Inside the Creatine Shortage Affecting Consumers and Supplement Brands

The supplement industry has a serious powder problem.

If your typical creatine order seems outlandishly expensive or is completely unavailable, this isn’t some twisted meathead nightmare — creatine is in short supply and it’s affecting consumers and supplement companies. Popular brands are either out of the good stuff altogether or their prices have nearly doubled in the last few months. 

The mad clamor for toilet paper in the early weeks of 2020 marked the flashpoint of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on consumer goods. While rows of empty shelves in grocery stores the world over may have seemed like an omen of the end times, toiletries were far from the only product to boom in sales as coronavirus rocked the globe. 

creatine powder
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Prior to the pandemic, supplements like creatine helped drive steady growth in the industry of about five percent year-over-year. But in April 2020 — the onset of the pandemic — sales were 44% higher than the same period in 2019. (1) As gyms closed up shop and health and hygiene became the focus of the news cycle, people bought up supplements at an astonishing pace. However, this frenzy came at a price. 

Higher demand for products like whey protein, multivitamins, and especially creatine challenges the supply chain from start to finish. For creatine products in particular, the pandemic has slowly but surely created a drastic shortage. As a result, the cost of creatine has steadily climbed — with no end in sight.

The Pains of Pricing

Although exact figures are hard to come by, creatine supplementation is a highly-profitable worldwide industry. The search engine software Ahrefs cites over 400,000 search engine inquiries about creatine in December 2021 alone, which is close to 100,000 more searches than in December 2020. Gymgoers consume it daily as a pill or powder to better their performance or physiques. For buyers, the crux of the issue is that creatine is meant to be taken daily. As such, they need to re-up their personal stores on a regular basis. 

Such a consistent, widespread demand ripens the industry for disarray:

“As it stands, the shortage remains in full effect, and we anticipate creatine to be harder to purchase throughout 2022,” says Clea Murphy, supply chain manager for Nutra Holdings LLC, a sports nutrition platform that oversees several prominent supplement brands such as Jacked Factory and Transparent Labs.

creatine and weights
Credit: RHJPhtotoandilustration / Shutterstock

For creatine, a product that relies on accessibility and low cost as a selling point, scant availability is a huge blow. Although it sells lucratively on its own, creatine is also a regular ingredient in “proprietary blends,” commonly found in various pre-workout powders and protein supplements. When creatine itself rises in price, adjunct products are likely to follow.

According to Murphy, creatine maintained a steady average price of roughly five dollars per kilogram in early 2021. The same time a year later, it can easily cost up to 42 dollars per kilogram, “with more increases to come.”

Honey is a consumer savings application that tracks price movements for online goods. Their metrics indicate that many of the prominent players in the supplement industry are seeing raised prices to accommodate the growing scarcity: 

Creatine pricing

  • Optimum Nutrition Creatine Monohydrate (300 capsules) $26 vs. $50
  • BSN Micronized Creatine Powder (60 servings) $23 vs. $35
  • MyProtein Creatine Powder (100 servings) $26 vs. $47

*Note: Pricing based on Honey’s three-month moving averages. These products experience regular fluctuations in price on Amazon. As of Feb. 7, 2022, Optimum Nutrition and BSN’s creatine products are out of stock at the listed serving sizes. 

Seeking the Source

The rapidly-rising prices of existing creatine products as well as some vendors struggling to provide the supplement all are the result of knots in the supply chain. That chain spans the majority of the globe, and while highly efficient when operating smoothly, it is easily derailed by health crises and geopolitics alike. 

A huge portion of the world’s creatine monohydrate is synthesized and exported by China, says Murphy. Pandemic-related restrictions, such as capacity limitations in factories, narrow the lane through which the country supplies creatine to Western supplement brands.

However, COVID-inspired policies are only one — albeit highly impactful — factor putting a dampen on the creatine situation. According to Murphy:

Politics plays a large role in the accessibility of ingredients. Many industry insiders believe the shortages are partly due to the ongoing trade disputes between China and the United States that began in 2018. 

The disputes in question refer to tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on foreign exports in an attempt to sway American buyers away from international goods and towards domestically-made products. (2)

While some brands do package and sell creatine products domestically, the baseline ingredient, known as Creapure®, is an international patent owned by German chemical manufacturer AlzChem Group. The operations of companies like AlzChem are partly at the mercy of crop yields from China, says Murphy, and a poor harvest can have significant ripple effects on the process at large. 

Creatine map graphic

Massive order volumes that suppliers in Germany can’t accommodate, combined with ongoing operational restrictions in Chinese factories and politically-motivated price hikes, creates the perfect storm — too many hungry hands, not enough creatine to go around. Brands searching for available creatine move from one supplier to the next, soaking up what is available in an attempt to match consumer demand.

