Although less popular today, in prior decades this was the hottest bodybuilding supplement on the market.
From a superficial understanding, it made sense.
Creatine is an amino acid found in muscles, whether that be humans or animals. Bodies convert creatine to phosphocreatine. That’s stored in the muscles. It can be used for energy.
In short, creatine is a form of stored energy that can aide in production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) energy.
When pushing yourself on the bench press or doing a dead lift, it may give you that added oomph of energy to do even more.
Is creatine vegan?
No. Creatine is only made by animals (vertebrates) and hence, there are not any natural plant-based food sources. Creatine supplements are typically vegan because they are synthetically created, using non-animal derived ingredients.
Creatine is made in the lab using two key components; sarcosine (a salt) and hydrogen cyanamide (a synthetic compound).
Despite sounding similar, cyanamide has no relation to cyanide, a poison.
It has long been believed that cyanamide is not found in nature, but in 2015 scientific research was published which found that several species of legumes (bean plants) naturally produce small amounts. (1)
Do vegans have lower creatine levels?
Since vegans and vegetarians do not get any extra creatine from food, their levels tend to be lower. However, vegans they still have relatively high levels, since all humans (whether meat-eater or not) get most of their creatine from internal production.
According to one study comparing healthy vegetarians to omnivores, the average blood serum levels of creatine in the vegetarians was an average of 38.5% lower (25.1 vs. 40.8 μmol/L).
However there is lack of scientific evidence to support that the added dietary sources of creatine from red meat, seafood, and similar are needed… or healthy.
In other words, the body can make it, so do we really need extra?
This same concept holds true with cholesterol.
Plant-based foods are all 100% cholesterol-free. It’s not even in vegan junk food, like Oreos. This is because only animals make it.
In the case of creatine, if more is better, then those with higher levels should be buffer, right? Well, the data suggests the opposite!
The same aforementioned study found that levels were substantially higher in women versus men. For omnivores, women average 50.2, compared to men at 40.8 μmol/L. That means men naturally have 19% lower creatine levels than women.
That’s for omnivores. The trend for vegetarians was the same.
On average, women are weaker physically than men. So that throws a wrench into the notion that being on a plant-based diet will result in being a weakling, because your natural creatine levels will be lower. (4)
Side effects of creatine
Creatine monohydrate is the most common form found in dietary supplements.
There’s also creatine ethyl ester, hydrochloride, buffered, liquid, and magnesium chelate. The data is debatable as to which is best for bioavailability, or even if there’s a significant advantage with one versus another.
Taking creatine supplements has been linked to kidney damage, kidney stones, excess water retention, bloating, and rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of skeletal muscle). Long term side effects of taking high creatine dosages daily are unknown.
The good news for bodybuilders is that many of these adverse health effects are skewed and taken out of context.
For example, it is true there are case studies of high dosages causing kidney damage.
But is that specific to creatine? Or just high dosages of amino acids (protein) in general?
It turns out, no one really knows.
Since amino acids are processed by your kidneys, too much protein in general damages them permanently.
It’s unfair to blame creatine as causing more damage than other form amino acids.
Since creatine does increase water retention in the muscles, perhaps the most obvious and proven drawback of supplementing with it is that some of your gains in mass are merely water. This is not a myth, though it is sometimes exaggerated (not all of your gains are water). (5)
The danger you don’t hear
Even an amateur bodybuilder has probably heard of many, if not all, of the purported side effects discussed above.
What they haven’t heard – nor supplement companies and the media – is that dangerous chemical reactions taking place in the body are aided by this compound.
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are a potent class of carcinogens. They have the highest, or most dangerous rating; Group 1 per the World Health Organization.
The reason HCAs are so bad for you is because they mutate your DNA. In the best case scenario, this causes accelerated aging. In the worst case, cancer.
Heterocyclic amines are found only in meats, not vegan foods.
Why? Because in order for it to form, creatine must be present. HCAs require sugars (glucose), creatine or creatinine, plus other amino acids.
When meat is exposed to high heat, especially concentrated sources that are drying, HCAs form.
Think grilling and frying. With boiling, almost none is formed.
Both red and white meat are sources.
It’s ironic that chicken breasts are perceived as being healthy and good for weight loss and bodybuilding. They are one of the most potent sources of these carcinogens:
|The 5 Worst Grilled Foods For HCAs (6)|
|Food||HCAs (ng per 100g)|
|Chicken breast, skinless, boneless, grilled, well done||14,000|
|Steak, grilled, well done||810|
|Salmon, grilled with skin||166|
|Hamburger, grilled, well done||130|
Creatine in and of itself is not mutagenic. It does not mutate DNA or cause cancer. However, similar to adding gasoline to a fire, is it healthy and safe to be supplementing with creatine, given that it’s the key component to creating these Group 1 carcinogens?
Does creatine hurt you?
If you follow the dosage instructions and don’t overdo it with protein powders and other protein-rich foods, taking creatine should not hurt your kidneys, liver, or stomach. A typical 5g serving of creatine will only have 20 calories, which is not enough to interfere with a weight loss diet.
But does it harm you in other ways, by creating more carcinogens?
If you cook or bake with a creatine supplement, such as adding the powder to a protein brownie recipe, then HCAs will form from the heat in the oven.
Fortunately, unlike whey and vegan protein powders, almost no one uses creatine powders in recipes.
But what about just taking the powder?
Surprisingly only a single human study has been done on this and it wasn’t until 2015.
It was a very small study, with only 3 people taking a creatine supplement, while 6 were on a placebo for comparison.
After both acute dosing (1 day) and long term use (30 days) of creatine, there was not a statistically significant difference in the blood or urine levels of cancer causing HCAs, like MelQ, PhIP, and IFP.
This does offer some relief as to creatine supplementation causing cancer. However, it’s a tiny study and no levels were recorded prior to day 1 of using it.
Plus, on days 8 thru 30, they only used low dose creatine; 2g or 5g. (7)
Taking creatine for bodybuilding should be safe. Staying on it for months or years is not recommended, until further research is done.
Best vegan creatine supplements
Okay, so you know the data now about the safety of creatine. If you’re going to take it, stick with that ingredient only.
Don’t use a pre-workout that’s also packing other ingredients.
Sure, most combos are probably safe, but many contain compounds which have limited safety research and/or may harm your kidneys and liver in high amounts. Why risk it?
On Amazon, some simple and clean creatine plant-based options include:
Naked Creatine powder – 100% pure creatine monohydrate. Vegan, non-GMO, and gluten free. 2.2 lb bulk for great price.
Doctor’s Best powder – Pure with no added sweeteners, colors or fillers. Small 300g container.
Crazy Muscle Three-Atine capsules – Veggies capsules will with creatine monohydrate, alphaketoglutarate, and pyruvate forms.