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Maca: superfood of the Andes

Chris Kilham

April 24, 2008

3 Min Read
Maca: superfood of the Andes

Maca, a tuber from the central highlands of Peru, enjoys a long history of traditional use for improved energy, stamina and sexual enhancement. Maca has appeared in vitamin and herbal products in the United States since about 1998. In tablets and capsules, maca powder and extracts have worked their way into numerous brands of dietary supplements. At long last, and consistent with its traditional uses, maca is making its way into food.

As a food, maca is highly nutritious. Dried maca contains about 59 percent carbohydrates and slightly more than 10 percent protein. It possesses a higher lipid content than other root crops (2.2 percent), of which linoleic acid, palmitic acid and oleic acid are the primary fatty acids. Maca is also a rich source of sterols, including sitosterol, campestrol, ergosterol, brassicasterol and ergostadienol. Sterols have been shown to reduce cholesterol. Maca is also a good source of iron, potassium and calcium.

Maca, or Lepidium meyenii, is the only cruciferous plant native to Peru. It is an annual plant with a rosette of frilly leaves lying close to the ground. The plant produces a turniplike tuber, which matures approximately seven months after seeds are planted. The tubers may be red, green, black, pink, purplish, yellow or cream-colored. The root of maca is thoroughly dried before use—in a process that takes about a year—and will keep for seven years.

Maca has been cultivated in the San Blas area of the Junin plateau of Peru's Central Highlands as far back as 2,000 years ago. When the Spanish arrived in Peru in 1526, they found the Incan empire. The Inca were sophisticated architects, builders and cultivators of the land. They were expert artists and metal workers. They had established a highly developed society, and their prodigious works, including the structures at Machu Picchu, remain among the wonders of the world to this day. Among the many treasures held by the Inca and garnered by the Spanish was maca. The dried root was so highly regarded by the Inca, it was used as currency.

Many Andean people think of maca as a panacea, claiming that it stimulates metabolism, regulates hormonal secretion and combats anemia. They also say maca helps improve memory and fight depression. Maca is touted as an aphrodisiac, stamina promoter and fertility enhancer. Enthusiasts of the plant believe maca is a laxative (which may be attributable to its fiber content), and a cure for rheumatism and respiratory disorders. Medical doctors in Lima recommend maca to women to relieve uncomfortable symptoms of menopause, and to men and women to enhance libido and sexual function.

Though many claims have been made for maca, only a few have been corroborated in a lab or clinical setting. In an experiment published in the journal Urology in 2000, rodents fed maca showed increased energy and stamina, and exhibited a significant increase in sexual activity as compared with those that had not been fed maca. Maca also increased sperm production radically in rodents.

What agents in maca are responsible for these effects? Plant sterols and isothiocyanates (compounds that occur in small quantities in the root) may partially account for maca's properties and fertility-enhancing effects. But two other groups of compounds—the macamides and macaenes—appear to be the phytochemical keys to this high-altitude root. In the late 1990s, Dr. Qun Yi Zheng and his team of analytical chemists discovered macamides and macaenes. Zheng's studies, also published in Urology, show these previously unknown compounds to be very powerful sex and energy enhancers. In the experiments, stamina and frequency of copulation increased radically as the quantities of macamides and macaenes in the diet increased.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 86, 88

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