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NOV 2, 2023

Metrecal: When Protein Shakes Were Dangerous

Protein shakes are everywhere. They’re regulated, tested, approved, and enjoyed by health enthusiasts worldwide. But that wasn’t always the case.

Read time: 3 minutes

In this day and age, protein shakes are everywhere. They’re regulated, tested, approved, and enjoyed by health enthusiasts worldwide. But that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when shakes were synonymous with diets and losing weight and, for a long time, this gave them a pretty negative reputation. This is the story of Metrecal: the ‘meal in a can.’

The Rise of Metrecal

Over the years, how people view weight has fluctuated - depending on what decade we’re talking about, being curvy or skinny went in and out of fashion. And, where there’s money to be made, there’s always some hare-brained scheme to capitalize on it. The year is 1959 and Mead Johnson realized that a mix of milk powder, soy, and a handful of other minerals, vitamins, and proteins could be marketed as a new way to lose weight.

As the above commercial shows, it’s simple, easy, and delicious. Just stick to the Metrecal diet and you’re sure to get your daily dose of 900 calories per day. Now, anyone remotely familiar with how many calories you should eat per day, will know 900 ain’t it. And, unsurprisingly, those on a Metrecal diet were reportedly getting hunger pangs. But despite this, sales were on the rise, going from $40 million in its first year, to $100 million by 1961 [source: Eating History].

Success and Spread

And with booming sales came more targeted advertising. Long gone were the black and white narratives focused on businessmen, now Metrecal had a hip, colorful new style.

“Here they come. The slim ones. The trim ones. Who are they? The Metrecal for lunch bunch. At lunchtime, instead of fattening food, they have delicious Metrecal milkshake flavors.”

But thanks to a disastrous article from Time Magazine, calling the shake “vile, glubby, and nauseating” the attitude had changed somewhat; instructing viewers to have the shake simply once a day.

The Birth and Death of an Industry

Unsurprisingly, there were countless imitators, all hungry to get a piece of the action. And by 1963, there were more than 700 different types of meal replacement solution on the market. But this success would be short lived as by the late 1970s, the FDA started investigating into the content of these liquid shakes and found startling discoveries. Namely that something called “the last chance diet” and other liquid meal replacements led to 59 deaths.

Protein Shakes in the 21st Century

While this revelation rocked the dieting world, and saw the end of Metrecal, the diet shake would be overhauled and rebranded with companies like SlimFast and Soylent. But what about the protein shake itself? Well, it was always there. Not running as a meal replacement or way to lose weight, but a proven and endorsed method of gaining weight that went hand-in-hand with balanced, healthy eating.

Now athletes, gym enthusiasts, and the health conscious have a wide array of protein powders in a range of flavors, suited to different dietary requirements. And these protein shakes, in turn, have a whole host of amazing products specifically designed to help maximize their benefits.


The Metrecal story is a cautionary one. It tracks the rise and fall of a product that exploited and preyed on people’s insecurities. And while marketing will likely always be guilty of this in one way or another, consumers demand clear, safe, and tested products to ensure they get the results they want every time.

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Written by Matthew Stogdon

Matt has been writing for two decades, across print and digital media. He is also an accomplished filmmaker, with several accolades under his belt.

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