Maca powder is one of many modern health trends, as a supplement and holistic health food. These days, you can find it in many health food stores and online shops, and it's not regulated as anything more than a food supplement. So what is it, and why is it so popular?
The History of Maca
Maca has been known by many names over the centuries. It's also known as the Peruvian ginseng, and its scientific name is Lepidium meyenii. It's an edible plant native to south America, found up in the Andes mountains, and has been cultivated for centuries.
In fact, some of the earliest known mentions of the Maca plant come from Peru in the late 1500s. It was given its scientific name in 1843, with further distinction among the species in the 90s.
As a cultivated plant, it is grown in fields similar to something like a turnip or carrot. Stalks of greens grow above ground, but the part people consume is the root. During harvest, these greens are usually cut and left in place, as organic fertilizer or livestock feed.
Interestingly, most Maca is still grown in the Andes mountains. At lower altitudes, it fails to grow well at all, and has trouble in warm climates or in greenhouses. It's unclear whether the health benefits of Maca come from the Maca cultivated in the Andes, or from the plant regardless of where it is grown.
Typically, the Maca plant root is dried and ground, with the powder used as a health supplement. However, it can also be cooked fresh as a root vegetable, or it can be processed into a flour used for baking. In some cases, it is even processed into an extract for sale.
The Purported Benefits of Maca
As a south American mountain root and traditional medication, Maca has had hundreds of possible benefits attributed to it over the centuries. One thing is certain: it is not in any way a miracle cure for everything that ails you. The powdered root might have some tangible benefits, but not everything that has been claimed over the years.
As with every holistic medicine, traditional medicine, or folk remedy, there's not actually a lot of studied science available. Few studies have been performed on the efficacy of Maca powder for any particular ailments. In other words, it might work, or it might not; no one really knows.
Modern science is increasingly turning to traditional medicine to look for active effects it may be able to replicate or extract and refine. Sooner or later, Maca will be a target of this study, and then we'll all see just what it can and can't do. Until then, a lot of what we and others promote as benefits of Maca may or may not be truly effective.
What it all comes down to is this: it's not known to be harmful, so you might as well give it a try. If it works for you, then great! You've found a plant that brings you tangible health benefits. If it doesn't work for you, well, you haven't lost much more than a few dollars it took to buy in the first place.
What Can Maca Do?
So what are these health claims? What do people claim Maca can do, and how might you be able to use it for your own health and wellness? Let's look at the various claims. While the topic of this article is aimed at benefits for women, many of these benefits apply equally to men and women.
Nutrition. If nothing else, Maca is still a root vegetable, and thus it is still highly nutritious. One single ounce of Maca contains 91 calories, 20 grams of carbs, 4 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, 1 gram of fat, and has high levels of vitamin C, copper, iron, potassium, manganese, and vitamin B6. Overall, it's a great option for additional fiber and some vitamins and minerals. Maca also contains polyphenols and glucosinolates, which can be beneficial to the body. When used as a dietary supplement, Maca at least provides some health benefits in terms of vitamins and minerals.
Memory. This is one area where Maca has been studied with various tests in mice. Supplementing Maca has shown some evidence that it can slightly improve memory and learning abilities in those mice. It also may help prevent the age-related decline in cognition heralded by a decline in memory. More testing needs to be performed, and the effects as demonstrated have been relatively minor, but it might be effective. Additionally, it seems that the black Maca variety is more effective than other varieties, though the cause is not yet known.
Anemia. The condition of anemia is a state where your blood lacks the red blood cells necessary to carry oxygen throughout your body. At low levels this means you're fatigued and tired more frequently, and may find yourself facing reduced stamina. At worse levels, anemia can cause organ damage and other serious complications.
Maca, as a traditional remedy, has been used to treat "tired blood", which is a traditional name for anemia. Unfortunately, there's no real evidence to suggest that Maca has any effect above and beyond any other relatively nutritious vegetable.
Fatigue. Maca is often used as a supplement by athletes and bodybuilders. Due to its nutritious composition, it's a dense, packed supplement that can help build muscle and boost energy. Boosting energy, in particular, is a way to combat fatigue. Some animal studies have been performed that indicate Maca powder as a supplement can boost endurance, and one small study involving bicyclists showed a minor improvement in endurance for long (25 mile) rides. The claims about Maca boosting muscle growth have not been verified, but there's evidence to suggest that it improves endurance.
