Maca is yet another of the seemingly endless roster of herbal remedies that are part of global medical traditions. In this case, rather than coming from ayurvedic or Chinese medicine, Maca comes from the other side of the world. Specifically, it's native to the Andes Mountains in Peru and other parts of South America.
All About Maca
Maca is known by many names. These names include Peruvian ginseng, maca-maca, Maino, Ayak-Chichira, and 'Ayak-Willku'. We'll stick with maca, for this article. The scientific name is Lepidium Meyenii, and it's a member of the Brassicaceae family. Brassicaceae includes over 4,000 different plants in 372 different genera. Other brassicas include cabbage, kale, broccoli, collards, turnip, radish, rapeseed, horseradish, and a variety of different kinds of cress. It is, to put it lightly, a very extensive group of plants.
Maca itself is a root plant similar to a turnip or radish. It's used in much the same way in many cases, as well; as a root vegetable to eat. It can be raw or cooked and is generally a quite flexible vegetable. Some varieties of maca are quite sweet and tasty.
Maca can also be dried and turned into a kind of flour used in cooking. Dried maca flour is also what is often marketed as traditional medication, and is what you're most likely to find here in the USA.
Maca has been used as a food and medicine for centuries, with a limited range in a specific area of Peru. It has only been in recent years – the last two or three decades, really – where it has exploded in popularity and has been broadly cultivated for sale around the world.
The inherent bitter earthiness of maca powder has proven to be a staunch barrier for many who would try maca as a health supplement, and as such, it hasn't gained nearly as much popularity as many similar healthy roots, such as turmeric. Still, it may have a wide range of health benefits, which is why it's so frequently used around the world today.
The Purported Benefits of Maca
Before we dig into the benefits of maca, we do have to make a note: the studies of its benefits have been limited in number. Even more so than most traditional remedies, maca has been relatively unpopular, leading to less study than many other supplements receive. They have traditional or anecdotal evidence but are still being studied further.
With that in mind, here are the purported benefits of maca:
- Libido enhancement. You'd be hard-pressed to find a traditional remedy that doesn't list enhanced libido as part of its benefits. The few studies performed into this generally looked at men and found small increases in libido, though one study found it helped post-menopausal women on antidepressants.
- Erectile dysfunction. One of the primary medicinal uses of maca over the centuries has been in men with erectile dysfunction, to help treat the underlying cause of the problem if it lasts more than a year.
- Energy-boosting. Some pilot studies with small sample sizes found that maca could potentially help boost athletic performance and endurance, though whether that's a property of maca or simply a property of eating something needs more study.
- Fertility, particularly in men. A preliminary study showed that maca could help sperm motility in some men.
- Mood. Some of the compounds in maca, particularly some flavonoids, may help to reduce anxiety and depression.
- Blood pressure. Maca may have the ability to help reduce high blood pressure, though again, how much of this is due to diet and how much is a property of maca remains to be seen in future studies.
- Antioxidant. Maca contains a handful of antioxidants that can help your body resist oxidative stress and free radicals within it.
- Memory. Some rodent studies seem to indicate that maca can improve memory and recollection, though human studies have not been performed.
Finally, maca is quite nutritious. This makes sense, given that it has been cultivated primarily as a foodstuff for centuries. One gram of maca powder is 91 calories and includes 20 grams of carbs, 4 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, 1 gram of fat, 133% of your daily vitamin C, 85% of your daily copper, 23% of your daily iron, 16% of your daily potassium, 15% of your daily vitamin B6, and 10% of your daily manganese. Overall, it's a generally healthy supplement regardless of the other abilities.
Maca While Pregnant
There are two related questions about maca that many women are considering. First up; is it safe to take while pregnant?
In general, the answer is "maybe." The truth is, so little study has been done into maca that it's difficult to say for sure whether it should be taken or not.
On one hand, maca has been used as a staple food in Peru for centuries, and there are no indications as to causing problems in mothers. On the other hand, anything you eat while pregnant has the potential to cause problems if it's not safe and studied.
"Maca should be used with caution while pregnant or breastfeeding and only under the guidance and supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner. Maca use during pregnancy should be highly limited due to a lack of safety data and maca's possible effects on hormones and uterine bleeding. […] There are no reports of maca having adverse effects on mother or baby in pregnancy or breastfeeding, except for one case report of maca lead contamination." – HerbalDoulaAna, from BabyCenter.
One caution is that raw maca and processed maca are different. Raw maca contains compounds that can affect the thyroid, while cooked maca removes those compounds. Try to get non-raw maca if you're pregnant.
Maca While Breastfeeding
Pregnancy is the most critical time in the development of a child, but breastfeeding is also important. There are plenty of compounds that can be transferred from mother to child through breast milk, and not all of them are good for the child's health.
Again, like with pregnancy, the answer here is "maybe" maca is safe. Again, cooked maca is better than raw maca, and you should always strive to make sure your maca comes from a high-quality source to avoid contamination.
