Maca: The Ultimate Superfood! (Or So They Say...)

November 8, 2012

I’m sure you’ve heard about Maca already, it’s the latest superfood everyone talks about.
It always the same old story: a “never heard before” superfood appears on the market.
Everybody jumps on the bandwagon praising it to be the next miracle food; only to find out after a while that, as with any other superfood, it might have some health benefits but, alone, it’s never enough.
It happened to spirulina first (remember when, few years back, it was called the miracle algae?), chia seeds, hemp seeds, psyllium fiber, just to name a few.
Now it’s maca’s turn: celebs, wannabes, athletes, in-the-know health fanatics, superfood enthusiasts, hipsters, hippies, yuppies (are there any yuppies left? I wonder...), I mean everybody wants a piece of this wonder root.
According to Details Magazine, some of the celebs hooked on maca include: Jude Law, Marc Jacobs, Miranda Kerr, Erin Wasson, David Wolfe, Woody Harrelson, and Mike D of The Bestie Boys.
With such an amazing line-up, don’t you already wanna know more about it?

What is maca?
Maca (proper scientific name Lepidium meyenii) is an herbaceous plant native to the Andes of Peru and Bolivia. In the appearance it looks like something between a beetroot and a radish; note that only the root of the plant is used for consumption.
There are several varieties of maca: gold, cream, purple, blue, red, green or black (the latter being the most valued one).

The root greatly varies in size and shape; it can be triangular, circular, flattened, spherical or rectangular.
Maca grows well only in cold climates, and at high altitudes: between 8,000 - 14,500 ft (2,400 - 4,400 meters) above sea level.
It is a very resilient plant, that doesn’t need rich soils, nor much tending from humans. This is the reason why almost all maca cultures are organic: no fertilizers are necessary, pesticides are also seldom used, as there are only few pests that live at the altitudes where maca grows.
In fact, maca croplands are fertilized mostly with alpaca and sheep manure (and it doesn’t get more more natural or organic than this).
An interesting fact about maca is that even though it has been cultivated outside of the Andes (in greenhouses or in warm climates), some data shows that these cultivations do not develop the same constituents as the Andinian ones.
Some history
Maca has been used by the indigenous Andes cultures for already 2,000 years, as a source of nourishment but also for medical purposes.
Traditionally, the Incan warriors would consume maca in preparation for battles, or long expeditions.
Maca, at some point, was so valued that it was used as a form of currency.
Why is maca considered a superfood?
Maca is praised for its ability to increase stamina, energy, mental boost, and sexual function.
Truth to be told, the aphrodisiac virtues of this root are the main reason for its rise to fame. In particular, the alleged ability to improve sexual performance and fertility have gathered a lot of consensus around it.
Here’s a brief review of the scientific data on maca so far:

(1) Sexual function

A systematic review was carried out at Pusan National University, Yangsan (South Korea), in 2011, to assess the clinical evidence for or against the effectiveness of the maca plant as a treatment for sexual dysfunction.
Although limited evidence was found, two trials suggested a significant positive effect of maca on sexual dysfunction or sexual desire in healthy menopausal women or healthy adult men.
However, the limited size of the studies reviewed did not allow to reach any firm conclusion on this topic.

(2) Fertility

In 2011, a Korean study assessed the evidence for and against the effectiveness of maca as a treatment for menopausal symptoms.
After reviewing all the studies, the researchers concluded that there was limited evidence for the effectiveness of maca as a treatment for menopausal symptoms.
However, the limited number of trials, the total sample size, and the average methodological quality of the primary studies, were too small to draw on firm conclusion.
In other words, the efficacy of maca on fertility should be tested in larger studies.

(3) Energy levels and stamina

Maca is also known as the “Peruvian ginseng” as it is said that it could raise stamina, and energy levels.
However, there’s little evidence on this, as all the studies published so far were all carried out on animals (rats and bulls to be precise), and even though the primary findings do indicate that maca can be effective in raising energy levels, there’s still no solid scientific data.
(4) Mental activity and depression

Some trials carried out on rats did show maca’s ability to boost mental activity and, moreover, to fight depression.
Considering the limited size of said studies, further data is necessary before reaching any conclusion.
Potential side effects
When it comes to safety, side-effects, of short-term or long-term consumption of maca there’s little, if no data at all. Furthermore, I couldn’t find any literature on the potential interactions between maca and other medicines.
There are no reported cases of intoxication from maca, or cases of harmful side effects. It should be noted that the lack of reporting does not directly translates into safety.
Nutrition facts
One tablespoon of raw maca powder yields 20 calories,  1 gram of sugar, and 1 gram of protein. Of course, the important feature of this root lies in the fact that it’s supposed to be an adaptogen (i.e., capable of regulating hormone levels in the body.)
Maca is also rich in alkaloids, plant sterols, and essential minerals contents.

How to use it
Besides fresh maca root (which, by the way, is very hard to find in the US), maca is generally sold as raw powder (or capsules), and gelatinized powder (or capsules).
The raw powder can be added to post-workout shakes or breakfast smoothies, making it the preferred choice among sporty people.
When it comes to the capsules, containing a concentrated supplement, some people have reported that they tend to leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouth. But those remarks should be considered only hearsay.

What I think about maca

I tried maca in my smoothies, one large tablespoon to be precise, and I liked it (although I could barely feel the taste). As to its effects, it might have given me a bit of a boost but I couldn’t really tell.Don’t be thrown off by the lack of scientific data on maca. The fact that there’s not yet conclusive evidence doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work.
It has been used for millennia by the indigenous people of the Andes who do believe in its benefits, and this might be the only real proof you actually need.
I’m still on the fence about it - I haven’t really made up my mind on it yet.
Probably what I hate most about it, is that it has been labeled as a superfood and, moreover, that it’s “IT” to consume it.
When all this hype will settle, I might be able to finally enjoy it a bit more.
And what are your thoughts on maca?


  1. I have actually consuming maca for about 2 years now with my morning smoothie (not every day though), and I must say that at the beginning I had the ginseng effect you described. It was super strong for me, but over time I have developed a sort of tolerance.

    I do not believe in 'miracle' foods per say, but I do consume chia (I have since I was a kid as it is in so many Mexican dishes!), spirulina, cacao nibs etc. Everything in moderation right?

    1. Hi there...

      I read your comment above. Have you ever heard of a way to remove the bitter aftertaste of maca?