Maca is an interesting plant native to the Andean region, which has been cultivated and used for at least 2000 years.(1) It has many potentially health-beneficial components, some of which will be explored in this article.
What is maca?
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) emerged on the global market in the last twenty years and its consumption has increased through marketing promotion in various media.(2) It is a species indigenous to the Central Andes of Peru, where it was traditionally cultivated as food and for its medicinal properties.(2) Today it is sold in powder, pill, capsule, flour, liquor and extract form, and has been advertised as a superfood due to its many attributed health claims.(2)
It has rosette leaves and grows in a harsh climate, where the highest temperature is 12°C.(2) The root, or the hypocotyl, is the edible part, and up to 13 different colors have been identified, ranging from cream to purple and black.(2) The three colors that are most widely studied are red, yellow and black, with yellow being preferred due to its sweeter taste.(2)
Peruvian maca has a high nutritional value similar to cereal grains, but a better composition than other root vegetables, such as carrots, turnips and potatoes.(1) Fresh maca roots contain 80% water, but when dried, the nutrient content increases considerably.(2)
Maca and its byproducts represent a natural source of dietary fibers, as the root consists of 15.6% - 26% dietary fiber, of which 2.6–7.9% is soluble and 14.8–23.4% is insoluble.(3) Techniques are being developed to best incorporate the fiber in functional food formulations.(3)
The root also contains protein and thus amino acids, of which 7 are essential amino acids - meaning the human body cannot produce them and can only get them from food, and 10 are non-essential, meaning the body can produce them on its own.(3)
The maca root has a low lipid content (0.59–2.2%), with 52.7% of unsaturated fatty acids (for example 32.6% linoleic acid and 11.1% oleic acid) and 40.1% of saturated fatty acids (for example 23.8% palmitic and 6.7% stearic acid).(3) But it has a high content of carbohydrates, which represent 46%-74% of the dry weight of the maca root, and it has a starch content similar to that of a sweet potato.(3)
Minerals are also present in the maca root, the most abundant being potassium, followed by calcium, magnesium, sodium, iron, zinc, manganese and copper, all of which are necessary to keep our bodies running properly.(3) Vitamins, however, are only found in the aerial part of the plant, which has vitamin C and niacin levels that are higher than those in cabbage and lettuce.(3)
The maca root further contains numerous diverse minor constituents, such as organic acids.(3) It was also proven to contain several antioxidant compounds, which may potentially have a beneficial effect on our health.(1)
Effects on the human body
There has been a lot of discussion and many studies done to determine what kind of effects maca has on our bodies. One of the more talked about effects is the way it works on the male reproductive system and is rumored to potentially contain anti-fatigue, antioxidative, neuroprotective, antiviral, antimicrobial, anticancer, and immune-regulatory capacities.(3) Moreover, the type of maca (black, yellow, red) effects the way it works on our bodies.(3)
When it comes to the human reproductive system, maca has traditionally been associated with enhancing sexual libido, fertility and spermatogenesis.(3) For now, however, these claims are purely speculative, as no conclusive evidence to support them has been found.
Many studies were conducted on animals, along with some clinical trials on humans. Nonetheless, as the human trials were mostly carried out with small groups of people,(2) many of maca’s health benefits have not been definitively proven.
While maca is definitely a promising plant in regard to human health, more human clinical trials with a broader spectrum of people need to be conducted, as the overall evidence is too limited to draw any certain conclusions.(2) There is not enough information to determine the appropriate dose to achieve desired therapeutic effects, and there is a lack of data regarding the type of extract most likely responsible for the observed effects.(2) Still, maca’s value cannot be entirely dismissed, so adding it to your diet is potentially beneficial.
1. Peres, N. D. S. L., Bortoluzzi, L. C. P., Marques, L. L. M., Formigoni, M., Fuchs, R. H. B., Droval, A. A., & Cardoso, F. A. R. Medicinal effects of Peruvian maca (Lepidium meyenii): a review. Food & function. 2020; 11(1): 83-92.
2. Beharry, S., & Heinrich, M. (2018). Is the hype around the reproductive health claims of maca (Lepidium meyenii Walp.) justified? Journal of ethnopharmacology. 2018; 211: 126-170.
3. Wang, S., & Zhu, F. Chemical composition and health effects of maca (Lepidium meyenii). Food chemistry. 2019; 288: 422-443.
4. (1) U.S. Department of Agriculture. FoodData Central. Available from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/index.html. [Accessed 18.11.2021]