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Maca: From Andean Vegetable to Worldwide Superfood

by John McElborough
How did maca go from fields 4000 ft up in the Andes to the packet of powder you take in your smoothie? 
Maca: From Andean Vegetable to Worldwide Superfood

Maca isn't the first New World plant to find success in the Old World, nor the most common. But of all the foods to make the jump from New World to Old, maca has to be one of the most unusual.

What sets this rather plain-looking vegetable apart? How did maca go from fields 4000 ft up in the Andes to the packet of powder you take in your smoothie? 

The answer lies in the modern search for superfoods - natural fruits and vegetables packed with nutritional value and potential medical benefits. Maca fits the bill perfectly - but at first glance, this slightly wrinkled cross between a turnip and a carrot doesn’t exactly seem impressive. Regardless, maca has become a modern-day success story. The journey of this Andean staple to a worldwide superfood is a strange one indeed.

Early history of Maca

The maca plant, lepidium meyenii, isn't much to look at. Both above and below ground, maca isn't too dissimilar from a carrot or turnip. There's a thin, weedy set of green stems sticking out of the dirt, while below the dirt lies the main body of the plant - a large, fleshy taproot.

For the ancient inhabitants of what is today central Peru, maca was a valuable food source. The root could be cooked, dried and ground to make a powder, and even (in a pinch) eaten raw. Maca was soon cultivated as a good crop. For the past 2000 years, the people of South America ate maca and learned more about its importance medicinally, as well as part of their diet.

Maca went international for the first time with the coming of the Spanish. By the late 16th century, the Spanish were demanding regular exports of maca as part of their regular tribute. Despite maca's importance to the European colonizers, production of the plant began a long, slow decline in the 1700s as other food crops grew more important. By the 1980s it had reached a new ebb and exports fell to an all-time low.

Then, in the 90s and on into the new millenium, maca was rediscovered. This time, it wasn't simply a curious Andean vegetable. It was a bona-fide superfood, with an impressive list of health benefits.

The health benefits of maca - history and science

Start talking about herbs, superfoods, and strange and wonderful health benefits and you'll receive a lot of scepticism. After all, ancient cultures used a lot of strange remedies - they don't all work, do they?

One way to look at it is to see how maca was used historically, and then see if there's any modern scientific evidence to back it up. It can also be helpful to see how the scientific evidence and historical uses overlap. What does that tell us about the maca's modern-day uses?

Historical uses

The primary use for maca during much of its 2000-year history was as a food source. But even in the early days, maca was recognized as a potential remedy as well. Specifically, maca gained an early reputation as an aphrodisiac and libido booster for both men and women. 

Maca was taken orally. It was either cooked and eaten, powdered and mixed into other dishes, or steeped and taken as a tea. 

Maca was also used at times for feminine sexual health. The root gained a reputation as a mood-booster as well, which undoubtedly tied into its reputation as a sexual stimulant.

Modern medical analysis

Like most traditional remedies, maca's health benefits haven't been fully supported by modern medical testing. However, there have been some intriguing hints that maca's reputation might have some substance to it - at least enough to warrant a bit more exploration.

Maca's impact on libido and sexual performance has received the lion's share of the current literature. An early study in 2002 showed inconclusive but interesting evidence that taking maca daily increased libido in men, compared to placebo. A 2010 meta-analysis of existing studies echoed the earlier study. There were limited indications that maca boosted libido, but there wasn't enough evidence to conclusively state it.

Another study, in 2015, looked at maca's influence on female libido in post-menopausal women. Again, it found tantalizing hints of a beneficial link, but no clear proof.

What about improved mood and energy levels? Maca has long been used as a general mood-booster, and that certainly fits with its reputation as an aphrodisiac. Scientific studies are limited; as with most of the maca-related studies, there are promising signs but no hard evidence.

In a related field, some people use maca to treat depression. That would fit with the other uses of maca to boost mood, but there's been very little research so far.  

Other studies have expanded the range of potential health benefits. Scientists have explored maca's effects on menopause, on female and male fertility, and on reducing blood pressure. Most of those studies have failed to establish a crystal-clear link, but several have demonstrated enough of a connection to warrant continued study.

