WASHINGTON — Creatine--because it works, because it's legal and because it does not appear to have any unmanageable side effects--is in a class by itself as the most popular sports nutrient on the planet, with sales of $400 million worldwide.
In a 1999 Blue Cross-Blue Shield Assn. survey, 27% of children ages 12 to 18 said they knew someone who used performance-enhancing substances, and more than half of those knew someone who used creatine. A survey by New York's Mount Sinai Hospital Sports Medicine Center found that children of both sexes as young as 12 were using creatine and that usage rose to 44% among high school seniors.
"I took it for a month to get stronger for the football season. My bench press increased 30 pounds, and my curls and squats increased 50 pounds," said Tommy McDonald, a 190-pound senior offensive guard at Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore. "All of a sudden, everything shot up very quickly. I made all-league."
But sometimes, marketing strategies go awry. In 1998, the ESPN sports network apologized for running a General Nutrition Centers ad for creatine during the Little League World Series.
And sometimes the bloom simply starts to fade. In recent years, there have been signs that creatine is losing favor among those who used to be its strongest promoters--some coaches are starting to question its use.
"It's not illegal, and if you want your son on it, that's your business," said Dick Adams, head football coach at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, Va. "But I don't promote it. I tell them: 'It's a drug. Don't be frustrated with what God gave you.' "
Last year, the Texas legislature easily passed a law prohibiting public school employees from selling or promoting "performance-enhancing products" on school time after Ann Torrez complained that coaches at Hays High School outside Austin were offering to sell creatine to her son Lyndsey, then 15, to help him bulk up for the season.
"Where are they [coaches] going to be 15 or 20 years from now if this should turn out to have damaging effects?" Torrez asked at a Texas House of Representatives committee hearing. "Are they going to be there to pick up the pieces from our children? I don't think so."
That's the sentiment of Maryland health consultant Patricia Mann, the former team nutritionist for the Washington Capitals hockey team.
"It's going to be years before we know what we've been doing to ourselves," Mann said. "We're not a toxic waste dump, and I don't know why people think they can put things in their body and not have bad effects. You wouldn't treat your car that way."