Maca

Maca, an herbal food from the Andean Mountains, has been firmly rooted in the culture of the land since before Incan times, and is now known as a nutritional giant.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Maca, Peruvian ginseng, maca-maca, maino, ayak chichira, ayak willku
  • Scientific nameLepidium meyenii (syn. Lepidium peruvianum)
  • Plant typeShrub
  • Native regionSouth America, Andean Region
  • Main producer(s)Peru
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal, Food industry
Medicinal and Nutritional Information
  • Medicinal actionHormone balancer, Endocrine modulator
  • Key constituentsMacaines
  • Ways to useCapsules, Hot infusions/tisanes, Food, Powder
  • Medicinal rating(4) Very useful plant
How to Consume
  • Edible partsRoot
  • Edible usesProtein
  • TasteMildly bitter
Buying
  • Where to buySpecialized health stores, Online herb stores, Online health stores
Growing
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsRoots
  • SoilClay loam
  • Soil pH7.9 – 8.4 (Moderately alkaline)
  • Growing habitatAndean region
  • Pre-germination seed treatmentNone
  • Growing time6 - 9 months
Additional Information
  • Other usesAnimal feed
Maca

Maca originated in the Andes at high altitudes and rough climates. Based on evidence from cave paintings, it is believed that maca was first domesticated as far back as 3,800 BCE in what is now the Junín region of Peru, and it has been a staple food for native tribes of the Andes for centuries.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionHormone balancer, Endocrine modulator
  • Key constituentsMacaines
  • Ways to useCapsules, Hot infusions/tisanes, Food, Powder
  • Medicinal rating(4) Very useful plant
Maca

Health Benefits of Maca

Maca has been used as both a food and a medicine for hundreds of years. The herb has been traditionally used as a stimulant to increase alertness and energy levels, and it has also been widely consumed as a fertility enhancer for both men and women.

Some of these traditional uses have been corroborated by modern research, which has also revealed that maca can be useful for:

  • Treating hormonal imbalances. Maca supplements are used to relieve hot flashes, hair loss, low libido, vaginal dryness, and other hormone-related symptoms of the menopause transition. Likewise, the herb can help relieve cramping, breast pain, and mood swings related to premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
  • Improving sexual function. Maca has been shown to increase sperm count and motility, as well as relieve sexual dysfunction in both men and women.

How It Works

Maca contains a unique group of alkaloids collectively called macaines. The way maca works has not yet been clearly explained. However, since it does not contain hormones, it is theorized that its combination of alkaloids and other phytonutrients helps regulate the endocrine system.

The herb also has an impressive nutrition profile, which includes fatty acids, vitamins C (ascorbic acid), B12 (cobalamine), B2 (riboflavin), B1 (thiamine), calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous.

Dried maca roots are about 13 – 16% protein

Maca Side Effects

Maca is likely safe for most people when boiled before being consumed. Few to no side effects have been observed in studies aside from mild digestive disturbances.

Maca Cautions

Currently, there are no known medical interactions with maca. However, little research exists on the herb, so a doctor should be consulted before beginning a regimen. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should consume it with caution because its effects on infant development are unknown, and those with hormone-sensitive conditions should avoid maca because of its effect on the endocrine system.

How to Consume Maca

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsRoot
  • Edible usesProtein
  • TasteMildly bitter

Maca has been used for millennia in the Andean region, both as a remedy and as a staple of the diet. Today, it can still be used as a culinary ingredient, but it is more common outside of the Andes to see it in medicinal preparations.

Remedies

Main preparations: Tea, tincture, capsules, powder

  • Tea. Maca tea is a popular way to enjoy the herb, and it can help to alleviate PMS or menopause symptoms.
  • Tincture. Approximately 20 – 30 daily drops of maca tincture may be taken to reduce hormonal effects caused by menopause or PMS.
  • Capsules. An easy and effective way to regulate hormonal changes is taking capsules, which come in convenient, fixed doses without the slightly bitter taste of maca.
  • Powder. Adding maca powder to food and drink can also provide the herb's hormonal benefits.

Food

Main preparations: Flour, dried, boiled, beverages

While maca has not been widely integrated into global cuisine, it is a common component in traditional Andean preparations. The herb itself is slightly bitter and has been described as an acquired taste. Fortunately, there are many recipes that can make it more palatable, without losing its nutrient content.

The root is often ground into flour for breads, cakes, and other baked goods. It is also included as a highly nutritious base for stews. The dried roots can be boiled in milk to make porridge, or be turned into a fermented beverage. Other beverages can be made from processed maca as well, including beer and juice. The green leaves of the plant, which have a pungent flavor, are occasionally used in salads. These culinary uses are largely limited to maca's native areas.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySpecialized health stores, Online herb stores, Online health stores

Raw Maca

As knowledge of maca's nutritional and medicinal benefits spreads, the herb becomes increasingly available around the world in various forms. In fact, the demand for maca has been growing by about 15% per year.

Although the market for maca is expanding, most of the herb's production is processed for supplements. Nonetheless, many specialized health stores and even some whole food chains carry maca flour. It is most difficult to find whole, raw maca roots, though an increasing number of online outlets are now supplying both raw maca and maca powder.

Maca Supplements

Maca supplements are widely available in herbal and specialized health stores as well as online retailers. They come in many forms, including tea, tincture, and capsules.

