A cruciferous root from the Lepidium meyenni or L. peruvianumplant grown in South America, maca grows only at high altitude in the central Peruvian Andes and is a traditional source of food for the Peruvian people. It is also used as a herbal supplement for medicinal purposes.
How long has maca been part of the Peruvian diet?
Maca is a staple in the Peruvian diet, being one of only two crops (the other being potatoes) that can grow at high altitudes. The plant is a relative of the radish and has been cultivated as a vegetable crop for at least 3,000 years. The root contains carbohydrates, protein, fats and dietary fibre, and is also rich in plant sterols and a good source of iron, magnesium, selenium and calcium.
What do scientists know about maca?
Scientists know maca contains many chemicals such as fatty acids and amino acids. However, there is little scientific research into how maca might work inside the human body. Some scientific evidence indicates that maca may be effective in enhancing sexual desire in men and improve semen quality. Though maca has exhibited oestrogenic activity in vitro, so far clinical studies have not identified any oestrogenic effects. One theory suggests that maca can alter sex steroid receptor dynamics.
A review by researchers at the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine, in which randomised clinical trials that studied the effects of maca on menopausal symptoms were compared, decided that the size and number of the trials were too limited to establish a final conclusion, although some of the trials demonstrated that maca could have favourable effects. The researchers stated that larger studies were needed to test the efficacy and safety of maca.
Conditions that maca is claimed to help, but for which there is insufficient scientific evidence such that these claims remain scientifically unproven, include:
In what form is maca available as a supplement?
Maca is available as a powder, in capsules, tablets and liquid drops. Maca has a nutty-like flavour that some people like, but others prefer taking a capsule. The powder can be mixed in with water, juice, smoothies, herbal teas, yoghurt or cereal. The status of maca supplements is "unclear under food law" according to the medicines regulator MHRA.
Is taking maca safe?
Although there are no known side effects from consuming the maca root as a traditional food, less is known about it as a supplement.
Seek medical advice if you are considering taking a new supplement if you are taking medication, have an existing medical condition, or are pregnant or breastfeeding.