“If a company struggles to keep up with the rising price of the raw material due to a lack of cash flow, they’re forced to increase their prices,” says Murphy. 

Supply Concerns & Consequences

A breakdown of the international supply chain may seem like a far-off concern for the average person just trying to get ripped. That said, there’s nothing wrong with having concerns about more than the health of your bank account.

While consumers are right to worry about quantity, Murphy reinforces that quality control for creatine products remains as steadfast as ever:

The quality of a creatine product purchased in the United States is not affected by ingredient shortages. Manufacturers are obligated to follow policies enforced by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Brands must test and provide evidence that the product adheres to safety specifications.

Murphy does acknowledge that there is an ever-present risk for consumers accidentally picking up counterfeit products, but this largely occurs in more remote regions that prominent vendors struggle to ship to in the first place.

So, if you’re on the prowl for a reliable creatine powder or your favorite pre-workout contains a proprietary blend that incorporates it, don’t fret. Your wallet may take a beating if you consider creatine an essential part of your supplement stack, but the product should work as well as ever if you can get ahold of it. 

The Benefits of Creatine

If you’ve never taken creatine before, an international supply crisis might’ve piqued your interest. There’s no such thing as a shortage without a demand. If everyone wants to get their hands on a creatine product, it’s perfectly natural to wonder what makes it so compelling to begin with. 

Creatine is among the most thoroughly-researched ergogenic aids in history. The scientific community has published hundreds of papers documenting the safety and efficacy of creatine as a way of boosting your performance both in and out of the gym.

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.

Increased Strength

Chief among the benefits of creatine supplementation is the positive effect it has on your strength. Meta-analyses, which look at collections of research on a topic as a whole, have concluded that creatine produces noteworthy strength gains if taken alongside a resistance-training regimen. (3)

Bigger Muscles

Alongside stronger muscles, creatine comes with the added perk of helping you add size to your physique as well. Creatine monohydrate helps your tissues absorb, retain, and regulate fluid more easily, which leads to increased muscle volume. Beyond that, some literature cites a strong correlation between creatine and hypertrophy itself. (4)

Improved Cognition

Creatine isn’t an all-brawn-no-brain supplement. It actually packs some surprising benefits to cognitive function as well. Some studies support the idea that supplementing with creatine can help with both short-term memory as well as logical or reasoning skills. (5)

Further, it has also been shown to improve mental health markers in older individuals who are more prone to cognitive deterioration, as well as those susceptible to chronic stress. (6

Looking Forward

An ongoing shortage is making creatine worth its weight in gold to dedicated fitness enthusiasts who consider it a staple of their nutritional plans. While there’s no indication that creatine is to become a thing of the past, Murphy stresses that things may continue to worsen before they get better:

“[The shortage] is heavily influenced by the duration of the pandemic,” she says. “So long as it persists, the regulatory consequences will affect the ability of domestic and international suppliers to meet demands.”

For consumers, this likely means much higher prices and lower availability for a product that has historically been cheap and easy to find. In a poetic yet unwelcome way, a taller price tag for creatine better matches its well-backed benefits. Few performance-based products have worked so well, for so long, for so little — a luxury that consumers are undoubtedly anxious to return to. 

References

  1. Lordan R. (2021). Dietary supplements and nutraceuticals market growth during the coronavirus pandemic – Implications for consumers and regulatory oversight. PharmaNutrition, 18, 100282. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phanu.2021.100282
  2. Kreider R. B. (2003). Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations. Molecular and cellular biochemistry, 244(1-2), 89–94.
  3. Nunes, J. P., Ribeiro, A. S., Schoenfeld, B. J., Tomeleri, C. M., Avelar, A., Trindade, M. C., Nabuco, H. C., Cavalcante, E. F., Junior, P. S., Fernandes, R. R., Carvalho, F. O., & Cyrino, E. S. (2017). Creatine supplementation elicits greater muscle hypertrophy in upper than lower limbs and trunk in resistance-trained men. Nutrition and health, 23(4), 223–229. https://doi.org/10.1177/0260106017737013
  4. Rawson, E. S., & Venezia, A. C. (2011). Use of creatine in the elderly and evidence for effects on cognitive function in young and old. Amino acids, 40(5), 1349–1362. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-011-0855-9
  5. Avgerinos, K. I., Spyrou, N., Bougioukas, K. I., & Kapogiannis, D. (2018). Effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive function of healthy individuals: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Experimental gerontology, 108, 166–173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exger.2018.04.013

Featured Image: Pavlo Lys/Shutterstock