why? People can make oatmeal at home. Would it be super delicious or something?

Underling: Nah, but we'll add some syrupy flavorings and a few nuts and charge ‘em over three bucks for it.

Me: That's ridiculous! Oatmeal costs fifteen cents a serving! Why would anyone buy that?

Underling: Convenience! People are lazy.

As pretend boss, I'd kick him out of my office… and I'd be an idiot. Because Starbucks sells a whole lot of lukewarm oatmeal. For normies, convenience outweighs taste, quality, and price. It's true with oatmeal, and it's doubly true with ready-to-drink (RTD) protein shakes.

Is RTD Short for "Ready to be Duped?"

In the past, RTDs were relegated to the old-folks market. These drinks contained dog-food-grade soy protein, some random vitamins, and sugar. But hey, at least Grandma was eating something.

Then RTDs hit the bodybuilding market. They too were liquid junk food, and I assumed the market would die off once health-minded people took a closer look at the ingredient lists. Nope, RTDs are thriving. People apparently just don't have time to mix powder into water.

But there's a price to pay for convenience… literally. Let's look at that, plus some other drawbacks.

Full Disclosure: We Thought About Making an RTD

Years ago, Biotest looked into the RTD market. Could we make one that wasn't hot garbage? In short, no. After much R&D, Tim Patterson realized it just wasn't doable. Well, okay, it was doable, but we didn't want to drink them. And as we always say, we only make what we want to take.

It was impossible to use high-quality proteins that performed like Tim wanted them to. Functional, performance proteins don't respond well to being boiled and then sitting around on a shelf in warm water. They form into gel-like globs called "floaters" in the industry.

Tim had a choice: use inferior ingredients or don't make RTDs. So, Biotest doesn't make RTDs.

With that out of the way, here's why RTDs are stupid:

The Protein Quality

I asked Tim Patterson about the protein quality in most RTDs. He said, "It's like boiling a rawhide dog chew and drinking it. And think about it," he added, "RTDs are shelf stable for three years, unrefrigerated. What do you think they have to do to make that possible?"

The FDA requires RTDs to be pasteurized. Using the best proteins would be a waste because the heat from pasteurization destroys a lot of the delicate bioactive peptides that make certain proteins highly beneficial for lifters.

RTD makers use several types of cheap protein in their drinks, but one you see often is calcium caseinate. This stuff is absorbed by the body even faster than whey and can cause a rapid rise in insulin. Likewise, it doesn't provide sustained levels of amino acids. This, and other issues, has made some industry insiders refer to calcium caseinate as "fake casein."

Not every RTD maker uses pure-junk proteins, but that brings us to the next issue.

The Price

Most RTDs run around $3 to $5 apiece if you buy them by the case. They'll cost you more if you get them individually at grocery or convenience stores from the cold case.

Compare that to the highest-quality protein powder you can buy: MD Protein (Buy at Amazon). (Yes, the one we make.) It's more expensive than most protein powders, yet the cost per serving is only about $1.47 (22 grams of protein) or $2.94 if you're making a two-scoop shake (44 grams of protein).

Most popular RTDs contain 16-32 grams of protein. One 32-gram RTD I investigated cost $3.72. So, you're paying 78 cents more for 12 fewer grams of protein compared to a two-scoop MD Protein shake. What's more, the protein in that RTD is plant-based – not the wisest choice if you're consuming protein to build muscle.

So why do RTDs cost so much if they use inferior proteins? In a word, shipping. The heavier the product, the more it costs to ship. The main ingredient in every RTD is water, which is heavy. Yes, you're paying extra to have someone shake your shake for you.

Then there are the middlemen, who want their cut. Target and Walmart sell a lot of RTDs and they're taking a hefty percentage. You pay for that, too. To make it profitable, RTD prices go up and ingredient quality goes down. Or, with shrinkflation, the size of the RTD gets subtly smaller.

Here's another surprise: those plastic or paper RTD containers cost more than the fluids inside them. Packaging is expensive, more expensive than the ingredients used by the RTD companies. A pretty package is good marketing, but it's like buying a Mercedes with half the engine parts missing: looks sexy, doesn't function.

The Plastic

I'm no climate-change alarmist, but one case of RTDs adds 12 more single-use plastic bottles to the world (plus the cardboard and plastic that wrap the case). More garbage isn't good.

Then there's the whole microplastics worry. While we mainly need to avoid drinking from plastic bottles that have been exposed to heat (which leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals), I think it's probably wise to avoid plastic-soaked protein drinks.

The Carrageenan

Carrageenan, a thickener and stabilizing agent, shows up on a lot of RTD labels. While it's considered safe by the FDA, a lot of people have issues with it. Mainly, it upsets their stomachs.

Some animal studies report that exposure to carrageenan may lead to increased inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. Bloating, gas, and diarrhea are common if you get enough of it or have a sensitivity to it. It makes me wonder if those people complaining about "protein farts" are actually having RTD farts, and not from the protein.

