Here’s the lowdown on this trendy Peruvian root powder.
You’ve probably noticed that the list of buzzy superfood powders populating health food store aisles and your social media feed seems to be getting longer by the day—matcha, collagen, turmeric, mushroom, and now maca.
Traditionally, maca has been used for centuries by various South American cultures including the Inca to balance hormones, boost libido and fertility, reduce anxiety, bolster mental clarity, and improve stamina and strength (and what runner doesn’t want that?). Sort of like a South American version of ginseng, maca is now being sold around the globe and touted as a powder with do-it-all powers.
So does the ancient Peruvian staple live up to its hype? We spoke with a dietitian and delved into the science to figure out if maca can indeed take your health and performance up a notch.
What Is Maca?
Maca (pronounced mah-cah) is not an herb as many may think, but it is a turnip-like root vegetable (from the broccoli and radish family) grown underground at higher elevations in the Andes mountains. There, it’s used as a traditional medicine and a key ingredient in a fermented drink called maca chicha. Because maca is not exported fresh, it is dehydrated and then ground into a powder.
What Does the Science Say?
Apart from the anecdotal, it’s slim pickings when it comes to any strong scientific evidence supporting the lofty health claims surrounding maca.
Maca does contain polysaccharide compounds that can act as antioxidants in the body to help protect your cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, which in theory, can lessen the risk for certain diseases like cancer and maybe even improve postrun recovery. But no scientific link has been made between the antioxidants in maca and improved health measures. And it’s easy to load up on antioxidants via less expensive foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and even whole grains.
If you’re hoping maca will spice up your love life, registered dietitian nutritionist and fitness professional Katie Hake, R.D., says it’s best not to expect any bedroom miracles from stirring maca into smoothies. There’s some limited data that maca powder can help with fertility and libido, but it’s way too premature to hail it as nature’s Viagra.
An analysis of past research found that out of four random clinical trials conducted on maca, two supported its effectiveness at improving sexual dysfunction in men and women while two failed to show any significant results at all. One recent trial found that men who consumed maca daily for two months experienced increased sperm concentration and motility, but this was a small study, and it’s unknown if the results translate into improved fertility. The National Institutes of Health states that right now, there’s still insufficient evidence to prove that maca can help improve sexual dysfunction or sexual desire. “A lot more research is needed to fully back up any of these claims,” says Hake.
That said, limited data suggest that maca may give your athletic pursuits a boost. A British study found that male cyclists who supplemented with maca extract for two weeks experienced an improvement in their 40K cycling time performance and also their sexual desire. But this was just a pilot study conducted on only eight subjects without any mechanism being sussed out. So we are a long way from being able to hail this South American root veggie as an athlete’s new best friend.
Maca root powder is also often billed as an adaptogen, which some will say makes it useful to help your body adapt to various stresses and improve vitality. But it’s hard to say if this is the case because there just isn’t any research worth noting to prove yay or nay. “At this point, it’s too premature to classify maca as a true adaptogan and shouldn’t be a major reason why someone would take it,” Hake explains.
As for its overall nutrition breakdown, maca like other root vegetables does contain an array of nutrients that can add a boost to your diet. “Maca is high in copper and manganese which can support bone mineral density while having anti-inflammatory effects,” notes Hake. Other nutrients include vitamin C, iron, calcium, potassium, copper and vitamin B6, an under-the-radar nutrient that plays a big role in metabolism—not a bad deal.
Still, if you’re just taking a teaspoon or so a day, you won’t get a major nutritional windfall from maca. Besides, Hake points out that eating a well-balanced diet to start off with means you are likely getting enough of these nutrients already without needing to spike your yogurt with the stuff.
A Word of Caution
Since maca may impact certain hormone functioning, women with hormone-sensitive conditions including endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and certain cancers should speak with their physician before using maca. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are also encouraged to proceed with caution. “If you choose to experiment with maca and other supplements you should consider keeping a food/symptom log to see if you notice any positive or negative side effects,” Hake advises.
The Bottom Line
And as with most trending wellness products that you may see spamming your Instagram feed, remember that maca is not a miracle food, but instead, an item you can add to an existing healthy diet for a little potential boost. And if its flavour or price tag don’t agree with you, don’t sweat it. There are plenty of other nutritious ways to upgrade your meals like adding an extra handful of berries to your oatmeal.
If you are maca-curious, and you’ve been cleared by a physician or professional to try it, you’ll most commonly find it in pill form or as a fine powder that can then be added to oatmeal, pancake batter, smoothies, yogurt, and baked goods. But be warned, maca has an earthy, malty flavour that can take some getting used to, to say the least. So don’t be too adventurous from the get-go when stirring it into your morning coffee.