Maca - Andean vegetable turned superfood

The experts generally agree on one thing when it comes to maca: it's a bona-fide superfood. Maca is a nutritious source of numerous vitamins and minerals, including copper, iron, potassium, B6, and others. Maca provides roughly 4 grams of protein per ounce of dried, powdered root, with only a single gram of fat.

Maca is packed with helpful amino acids, and is an excellent source of fibre as well. In other words, it's a fantastic, healthy alternative to many of today's over-processed carbs. 

Maca today

Adapt(ogen) and thrive

Modern nutritionists often classify maca as an adaptogen, a category of foods, herbs, and supplements that provide a range of benefits for the body. Many adaptogens have similar profiles to maca - they seem to help mood, improve sexual performance, boost energy levels, and equip the body to better ward off high blood pressure and deal with depression. 

It can be hard to prove such a variety of effects, but there's a simple theory that helps tie them all together.

Adaptogenic foods are so-called because they improve the body's ability to adapt to different situations. 

Anxiety and low mood? By boosting the body's ability to adapt, maca improves mood. The everyday stress of life causing depression? Maca helps the body adapt to that stress, handling it better and thereby relieving some of the common symptoms.

Think of adaptogens as the body's self-defence instructors. They train your body how to respond to any situation, improving your ability to handle the stresses of life. And by adapting better, your body can better handle whatever life throws at it, without some of the usual negative side effects.

The sexy superfood

From the earliest days, maca wasn't just a food - it was in widespread use to boost libido, desire, fertility, and all things sex-related. That focus hasn't gone away. With limited research to tentatively support some of those claims, maca's claim to improve sexual desire has been heavily marketed.

One reason for maca's appeal for sexual health issues is its versatility. Powdered maca is easily taken in pill form, or the powder itself can be mixed into drinks. 

And while the evidence in favor isn't overwhelming, there is early research into everything from male fertility to male and female libido to erectile dysfunction. In short, maca is the modern-day superfood for sex - a possible remedy for a whole range of sexual health issues.

Maca - wonder-mustard?

Maca is a cruciferous vegetable, in the same family as mustard, broccoli, carrots, and a host of others. It has a distinctive flavor - a slightly nutty, almost butterscotch-y flavor that many people like. The flavor is distinctive but not overwhelming, allowing maca to be used in other dishes to add rather than overwhelm the other ingredients.

Side-effects and counterindications

Maca bears the rare distinction of having few, if any, negative side-effects. There have been virtually no reported ill-effects from taking maca, although it is always best to consult a professional before adding it to your regular diet.

A meta-analysis of maca's properties and effects indicated no known negative effects from maca consumption.

Who uses maca - and how?

Traditionally, maca was consumed by entire villages, from young children on up. It was eaten at any meal. The root was harvested, naturally dried, stored - sometimes for years - and then boiled in water.

There are no known ill effects from taking maca, making it suitable for any age and condition. With such a large range of potential benefits, there's no one group of people who are especially suited for maca - it appeals to everyone from athletes to ED sufferers.

By far the most common method of taking maca today is to add maca powder to another drink or dish. Maca powder can be added to just about anything, from popcorn to chocolate milk, and fruit smoothies to baked treats. Oatmeal, yogurt, and even hummus are all good options as well. 

Apples and oranges: using maca as a coffee substitute

While maca may boost energy and vitality, people who attempt to use maca as a coffee substitute are bound to be disappointed. Maca has been linked to an increase in energy, but the effect is long-term and takes several days or even weeks of steady consumption to detect. There's no quick energy burst like the caffeine rush that coffee gives. In fact, maca contains no caffeine.

Maca conquers the world

Peruvian exports of maca continue to rise, reaching 3.12 million kilograms of maca in a single year in 2017. Peru continues to dominate the maca market, so much so that in some places maca is commonly referred to as “Peruvian ginseng.”

Most of the maca market is filled with white maca, but a number of other varieties exist, and may have slightly different properties. Black maca is another common variety. As more research is conducted into the similarities and differences between the colors, it’s possible that one of the lesser varieties may some day become more popular. 

Maca has gone from obscure Andean root crop to a staple of the health food circuit. Its widespread availability and versatility make it one of the truly world-wide superfoods.

by John McElborough
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