Maca: Is this Incan Superfood Possibly for You?
Big Macs, Peruvian Style
If you love cooked or raw crucifers or have a special affection for kale smoothies you will probably already be inclined to like maca (Lepidium meyenii). A cruciferous vegetable in the mustard family, maca root is similar to turnips and radishes. Unlike all these other veggies, however, maca’s claim to fame is the very narrow place it is natively found – the Andes mountains in and around Peru.
The root of the maca plant comes in a variety of colors, from white to black, and many shades in between like green, purple, and red. The darker colored maca roots contain significant amounts of iodine. Thus, the root ironically has been traditionally valued for starving off and treating goiter that the lighter colored maca, like its cruciferous cousins, can cause.
Traditionally, the plant was cultivated and then harvested. The roots were dried in the sun, then crushed to powder. Many modern maca powders are still created using these same traditional techniques (1).
What makes Maca special? For one thing, it has a pretty solid nutritional profile.
The nutritional value of dried maca root is high, resembling those of cereal grains such as maize, rice, and wheat. It contains 60-75% carbohydrates, 10-14% protein, 8.5% fiber, and 2.2% lipids. The protein content of maca exists mainly in the form of polypeptides and amino acids (including significant amounts of arginine, serine, histidine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, glycine, valine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, and threonine). It also has about 250 mg of calcium, 2 g of potassium, and 15 mg of iron in 100 g of dried root-and important amounts of fatty acids (including linolenic, palmitic, and oleic acids). Maca contains sterols (about 0.05% to 0.1%) and other vitamins and minerals.
As the above shows, dried maca root is high in potassium like lentils. It is also known for its high copper content (around 85% of the recommended daily allowance). It contains a wide variety of other plant chemicals with known health benefits, such as glucosinolates and polyphenols.
Here is a chart of the complete nutritional profile of maca root (2):
Return of the Mac(a)
A number of well crafted studies attest to the health benefits of consuming maca especially as maca root powder. It has passed all those studies with positive results. The only problem with the studies has been small sample sizes and limited durations.
So while the science is so far promising, maca is definitely a food that could use more long term research and attention to validate its value.
Let’s look at a sampling of what nine of these studies suggest about maca benefits.
Maca Benefits for Women
Maca has been shown to help with certain symptoms of menopause. It appears maca basically helps tame the menopausal beast most prominently experienced as hot flashes into a more tolerable medium sized cat for some (3).
Maca for Men
If a man is struggling with sexual drive or conception, maca shows some promise. Maca has been shown to increase sperm counts and motility, along with improving sexual desire in young and middle aged men (5, 6).
Interestingly, it appears maca does this without increasing testosterone levels, like some other male supplements (7).
It has also been shown to help decrease prostate size, a problem that is more prevalent in older men (8). This may, over time, translate into reduced prostate cancer risk, but this leap based on current research is currently premature.
Maca for Everyone
Maca has demonstrated promising, though mild results, in improving our ability to handle stress along with improving athletic performance (9).
Extract of maca was shown to help protect against UV damage from the sun when applied directly to the skin (10).
It has also been shown to help improve memory and learning. However, it appears the black maca variety shows the most promise in this area (11).
We could list a host more studies and various suspected benefits, but these 9 studies provide a comprehensive overview.
In summary, maca in the scientific literature shows promising results. But, as Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, aptly pointed out, the short duration and small sample sizes of the studies suggest that:
The science on maca’s potential benefits is so far suggestive but not conclusive. (WSJ)
Moringa vs Maca Powder
Maca powder is frequently confused with moringa powder (Moringa oleifera). Both are touted and marketed as energy boosters and hormone balancers. They also both look a bit similar in powder form.
One big difference is that moringa powder (source) comes from the leaves or seeds of the moringa plant, while maca powder comes from the root. Another prominent difference is that moringa is a tree native to Southeast Asia. It is also not a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables like maca. Hence, moringa is not goitrogenic and is a safer superfood choice for those with thyroid issues than maca powder.
Both of these plants are at the current time unhybridized and were considered nutrient dense superfoods by ancestral cultures. Moringa is an ancient remedy within Ayurvedic medicine and has an excellent history of use.
So, if you are inclined to try them both, there is no reason not to do so!
Maca Root What If ….
What if the reason so many of these so called superfoods are healthful isn’t because they are magical, but because they are normal. By normal here I mean mostly unhybridized, untampered with, untamed foods.
Call them what you will, foods with high nutrient levels are going to be superfoods when compared to the depleted, over-hybridized, GMO, soil depleted, and over farmed varieties we are all used to consuming from the common grocery and even healthfood store!
The problems with the modern food supply are many. One of the biggest that even traditional foodies frequently don’t seem to grasp is the significant loss of both mainline nutrients – minerals, vitamins, protein and the like – from our food combined with the loss of other types of beneficial compounds and phytonutrients over the past few hundred years.
The push for more, bigger, better, faster may have made our food supply cheaper, but it came at an incredibly high price. Think of that the next time you are walking the aisles of Whole Foods, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Costco or Super Wal-Mart.
While we may be spending our dollars on foods that contain fewer additives, chemicals and the like, are they really any more nutritious? Probably not, which is why eating organic alone will not make you well.
Not getting poisoned does not equate to being nourished!
How Much Maca Powder to Take?
Most of the maca studies used a dosage of around 1500 mg to 5000 mg per day (most likely as maca capsules). This equates to about 3-6 teaspoons per day for loose powder. The powder is typically stirred into beverages or blended into smoothies for a superfood boost.
Remember the color of maca root matters. Most store bought maca supplements use the yellow root, but other colors, especially red and black maca, have different properties and value. You may wish to try them all to see which produces the best results for your particular health situation.
How Does Maca Taste?
Maca smells sweet, a bit like coconut sugar. The taste, however, is quite strong and unpleasant to some. Hence mixing it into smoothies or other foods with masking flavors is a good idea. The strong taste is another reason some prefer to take it in capsule form.
Start Small, Increase Gradually ….
As with any supplement, it is generally recommended you start with a small amount for a few days. Then, increase gradually provided no adverse reactions or other problems occur.
Maca is considered an adaptagen. This means that the body can get “used” to it over time which may lessen its beneficial effects. As such, it is commonly suggested not to use it constantly over a long period of time. Instead, some suggest using it in cycle with other such supplements. For example, 6 weeks on, 2 weeks off. Also, remember that maca root powder is a goitrogen (like millet and soy) even though darker colored maca is high in natural iodine. Hence, people with thyroid and similar issues may want to steer clear or only take it under the care of a health professional. Thyroid problems and adrenal issues often go hand in hand. To be on the safe side, anyone experiencing adrenal fatigue symptoms should consult with a professional before supplementing with maca too.
If you are going to use maca to treat more serious health problems, it may be best to seek out a practitioner with experience with maca as well as your particular condition(s). Always be aware of possible drug and other interactions that any superfood supplement may create.
Always start low and slow and remember that no superfood is a silver bullet.
Is Maca Worth the Money?
My answer is maybe to probably. I would personally try more wild and unhybridized foods in my own region and food sheds first. This approach would ascertain if what really helps people about maca is something that is already available locally and natively grown.
If I had specific conditions that maca may help with and remedies were not forthcoming via local foodways, I wouldn’t hesitate to try maca and see if it’s purported benefits helped me.
John Moody is an author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses.
He recently published his first book, The Frugal Homesteader: Living the Good Life on Less.