The Smart, Slightly Inconvenient Solution

If you're not lazy, care about what you're putting into your body, and don't like paying more for a lesser product, skip the RTDs.

Take 30 seconds and make a real protein shake with MD Protein (Buy at Amazon). You'll get the highest quality micellar casein and whey isolate, no junk, and you'll pay less for it. Mix it with a spoon or add it to a blender with a few ice cubes. Pick up one of those nifty rechargeable Ninja Blast blenders (Buy at Amazon) and you can even make one in your car or at work.

It's not as convenient as an RTD, but at least you're not getting duped.

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9 Likes

Even if you can convince yourself that the long list of ingredients are good for you, you will still have to choke on the texture or flavour.

Good article. Should be common sense. Also, why would someone have to preface their point about single use plastics by saying they’re not a “climate change alarmist?”

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Way back in the day I used to drink Muscle Milks religiously, but now I use protein powder 90% of the time with a case of Orgain from Costco for occasional variety and travel. This article changed my mind about even buying the Orgain. It’s just an unnecessary expense for an inferior product.

3 Likes

This made me resemble Muscle Milk. I haven’t seen that stuff in years.

Still at Walmart and Target. On Amazon it sells 30K cases per month, RTD. Chockful of the calcium caseinate and carrageenan mentioned in the article. Cost about $1.16 more than the equivalent amount of MD Protein. But golly, you have to mix the latter yourself! :smiley:

Thanks for an informative article! Being the occational RTD user, I have always wondered why the low quality content? My belief was of economical reasons. I even half-heartedly considered going into business. How hard could it be? Now I learned that it’s not possible to make a high quality RTD. Not so great.

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What was the “plant-based” protein mentioned in the article?

Used to loooove Muscle Milk powder… now it’s trash

Chris,
Didn’t Biotest have RTD Mag-10 and Plazma years ago? Or was it Anaconda? I’m pretty sure I remember buying them once. They were obviously convenient and high quality but I didn’t like the taste. I think yall stopped making them due to cost… but then maybe my memory is foggy… though I still have that black bullet carrier for the original Spike tabs :joy:

What about fairlife milk ?

Yes, sorta. We did some RTDs workout drinks for special customers, but they were shipped cold and never processed as you have to do with RTD protein shakes. Can’t do that on a big scale though. We still make a few batches occasionally when some celeb getting in shape for a movie requests them.

Once mixed, how long can MD sit in the fridge?

Fairlife has a few different products: their milk, a higher-protein-milk, and their Core Power RTD. From what I can see, they’re all basically just milk. For example, there’s no protein powder in any of them, even their “protein shakes.” They just use extra filtering to concentrate the protein. That gives you 4 more grams of protein from their milk compared to standard milk.

The Core Life stuff uses the carrageenan thickener mentioned in the article. If you buy it by the 12-pack RTD, it’s $3.08 per serving (26g protein). Compared to an equivalent amount MD Protein, you pay about $1.48 more for Core Power than MD Protein, mostly in plastic and shipping costs.

What about the idea of meeting in the middle and doing as I’ve seen in the past - have unmixed protein powder in disposable bottles, just needing to add water? I mention it, because there’s a segment of people who drink 2-3 shakes a day, and hate having to keep cleaning their bottle on the road when it’s not always easy (and we know how bad those things smell after sitting in a hot car all day if they’re not cleaned out). And, if gone all day, that means taking multiple shakers pre-loaded, or, having to keep protein powder with for the next dose if still on the road.

I used to get a protein product like this back in my plant-based days around 20 years ago, it had 20g of naturally flavored pea protein in a 16 oz. disposable plastic bottle, and was perfect for taking on the road. Not that it tasted great, but it got the job done. If someone had two versions of a good whey protein, one for general use with a macro profile similar to 2 scoops of MD, and one that had 40g protein plus 50-75g fast-digesting carbs added for PWO, I’d be an instant customer. Despite all that I do for myself, there’s still a few convenience things that I’m willing to pay for to simplify my meals when traveling.

Try this: take some disposable meal prep containers, put the Metabolic Drive in them, and mix in enough water to create a pudding and eat with a spoon. Throw away the container when done.

I honestly only drink one Metabolic Drive shake per day: in the middle of the night, when I wake up to pee. Otherwise, I eat all of my shakes.

It’s not a bad idea, I’ve seen that before too. But the cost would increase significantly for us to buy the bottles, maybe even our shipping costs (same weight for protein powder but larger boxes, plus more warehouse space, etc). It all adds up and gets passed on to the customer.

I did a quick search and found a few places selling those types of bottles in bulk though, even disposable shaker bottles. So you may be able to DIY it.

So the fairlife protein quality is solid, it’s just super expensive?

Two days is perfectly safe. Probably longer, but two definitely. It may separate a little of course, but just give it a shake and it’s good to go.

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Well, it’s milk. A little more condensed, but it’s milk. If I chose to use milk as a protein source, it would be a decent choice. Personally, milk makes me a little bloated.

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