Menopausal Relief. One of the primary listed benefits of modern Maca is assistance with the symptoms of menopause. Menopause is a major change in the body, and it is characterized by a decrease in natural estrogen. Symptoms include hot flashes, mood swings, sleep problems, irritability, and other issues.
Some studies have been performed that indicate Maca may have benefits for alleviating menopausal symptoms. These studies showed a reduction in hot flashes and a deeper, longer sleep cycle.
Libido. Another very common benefit of basically every kind of traditional medicine is sexual performance. Maca is no different, and has been marketed for centuries as a way to increase libido and sexual performance.
There have been some studies that back up this claim for Maca, at least. Taking Maca for six weeks showed an improvement in sexual desire through four clinical studies. Additionally, Maca's ability to affect endurance is beneficial for more than just athletics; sexual performance can benefit from it as well.
Improved Fertility. In addition to improving sex drive and endurance, Maca may have some ability to improve fertility. However, unlike other foods, Maca does not have benefits for the female side of fertility. Rather, Maca may have benefits in sperm motility and in semen quality. In other words, it's a fertility aid for men. Is this an inherent quality of Maca, or something to do with the vitamins and minerals it contains? Studies have been limited thus far so there's no way of knowing yet where the mechanism comes from.
Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is the condition of decreased bone density, a reduction of bone mass and increased bone fragility. It's common, especially among women, as people grow older.
Modern studies have isolated that Maca contains a compound called N-benzyl-palmitamide, which has benefits in preventing bone decay and promoting regeneration and healing of the bones. This means Maca has some potential as a supplement to help delay or avoid osteoporosis.
Depression. Maca may be a mood enhancer. Some of the common symptoms of menopause, as well as other disorders, is a depression or a certain level of mood swings, irritability, and anxiety.
Maca as a plant contains compounds called flavonoids, which are nutrients in most fruits and vegetables. These chemicals are responsible for a range of different health benefits, but in particular they can help stabilize and improve moods and mental outlooks. Maca is by no means as effective as a modern antidepressant, but a Maca supplement can assist with a certain level of natural mood boosting.
Sun Protection. Alright, so this one isn't actually about Maca as a supplement, but rather as a skin treatment. Evidence suggests that a Maca extract may have benefits when applied to the skin, to protect it from UV radiation. This may help reduce the risk of sunburn and skin cancers. Conventional sunscreen is likely still better, but Maca can have some benefit as a natural sunscreen.
One thing to note here is that these benefits are all attributed to Maca that is verified in origin. Since the FDA does not regulate health supplements, you need to exercise caution to make sure that you're actually getting what you intend to get. Some shady sellers might produce "Maca" powders that are cut with other substances, such as basic flour, reducing any benefits it may have. Make sure you're getting your Maca from a reputable source.
How to Use Maca
If you're interested in trying Maca to experience any of the benefits listed above, one thing to know is that it will take several weeks or up to several months to start experiencing those benefits. Maca as a supplement should be taken in regular doses, daily, on an ongoing basis.
So how can you use Maca? As a powder, it's similar to flour, with a butterscotch scent and a relatively neutral flavor. It's easy enough to use: just add it to other things you're eating.
- Since Maca has a consistency similar to flour, it can be used in place of a small portion of flour in recipes. A bit of Maca in pancakes makes for a health-boosted breakfast, for example.
- A little Maca can be added to dense nutrient-boosting treats such as these truffles, which serve as a healthy way to snack and fill up quickly.
- A small spoonful of Maca powder can be added to pretty much any heavily flavored beverage, such as coffee, hot cocoa, or a shake. You can even make a coffee substitute by mixing up some Maca with some Carob and a bit of date.
- Oats can make a great breakfast, but they need to soak, which is why overnight oats are becoming more popular. Add some Maca to your oat soak and get the healthy benefits first thing in the morning.
- Pretty much any blend of a smoothie can have some Maca added to it for its health benefits. However, the faintly caramel flavor of Maca goes best with the deeper, earthier flavors like chocolate, coffee, banana, and cinnamon. Mix up a smoothie for a great treat.
- Granola often uses something like honey to stick clusters together, and you can dust the whole mixture with a little Maca powder to provide that extra kick of both flavor and healthy nutrients.
Those are just some of the ideas we've seen floating around, so this is where we turn to you.
Are you a Maca connoisseur? Have you experimented with the powder in various foods we haven't thought of? If so, leave us your favorite Maca recipes below!