What is maca?
Maca is a rare medicinal plant that’s been used for centuries against a range of ailments. The flavour of this low-growing plant is somewhat reminiscent of that of cress. That’s why maca is called Lepidium meyenii in Latin. 'Lepidium' is the classical name for cress. Maca is family of the radishes and turnips.
The plant itself grows no taller than 12 to 20 cm. As with the radish and turnip, only the root of the plant is eaten. Maca reproduces by means of seeds. From one plant about 1600 seeds are produced.
The cultivation of maca happens at an altitude of 3800 to 4000 meter. During the growing season, temperatures range from -2ºC to 13ºC. Sometimes the temperature even drops to -10ºC. In addition, the wind may blow forcefully up in the mountains and the sun shines brightly. Not many crops (and other organisms) thrive in such extreme weather conditions. Therefore herbicides and pesticides aren’t necessary for maca cultivation.
There’re different types of maca, each with its own colour: yellow, red, black, purple, blue or green. Each type has a unique variety of nutrients. Red, black and yellow maca are the most well-known. Usually, the roots are dried, pulverized and then sold as a powder.
History of maca
5000 years maca
Archeological findings indicate that maca already has been cultivated by indigenous tribes in the Andes about 5000 years ago. Cultivation means that people began collecting seeds and sowed them on ploughed land in order to harvest the plants later on. Consequently, they didn’t have to search for the wild plant anymore.
The indigenous people used terrace and irrigation techniques that increased the harvest to such an extent that maca became the main staple of their daily menu. Like we eat wheat nowadays, they ate maca. The plant can be dried easily and thus be stored for long periods. In this way, they had a source of food in times of scarcity.
The plant was also used because of its medicinal properties. Lastly, the roots were an important means of exchange against other types of food from tribes living in the lowland areas.
Spanish conquerors get to know maca
In the sixteenth century, Spaniards occupied the Andes mountains and caused lots of upheavals. Because their horses didn’t reproduce well, the indigenous people advised them to feed the horses with maca. Soon the mares got pregnant again and this is how the Europeans discovered the healing potential of maca. As a result, they made the indigenous people pay taxes by handing in part of their maca harvest.
During the following centuries, the demand for maca rose strongly. In the nineteenth-century large maca, plantations were established in Peru. At that time almost the entire Peruvian population consumed the root on a daily basis. Afterwards, the plant fell into oblivion again.
Western interest in maca
The first westerner who officially investigated maca was Gerard Walpers. In 1843 he named the plant Lepidium meyenii. Because of her energising effect, it was also called the ‘Peruvian ginseng’, although there’s no family connection with the ginseng plant.
Maca was appreciated by westerners and the demand rose to such an extent that the plant was harvested too much and eventually was threatened with extinction. As a consequence again large maca plantations were established.
Two varieties of maca?
In 1990 dr. Gloria Chacon distinguished two varieties of maca. She considered the cultivated maca as a different plant from the wild variety. The cultivated maca she called Lepidium peruvianum. Based on this a discussion arose on the question whether or not the wild and cultivated maca is a different species. The debate is not yet settled.
Nowadays the cultivated maca is very popular in the West. Because of her high level of nutrients maca is called a superfood. Especially within the raw food movement, the plant is welcomed with open arms. Peru, Bolivia and a small part of Brazil provide for the global demand for maca.
Nutritional values of maca
The dried maca root is rich in nutritional values. Maca is composed of 60-75% carbohydrates, 10-14% proteins, 8.5% fibres and 2.2% fats. In addition, maca contains high levels of the minerals iron, zinc, calcium and potassium and the trace elements iodine, copper and manganese. It contains 19 amino acids. Furthermore, the maca root contains large concentrations of vitamins B2, B3 and B6. 
Sterols are essential substances to optimise certain body processes. Maca has a high content of different sterols, such as:
• Ergosterol: this is a precursor of vitamin D.
• Brassicasterol: This component provides a healthy prostate function.
• Campesterol: This component contributes to a healthy cholesterol level.
Five types of maca
There are five types of maca, each with its own application:
• Yellow maca is most commonly cultivated in Peru. It has a sweet flavour and is often used in dishes. Yellow maca contains less medicinal substances than the other types. Therefore you can eat it in larger quantities without possible side-effects.
• Black maca is the most energising type. One tablespoon already gives an immense energy boost. Therefore be careful with adding it to, for example, a smoothie.
• Red, blue and black maca contain large amounts of iodine. This is an important substance necessary for the production of thyroid hormones. These hormones are essential for a healthy growth, development of the nervous system and metabolism.
