Maca powder seems to be everywhere these days. You can find it in your local supermarket or health food store, it’s added to salads and porridge, and it’s sold in bulk by every major supplement retailer.
But what is maca powder? Is it really as beneficial as this recent obsession would suggest? How much should you consume? And are there are side effects you need to be aware of?
What is Maca Powder?
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is also known as Peruvian ginseng and maca-maca. It is a root vegetable native to parts of Peru, where it grows over a span of 8 to 9 months. Similar in size and shape to a radish or parsnip, the root is harvested for food and medicine while the leaves of the plant remain to be used as fertilizer.
In Peru, maca is often prepared fresh and can be roasted or boiled to produce a rich, nutrient-dense food that is slightly sweet. However, the bulk of the maca crop is dried, powdered, and exported for use as a supplement. It can also be made into flour, a type of porridge, and even beer, with a US brewery creating the first ever maca beer in 2010.
Health Benefits of Maca
In recent years, maca’s popularity has exploded, with a greater demand than ever from consumers in Europe, North America, and Asia. It has been marketed incredibly well, and that has pushed the price up, making life difficult for the locals that have subsisted on this crop for generations.
In fact, maca has been cultivated and consumed for over 2,000 years, a staple crop enjoyed for its high carbohydrate and protein content. When Americans and Europeans caught wind of its potential benefits, however, the demand skyrocketed.
So, what are those supposed health benefits? And is there any truth to them?
Maca is Nutritious
One of the things we can say with absolute certainty is that maca is a very nutritious root.
A 30-gram serving of maca powder contains just 95 to 100 calories but provides all of the following:
- Vitamin C = 140% RDA
- Copper 90% = RDA
- Iron = 25% RDA
- Vitamin B6 = 20% RDA
It also has over 2 grams of dietary fibre, or roughly a tenth of your RDA, and about 5 grams of protein. It’s a root, so it’s heavy on carbs, but a tbsp here and there won’t add too many calories to your daily total and will provide a significant nutrient boost. Maca also contains a spectrum of amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
High in Glucosinolates
Maca contains compounds known as glucosinolates. These sulphur-containing compounds impart a pungent taste to vegetables like maca, kale, and broccoli, but they’re also thought to be responsible for many of the health benefits associated with these foodstuffs.
These compounds have been studied extensively over the last few decades, with researchers finding a direct association between glucosinolate consumption and a reduced risk of many common cancers, including breast, kidney, oesophageal, colon, mouth, throat, and lung.(1) (2)
These magical compounds also have an antibacterial effect. We have discussed substances that have these benefits in the past, including thyme oil and oregano oil, noting how they work best on direct contact with highly concentrated extracts.
But with glucosinolates, the benefits are more readily available and may help protect against infections in the gut. And if it’s true that good health starts in the gut, these benefits may reduce infections elsewhere, as well.
It May Help with Libido and Fertility (but probably not)
A lot has been said about maca’s ability to improve fertility and libido. It’s one of its biggest selling points and the benefits that every article, guide, and retailer talks about.
In 2016, a large meta-analysis found that while there were some promising results when looking at previous clinical trials, these were not strong enough to make a firm conclusion. The researchers noted that the sample size was relatively weak and the potential bias was high, thus rendering the results questionable and suggesting that much more research needs to be conducted. (3)
However, when you consider that the side effects are few (more on those in a moment) and there are many other health benefits, along with the fact that libido and fertility benefits haven’t been ruled out completely, it might be worth taking the risk.
If it works for you, what harm will it do?
Can Improve Mood
The high flavonoid content of maca root may produce some positive psychological benefits, including reduced anxiety and depression. These benefits seem to work best for postmenopausal symptoms. A 2008 study found some notable improvements when given postmenopausal women a dose of 3.5 grams per day over 6 weeks (4).
Again, these were slight, but large enough to warrant considering a little maca root if you’re suffering from any such problems.
It Could Boost Performance
Maca root powder has been linked to a number of bodybuilding and performance-related health benefits, which is why it’s often sold on bodybuilding supplement sites. The problem? Many studies suggesting that maca can impact muscle growth, recovery, and performance have been conducted on animals and very few studies are reporting the same benefits in humans.
A 2009 study on cyclists did notice an improvement in performance, but the trial only lasted for a couple of weeks and there were only 8 participants. With a study this small, the results are simply not reliable enough to make concrete conclusions. Larger studies need to be conducted. (5)
It’s not all bad news, though. As noted above, maca root powder is very high in protein for a root, and it also contains nutrients like iron and B6, both of which can support muscle growth, energy, and recovery. The idea that mass dosing with any nutrient can benefit performance is a fallacy, but if you’re deficient in B6 (common in vegans) or iron, then a little top-up could improve performance.
What Are the Side Effects of Maca?
Maca is safe for general consumption and shouldn’t cause issues, even in higher doses. However, pregnant women should speak with their doctors before using a supplement like maca powder, and caution is advised for anyone suffering with thyroid issues, due to the concentration of goitrogens.
If you can get an inexpensive, high-quality source of maca and are looking for some of the benefits outlined above, it’s worth picking up a bag or two. It might work for you, it might not; you might hate the taste, you might love it.
The only way you will know is by trying it!