"Traditionally in Peru consuming maca while breastfeeding is common and it is believed to be safe. The best consensus piece addressing this by medical specialists was done by APILAM (Association for Promotion and Cultural and Scientific Research of Breastfeeding). The organization consists of a group of pediatricians, health practitioners, and mothers. Their review of the evidence, case studies and data deemed maca to be very low risk to both mother and child during breastfeeding." – Maca Experts
While it's always possible that maca has a compound in it that could harm a developing infant, there is little to no evidence that it can hurt. At the same time, the potential benefits might be worth it for the mother, so it's worth considering. As always, be sure to consult your physician before starting any major supplement regimen.
How to Take Maca
If you're interested in taking maca, regardless of whether you're pregnant, breastfeeding, or neither, you want to know how to take it properly. Luckily, it's not all that difficult.
In general, you should avoid raw maca, for the reasons mentioned above. Raw maca can be disruptive to your thyroid and endocrine system, and you don't want to mess with your hormones when you're pregnant or breastfeeding. Once you've moved past breastfeeding, go ahead and give it a shot. Of course, you'll want to consult with your doctor if you have hormonal issues.
Maca powder is how you'll find maca 99% of the time. Raw maca root can occasionally be found as an import, but since it's cultivated only in specific areas of Peru, it often doesn't make it out of the country as a raw vegetable. It's simply more cost-effective to process it and ship the powder.
What does it taste like? Plain Maca powder tastes slightly nutty, slightly earthy, and slightly bitter. Some people describe it as an almost butterscotch-like flavor and smell. Others liken it to dirt, so, your mileage may vary.
Additionally, many maca powders you find as supplements have additives to alter the flavor. Often, however, maca is simply maca.
What about varieties? You may see black maca, red maca, or even green maca. These are slightly different species of maca, but the root is still the same plant, so they don't have hugely different benefits or chemical compositions.
Another thing you might see is gelatinized maca. This refers to a specific process of heating maca to break down the starches and compounds that can be harmful. That's typically the kind you should go for, rather than raw maca powder.
As for how you can take maca, you have a lot of options, since it's just a powder.
- Make a golden milk beverage out of warm milk, turmeric, cinnamon, and cocoa powder, and add in some maca.
- Make energy balls out of a granola and honey mixture, or whatever your favorite protein ball recipe is, and add maca for additional health benefits.
- Add maca to your favorite smoothie recipe. Since maca is a relatively neutral flavor, it works well in both fruit and vegetable smoothies, and it's barely even noticeable in the nut butter and chocolate smoothies many people enjoy.
- Add maca to your favorite latte recipe. It doesn't take much – a dose can start at a single teaspoon – so adding it to your morning coffee can be a good way to take it.
- Replace a bit of flour in your favorite baking recipe with some maca. As long as the chemistry doesn't rely on the glutens in the flour, the maca should be a perfectly fine substitute.
- Capsule it! If all else fails, you can always add your maca to gelatin capsules and take it like a pill. This is especially helpful for people who want maca but don't like the taste.
You have a lot of flexibility. Find your favorite recipe, and let us know about it in the comments. If you're interested thus far, be sure to check out our maca products, such as our Maca Capsules!
Warnings and Cautions
We've mentioned a couple of times that maca can be dangerous if you have thyroid issues. Since maca is an unregulated herbal remedy, it's difficult to say how dangerous it is. However, there are several cautions we've come across.
"If you're on blood thinners, maca may not be right for you. It has so much vitamin K -- which helps your blood form clots -- that it may counteract your medication. Ditto that for men with elevated blood PSA (prostate-specific antigens), who should stay away from maca. The plant's extracts might act like estrogen, so avoid it if you have hormone-sensitive conditions like breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers or endometriosis." – Web MD
"The presence of (1R,3S)-1-methyl-1,2,3,4-tetrahydro-β-carboline-3-carboxylic acid (MTCA) in the extracts of maca indicate a potential safety issue as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (re. which see β-carboline) and possibility as a mutagen. Due to these potential mutagenic properties of MTCA, the Agency for Sanitary Security in France warned consumers about the possible health risks of powdered maca root, a declaration disputed on the assumption that MTCA would be deactivated by boiling to process maca roots." - Wikipedia
"However, due to its effect on hormones, people with thyroid problems should avoid taking maca. It is also better to avoid taking maca when undergoing treatments that modify hormonal levels, such as treatments for breast cancer." – Medical News Today
Essentially, if you have any cancers that affect the endocrine system, if you're on any medications that affect your hormones, in particular the thyroid, or if you are on blood thinners, you should probably avoid maca supplements. Otherwise, it's probably safe, at least to the best knowledge we have right now.
If you're worried about the mutagenic properties of the MTCA in maca, it seems that gelatinized maca is the better option to mitigate that possibility. No experimentation has been done to see whether or not the effect is real, however.