Posted on January 04 2018
Ben Esgro, MS, RD, CSCS
This week, let’s talk about a sports supplement that even your parents have probably heard of, creatine. Jokes aside, this speaks to the impact creatine supplements have not only had on the supplement industry, but sports culture. Despite its widespread use and awareness, the truth is creatine still confuses a lot of people… or, at least, they are confused about what separates the seemingly endless creatine supplement varieties available today.
This week, let’s break down the basics. We’ll cover:
- What is creatine?
- Why are there so many different types?
- What’s the difference between one creatine supplement and the next?
Let’s start by building a brief technical background about creatine so we can grasp some key concepts moving through the article. In your body, creatine is produced from the combination of 3 essential amino acids: arginine, methionine, and glycine. So, it’s not just a dietary supplement. Assuming you eat some type of animal tissue (fish, meat), creatine itself is a part of your diet and it’s also made by your body from the arginine, methionine, and glycine you consume through food.
Whether taken as a creatine supplement or not, even your vegan buddy is a creatine user. It is an important fuel source for short duration (0-10 seconds), high intensity activity in the body for which “burning” carbohydrates or fats doesn’t produce energy quickly enough. The primary reason it is relevant as a supplement is for the fact that performance can be enhanced when muscle cells are “saturated” with creatine, and it is difficult to saturate muscle creatine levels through diet alone. For example, even the best dietary source of creatine is herring at .06 to .10% creatine per kilogram – if you wanted to get your 5 grams of creatine per day, you would have to eat around a kilo of fish every day. Probably not something that is desirable for most of us, or anyone else you share a kitchen or eating space with – hence the utility of a creatine supplement.
IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH CREATINE MONOHYDRATE? IF NOT, WHY ALL THE ALTERNATIVES?
The short answer to this is nothing – to date there has not been a form of creatine supplement that has experimentally bested creatine monohydrate for sports performance. But, what if we consider properties beyond just sports performance? Things like not leaving a bunch of sediment in your water bottle, or ensuring you get your full dose when mixing your creatine supplement in water? To cover this, let’s first review the chemical structure of creatine.
Figure 1 The majestic chemical formula of creatine (anhydrous)
Don’t worry if you don’t have a clue what’s going on – for the most important aspects we are going to use a simple analogy. Remember playing tug of war (please say yes…)? Okay, so this also means you remember how important it was to have a big, strong person on your side. Why? Because this big, strong person helped you create an imbalance, favoring the rope coming to your side. Think of nitrogen and oxygen (the N’s and O’s in the chemical formula above) like your big strong buddies in elementary school. They “pull” electrons in a compound toward them, making those points more electrically charged – this creates an imbalance in the way that the electric charges are distributed across the molecule. Or, to give it its proper name, they make a compound more polar.
The next thing to remember is that molecules are a bit like high school cliques – like mixes well with like. Polar compounds tend to dissolve in polar fluids and non-polar compounds dissolve better in non-polar fluids. Being that water is a polar fluid (it has 2 big, strong oxygens per molecule), we want whatever we are going to try to mix into it to be polar. Creatine, with all that nitrogen and oxygen is a polar molecule, so it can interact and dissolve in water.
But, as you have likely seen when you mix your creatine in cold water, you still get quite a bit of powder that just falls to the bottom of your container. So, how can we make it more soluble? We make it more polar.
To do this, we need to turn it into a salt – where the creatine is forced to bond to another molecule. A little like the salt you sprinkle on your fries, except with added gains. Salts are like family members who hate each other, forced to sit together at Thanksgiving: at the earliest possible opportunity, they’ll get up and leave the table. So, when you put a salt (just like table salt) into water, it splits into its respective parts and dissolves well because they can’t wait to get rid of each other. This why you see lots of malate, citrate, hydrochloride, orotate, tartrate in the names of supplement ingredients or drugs. Chemists make salts of less water-soluble compounds to enhance their water solubility. This also tends to enhance their absorption in the gastrointestinal tract for oral supplements/drugs. Lastly, different compounds make more soluble salts than others – creatine hates certain other molecules more than others – so creatine hydrochloride, creatine malate, creatine citrate, etc… will not only have different solubility than monohydrate, but from one another as well.
In summary, the only real benefit a creatine salt is going to provide you over monohydrate is the amount you are going to be able to mix in your water without it falling to the bottom of your container. But how does this impact dosing?
DOSING CREATINE SALTS: BEWARE OF MARKETING HYPE
You may have heard that you can dose your creatine salt lower than monohydrate because it is more soluble.
That is wrong. Here’s why.
You are taking creatine for the effects of the creatine – not whatever it is bound to. This means the portion of the compound that is creatine should be most important to you. Let’s use a few examples of real forms of creatine here to highlight our point. Pure (anhydrous) creatine is 100% creatine by weight. Any other form of creatine is going to be less than 100% because it has something else bound to it that contributes to its weight. Creatine monohydrate is 87.9% creatine by weight, creatine hydrochloride 78.3%, creatine malate 74.7%, creatine citrate 66%. So, to get your 5 gram dose, oftentimes you will have to use MORE of a salt to get the equivalent amount of creatine compared to monohydrate. Confused? Let me show you:
|Creatine Salt||% Creatine by weight||Amount of creatine in 5 g of salt|
|Creatine Monohydrate||87.9%||4.4 g|
|Creatine HCl||78.3%||3.9 g|
|Creatine Malate||74.7%||3.7 g|
|Creatine Citrate||66%||3.3 g|
This may be why many of these forms fail to outperform monohydrate – because they aren’t taking the same amount of creatine. It is more likely the manufacturer just tried to save a buck by giving you less creatine and telling you it was better because it mixed better with your water.
TAKE HOME POINTS
- Creatine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the body, but you can enhance your high-intensity sports performance by saturating your muscle cells with creatine. The most efficient way to do this is via a creatine supplement.
- Creatine is soluble in water, but not by all that much. You can make it more soluble by turning it into a creatine salt, which is the form found in most creatine supplements.
- If you’re using a supplement that contains a form of creatine other than monohydrate, then you may need to take more in order to get the same quantity of creatine. Don’t be fooled by marketing hype.
Jäger, R., et al., Analysis of the efficacy, safety, and regulatory status of novel forms of creatine. Amino Acids, 2011. 40(5): p. 1369-1383.
Wells S., Esgro B., Creatine. Sports Nutrition and Performance Enhancing Supplements, ed. A.E. Smith-Ryan. 2009: Linus Publications, Incorporated.