Just as most consumable items are, creatine does expire. However, the chemical structure of creatine makes it extremely stable.
Most labels would indicate that creatine supplements can last about two to three years, depending on the form of the creatine in the supplement. However, powdered creatine can still remain viable and safe to consume even after one to two years beyond the expiration date, in the right conditions.
This article will explain the basics of creatine and shelf life, how long creatine can last, and how to properly store it. It will also explain how to know if your creatine has gone bad, what signs to look out for, and whether taking bad creatine is safe.
How Does Creatine Work?
Creatine is an organic compound that the body naturally produces. It is typically produced in the kidneys, liver, and pancreas. It is formed by the interaction of two amino acids, glycine and arginine, and it plays a key role in energy production.
In the body, energy is actively used to run most cellular processes. This energy is used is in the form of ATP or adenosine triphosphate. ATP is used for most active processes but more importantly for bodybuilders and athletes, ATP fuels muscle contraction. Upon muscle contraction, ATP is converted to a different form – ADP, adenosine diphosphate.
ATP is produced in a number of ways, but this discussion will remain on the production pathway that involves creatine. As creatine is produced, it travels through the blood and most of it binds to the skeletal muscles where it will remain in a creatine pool until needed. Some of the creatine from this pool will be converted to phosphocreatine by an enzyme called creatine kinase. This constantly occurs and therefore, muscles will naturally contain a pool of creatine and phosphocreatine.
During intense physical activity, muscle cells expend the locally available ATP in a short amount of time. To replenish the lost ATP, phosphocreatine can donate its phosphate group to the by-product of ATP which is ADP. This reaction reverts ADP back to ATP, providing the muscles with more energy to use. The phosphocreatine then breaks down into creatinine and is expelled from the body through urination.
Meaning, supplementary creatine can not only enhance muscle workload, but also enlarge muscle fiber size, increase lean body mass, and help prevent tissue damage.
Shelf Life Terminology Explained
Shelf life is a common industry term for the duration of time by which a product can be stored and still be considered safe to consume. The shelf life of a product can usually be determined on the product packaging by the phrases/abbreviations such as “expiry date,” “expiration date,” “sell by,” “EXP,” “ED,” “use by,” and “consume by,” followed by an industry determined date following its date of manufacture.
These dates should not be confused by other dates that the manufacturer can choose to add such as manufacturing dates, best before dates, and others.
How Long Does Creatine Last?
On paper, product packaging of creatine supplements typically declares a shelf life of two to three years. However, there are other factors to consider.
While two to three years may be the declared shelf life, studies have shown that supplementary creatine can remain stable up to one to two years after the declared shelf life period. This is strictly regarding creatine supplements in the powdered form of creatine monohydrate as they are considered to be the most stable. Other forms of creatine supplements can behave differently.
Creatine HCL (hydrochloride) is a form of creatine that has been bound with hydrochloride. This form is considered to be the more superior form of supplementary creatine as it is more water soluble, meaning it is absorbed by the body more effectively when compared to creatine monohydrate.
However, the nature of creatine HCL might be the reason for why it is less stable than creatine monohydrate. Creatine breaks down into creatinine in the presence of water. Since creatine HCL is more water soluble, it is expected to be more vulnerable to the moisture in the air.
Note that the breakdown of creatine into creatinine due to water is not a quick reaction so drinking the creatine supplement the day it was prepared should be okay. However, for long term storage, moisture might degrade the quality of the supplement.
Other forms of creatine that are more water soluble than monohydrate include: creatine citrate and creatine malate.
These examples have all been creatine supplements sold in powdered form. Products marketed as creatine capsules and liquids should be dealt with caution. Compared to the powdered supplements, these forms may not last as long beyond the expiration date.
How Should Creatine Be Stored?
Product packaging usually offers the best recommended storage conditions as the manufacturers intended. However, a cool dry place is almost always recommended.
Powdered, or crystalline, creatine is highly stable – even at high temperatures. Since the structure of creatine is quite similar to that of a typical amino acid, it does not possess the qualities of a protein, specifically the nature of proteins to unfold and degrade in the presence of heat.
Temperature is more of an issue when mixed with water as chemical reactions typically progress faster in higher temperatures than they would in lower temperatures.
The dry storage condition is more important than the storage temperature. Moisture in the air can always enter creatine supplement containers when not sealed properly or during usual use (regular opening and closing of the container). The moisture in the air can get inside the containers and mix with the creatine. Although very minimal risk, a long enough period of creatine with moisture can eventually begin to degrade the creatine into creatinine.
What are the Signs of Expired Creatine?
In powdered form, there are a few things to look out for when checking whether creatine has gone bad.
Upon inspection, if your creatine powder has been observed to be clumpy, this only means that sufficient moisture has interacted with the creatine. This by itself is not necessarily a marker for expiry.
Compared to clumping, an unpleasant aroma and discoloration should be taken more seriously. These factors together can be a sign of bacterial colonization. At this point, it is best to avoid taking it.
Is Expired Creatine Dangerous to Take?
Expired creatine is widely accepted to be safe to take. Degraded creatine is simply creatinine and studies have shown that ingesting creatinine has no adverse health risks. It should be noted that in this context, ‘expired creatine’ means creatine that has gone beyond its expiry date.
As mentioned above, if your creatine supplement is producing an unpleasant aroma and displaying discoloration, these signs should be taken seriously, and your supplement should be regarded unsafe for consumption.
However, if the creatine has gone beyond the expiry date and looks the same, then it should be perfectly fine to take. Even clumpy creatine should be safe. While a slight portion of the creatine may have already been broken down to creatinine, the worst-case scenario is just the ingestion of less creatine than intended.
Powdered creatine is incredibly stable and should not pose too much of a concern. As long as the creatine supplement looks normal and hasn't developed any unpleasant aromas or discoloration, then it should still be safe to take.