Many consumers prefer to take maca supplements, as they offer a consistent dose. Online stores offer the most variety in supplement forms and dosages, which are available at a range of price points. The quality of the brands should always be verified before an online purchase is made.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsRoots
  • SoilClay loam
  • Soil pH7.9 – 8.4 (Moderately alkaline)
  • Growing habitatAndean region
  • Pre-germination seed treatmentNone
  • Growing time6 - 9 months

Maca thrives in mountain regions, making it difficult to grow in moderate climes. It grows best in habitats like its native one, at altitudes of 12,500 – 16,000 feet (3,800 – 4,800 m) above sea level, and it is a difficult plant to propagate. Because it has not been cultivated widely outside of the Andes, it is unclear whether it can be grown productively in other locations around the world.

Growing Guidelines

  • After harvest, the strongest maca plants are transplanted to manure-rich plots, after the frost has killed the tops, in order to allow the sprout of new shoots.
  • After around five months, seeds naturally fall to the ground, and are cultivated mixed with plant scraps and loose soil.
  • Young maca plants can be covered with straw for additional protection.
  • This crop prefers loam and clay soils, and it tolerates shallow soils on steep slopes where many other plants cannot grow.
  • The plants can survive on as little as 27.5 inches (700 mm) of rainfall per year, but it is advised to irrigate the soil regularly.
  • Maca grows in cold climates, with temperatures ranging 15 – 72°F (-9 – 22°C).
  • Harvesting typically takes place six to seven months after planting, though this period can be extended up to nine months in harsher areas.
  • The average yield is three tons per hectare, though larger yields are possible with agronomic techniques.
  • Maca demands a high amount of nutrients and absorbs most of the available minerals from the soil. Therefore, it is important to rotate crops in order for the soil to regain its fertility. Alternatively, organic fertilizer can be used to restore the soil's nutrient content. Otherwise, plots are left fallow for about 10 years after maca cultivation.

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesAnimal feed

Plant Biology

Maca grows close to the ground and generally produces 12 - 20 leaves per plant. The leaves grow as rosettes, and the plant bears beige flowers that give way to small fruits with seeds. Below the soil surface, maca has a fleshy, underground root, known as the hypocotyl, which grows seven inches (18 cm) deep and can reach up to 3.5 inches (9 cm) in diameter, and from which most of the plant's culinary and medicinal preparations are made.

Maca may also be called Peruvian ginseng, maka, or maca-maca. 

  • Classification
    Maca, or Lepidium meyenii, belongs to the Brassicaceae family, which includes crucifers like radishes and turnips. When biologist Gloria Chacón defined domesticated maca as a new species, naming it Lepidium peruvianum, controversy arose concerning the plant's true classification. Today, most scientists agree, however, that the proper designation is Walpers's original L. meyenii.
  • Varieties and Subspecies of Maca
    Although maca does not have any subspecies, there are 13 varieties of the herb based on root color. Nearly 50% of maca grown today is of the yellow variety, which is sold on the market along with the black and red varieties. Though much less common, other root colors range from white to gray to purple, including bicolor varieties of all of the above.

Historical Information

After native Andeans recommended the use of maca to Spaniards for livestock breeding, it became a commodity in the viceroyalty of Peru. Records from 200 - 250 years ago show that the Spanish crown demanded nine tons of maca from the Junín region of Peru as tribute.

However, regarded as a "poor man's crop," the herb later fell out of common use, eventually reaching endangered status in 1982. In spite of this temporary decline, repopulation efforts and modern research have brought maca to the spotlight as a "superfood," and its popularity has resurged in the 21st century, extending far beyond its original scope.

Economic Data

Because maca grows in harsh, bleak terrain where no other crops survive, it is a significant crop that allows Andean farmers to make use of land that would otherwise be barren. In recent years, maca has been commercialized, and it is now exported as an herbal medicine to the U.S., China, Japan, Europe, and other parts of the world, providing a boost to the economy of the region, as it is more profitable than potato. Peru produced 600 tons of maca in 2009, of which over 90% was exported to foreign markets.

Popular Beliefs

Incan soldiers were fed maca to improve strength and vigor, and youth were warned to avoid the plant, as it was believed to provoke lust.

Other Uses

The use of maca to boost fertility has been extended to livestock, and it is sometimes used to facilitate breeding. The leaves and sometimes the roots are used to feed herds, as well as guinea pigs. Maca has also been used to stimulate population growth of pest-controlling insects, which helps to avoid the use of chemical pesticides.

Although research on maca is still in its early stages, studies so far have shown that it is a tremendously useful superfood with several significant health benefits, particularly its ability to regulate hormonal imbalances during menopause and PMS.

Bibliography

  • Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands, 2012
  • International Food Research Journal, Maca flour: a powerful ingredient for functionally enhanced bread, 2013
  • Government of Peru, PROMPEX: Plantas Medicinales Mercado Mundial
  • Forschende Komplementärmedizin und Klassische Naturheilkunde, Lepidium meyenii (Maca): a plant from the highlands of Peru--from tradition to science, 2009
  • Lost Crops of the Incas, pp. 56-65

DISCLAIMER: The information provided is intended only as a general reference for further exploration, and is not a replacement for professional health advice. This information should be used only under the direct supervision of a qualified health practitioner such as a naturopathic physician. Information contained in HerbaZest.com is based on pharmacological records, scientific research, traditional knowledge and historical data, both old and modern. HerbaZest.com cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of the information provided.