• Scientific research shows that red maca has a beneficial effect on the prostate, possibly because of high glucosinolate levels. During a scientific study rats with an enlarged prostate were administered red maca. It turned out that twelve weeks later their prostates had become smaller. Black and yellow maca didn’t have this effect. 
• Not much is known about blue and green maca. These types are rarely applied and are more seldom in general.
Maca in food
Yellow maca has a vanilla-nutty flavour. It’s sometimes compared with the taste of butterscotch. Because of the flavour, it’s best to use yellow maca in recipes.
It’s better not to heat maca, as lots of nutrients will get lost in the heating process. Maca can be added raw to the following dishes:
• Add one tablespoon of yellow maca to a smoothie with for example one banana, almond milk and blueberries.
• Add one tablespoon of yellow maca to a bowl of yoghurt and curd.
• Add one tablespoon of yellow maca to a bowl of porridge that’s cooled down already.
Nevertheless, maca is commonly used in warm dishes. In these cases, the medicinal value is less and it’s mainly about taste. Here you can find more recipes with maca.
When you want to use maca because of its medicinal properties, it’s best to choose red or black maca. Below are some scientifically proven medical claims about maca:
• As described earlier, red maca has a beneficial effect on the prostate. 
• Black maca stimulates sperm production in rats. Also the mobility of the sperm increases. Yellow and red maca don’t have this effect. 
• When women in menopause take maca their psychological problems like depression and anxiety are reduced. Also, their sexual functioning improves and their blood pressure lowers. At the same time, their hormone levels stay the same. This is surprising, as it’s commonly assumed that shifting hormone levels are at the basis of many menopausal symptoms. The exact mechanism of action of maca is in this case unknown. It should be noted that this study was conducted amongst Chinese women, who often have a different metabolism than western women. 
• Maca increases energy levels, diminishes osteoporosis and protects the skin from ultraviolet radiation. Furthermore, maca enhances learning capacity and memory. For this reason, maca is a valuable remedy for old age ailments. 
• Maca stimulates the production of the luteinizing and follicle stimulating hormone. These hormones are essential for reproduction. In case of fertility problems, it may not hurt to experiment with maca. 
• The consumption of maca has a scientifically proven brain-protective effect. In addition, it has painkilling and anti-inflammatory properties. 
• Also, there are indications that maca has anti-tumour properties. However, more clinical studies are needed to substantiate this claim. 
• Scientific research into the effects of maca on the learning capacity of mice shows that black maca significantly improves performance. Red and yellow maca didn’t have this effect. However, all three varieties of maca were equally effective against depression in mice.
• A clinical study indicates that men that were given maca, after twelve weeks showed more desire for sex. The desire wasn’t a consequence of changes in hormone levels, reduced depression or decreased anxiety, as all those parameters remained constant. In this case, too, the exact mechanism of action is unknown, but the effect is significantly detectable. 
• Red maca has a liver-protective effect. 
There are many more scientific articles demonstrating the medicinal properties of maca. It’s a plant that can be used effectively against various complaints.
Do you want to experiment with maca for its healing properties? Be aware that yellow maca has less medicinal properties than the red or black variety. Also, the black and red maca have different effects and they can’t be used interchangeably. Therefore it’s important to first investigate which type of maca you need for what complaint.
Maca is an energizer. Therefore a smoothie with maca is a suitable idea before a night of partying. It’s also possible to swallow capsules containing black or red maca powder.
Please note: maca isn’t a stimulant that works immediately. You need to use it for a prolonged period of time in order to have an effect. Your energy level will rise because maca slowly changes your metabolism. If you would take a smoothie with maca every day for a week, that would not only taste good, it also ensures a night out with less fatigue. As a result, the craving for stimulants will diminish.
Regular use of maca will also counteract the negative effects of partying. After a night out a smoothie with fruits and a teaspoon of red maca is a much better idea than the greasy snack that you might feel like. The antioxidants from the fruit will combat oxidative stress and the red maca protects the liver, which makes your hangover pass quickly. (Whereas fat food will overburden your liver, as many toxic substances already need to be broken down.) Maca also has a protective effect on the brain. So possible damage due to use of stimulants will be mitigated.
Prolonged use of maca is not completely without danger. Maca contains glucosinolates (also called mustard oil glycosides): these are sulfur and nitrogen-containing organic compounds. A plant produces these substances in order to protect itself. When the plant is damaged, for example, because it’s picked, these substances are released.
Glucosinolates are known to be toxic. They work directly on the thyroid gland, which might increase in size. An enlarged thyroid is called goitre and is identified by a thick swollen neck.
At the same time, maca contains lots of iodine, which has a beneficial effect on the thyroid gland. In short: it’s still not clear whether maca is good or bad for the thyroid. Until this question is answered, people with thyroid disorders shouldn’t take maca.
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