For almost half a century, men and women worldwide have touted the many advantages of maca. A humble carrot-like tuber, this superfood presents as an ordinary vegetable, yet brings extraordinary health benefits to the table.

WHAT IS MACA?

Maca (commonly Lepidium meyenii) is a genus of plants in the cabbage and mustard family. An edible biennial, this herbaceous plant is known as one of Peru’s seven flag products and has been exported in all possible forms including powder, liquor, extracts and raw as whole vegetables since the late 1980s.

Scientifically, maca presents distinctive and different properties and characteristics.

In 1843, German botanist Gerhard Walpers identified and named the tuber found growing wild in the Andes mountain range as Lepidium meyenii Walpers. In 1960, Peruvian botanist Gloria Chacon-Roldan described a distinction between wild and cultivated maca which she named as Lepidium sp. In 1990, Chacon-Roldan successfully registered the new scientific name Lepidium peruvianum Chacon.

Maca accounts for 1.12 million kg of the total 3.12 million kg of maca product exported from Peru in 2017.

Figure 2: Peruvian exports of maca, 2017. © Statista 2020

HISTORY OF MACA

The Andes mountain range crosses seven countries and is the longest mountain range in the world, stretching out along 4,300 mi. Extending North to South, the Andean Mountains line the coastal regions between Venezuela and Argentina on the West coast of South America, and pass through Chile, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

At its widest, the Andes mountain range reaches 430 mi wide and displays some of the world’s highest peaks, where only Asia has higher peaks.

Figure 3: The Andean mountain range. © Carlos A Arango

In Peru, those peaks range anywhere from 18,232 ft to 22,205 ft.

The origins of maca in Peru

Cultivated high in the central Andes mountain range in the Junin Plateau of the Carhuamayo, Junin, and Óndores regions of Peru and also in Bolivia, maca has adapted to thrive at incredible altitudes.

The maca root has been a staple source of nutrition for Peruvians for centuries. Sometimes marketed as Peruvian ginseng, pepperweed, Peruvian ginger, and maka, Peruvian maca is also known for its fertility-enhancing properties, as an overall health maintainer, and as a mood booster.

Maca is a protected heritage product of Peru. In 2003, Peru declared it illegal to export or transport whole maca roots or seeds across international borders.

The origins of maca in China

The higher-than-Peru altitudes of Asian mountain ranges make China’s Yunnan province an ideal place to grow maca, specifically at similar altitudes to those of Peru and Bolivia.

Depending on what you read in your own research, conflicting reports and articles suggest that Chinese maca was either imported legally at above-market prices even as Peru banned the international transporting of unprocessed maca, that it was being smuggled raw out of Peru and transplanted in China, or that seeds were stolen from Peru and cultivated into Chinese maca at similar altitudes.

Additional claims suggest that Chinese maca is:

  • of inferior quality and lacks the known nutrients that Peruvian maca is well-known for
  • synthesized and sold as genuine maca
  • not of regular and healthy-grown size and shape of Peruvian maca.

MACA VARIANTS

There are reportedly six maca variants grown in Peru. Of these, only the red, yellow, black, and purple varieties are exported.

Maca ranges in size and is considered to be fully grown when it reaches roughly the size of a radish if Lepidium meyenii Walpers, and is shaped like a short carrot if Lepidium peruvianum Chacon. Overall, maca has a buttery aftertaste, though each color variant brings its own distinctive and complementary taste to recipes.

Figure 4: Red and yellow maca. © tacowitte, 2016

ADVANTAGES OF USING MACA

Known for their overall and individual health benefits, each color variant offers varying levels of nutrition, natural essential minerals and vitamins, and therapeutic advantages. In addition, it is thought that selected medical conditions benefit more from specific colors and strains than other medical conditions.

  • Red maca:The rarest of the three colors, red maca has the highest amount of amino acids and antioxidants when compared to either black or yellow maca. Used in supplements, red maca is known to increase endurance and strength, and balance hormones. Medical conditions positively affected by the controlled use of red maca include prostate cancer, symptoms of certain depressions, loss of bone density and stress reduction. Red maca is described as malty in taste when cooked.
  • Yellow maca:Known to have a slight effect on low sex drive and sperm counts in men, yellow maca is said to relieve some symptoms of menopause, while also treating low fertility rates and hormone imbalances in women. Yellow maca accounts for roughly 60% of market share in commercialized maca products. In both men and women, yellow maca is considered beneficial in enhancing focus that allows clearer thinking, improving overall mood, and in the production of necessary brain chemicals to support nerve cell communication in the body. Light brown in color when in powder form, yellow maca is considered the tangiest of all variants.
  • Black maca:Nature’s Viagra, black maca is the most-recommended variety of the three to treat specific sexual conditions and symptoms, including erectile dysfunction in some co-morbid medical conditions, low sex drive, low sperm counts, and in instances where couples are unable to conceive due to low sperm mobility. Other medical conditions that black maca may be beneficial in treating include a positive effect on bone structure, as a mood enhancer and natural anti-depressant, and to increase learning retention and memory. In addition, black maca offers immune-strengthening benefits that fight colds and flu, and protect the body from stress-induced fatigue. It is said that yellow maca tastes like roasted soya beans.
  • Purple maca: Grown at altitudes as high as the rare red maca is grown, this color variant of maca is purported to aid in the easing of peri-menopausal hot flashes, though may be contra-indicated in women with other pre-existing medical conditions (see known contra-indications)

MACA SUPPLY AND DEMAND

Whilst Peruvian markets and producers have welcomed the meteoric rise in the worldwide use of maca, there are many concerns that Chinese maca variants are of lesser nutritional value than its Peruvian counterparts.

Additionally, maca roots are well-known for depleting soil nutrients. Over-production in nutrient-poor soil as farmers rise to meet the growing demand for maca may result in barren fields and farmlands or harvests of inferior quality.

Chinese marketing of maca as a “cure-all” may seem like more snake oil tales to some, but supply and demand models indicate that an increased awareness of the overall health benefits of using maca could stimulate sales and demand, specifically in the effective treatment of infertility and other medical conditions that explore sexual dysfunction or fertility-related health issues.

Maca’s incredible rise to fame has been attributed to Doctor Oz, who listed maca on his 2013 Hot List of energy-boosting foods to try.

WHY MALE FERTILITY RATES NEED A BOOST

A study conducted in 1992 concluded a pronounced 50-year decline in sperm production amongst American and European men. Alarmingly, this steady decline showed no signs of slowing.

Suggested causes for this decline include obesity and diet, delayed parenthood, erectile dysfunction, sexually transmitted diseases, and an increase in male-specific cancers such as prostate and testicular cancer. As can be expected, couples worldwide began looking for safe and healthy alternatives to medical procedures and their associated high costs in an attempt to boost their combined fertility rates.

However, an article in 2019 suggested that a disconnect existed between observed public behavior and published research on the extent of male infertility. Results from older research may be tainted by unmeasured variables and other factors.

The fact remains that, although fertility rates have decreased significantly in recent decades, the resulting sperm count remains within normal range, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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WHAT CONTRIBUTES TO MALE INFERTILITY?

As we’ve learned, there are several factors that could contribute to a low sperm count or low sperm mobility. Any one or combinations of two or more factors have the ability to disrupt the normal, healthy production of male sperm cells.

Maca has a positive effect on moods and in treating depression – a contributing factor in lack of or impaired libido, erectile dysfunction and low sperm counts. A hormone balancer, maca is also known to alleviate some symptoms of menopause and increase stamina over time, as well as being touted to be quite effective in managing some peri-menopausal symptoms.

The effects of mood on arousal, desire, intimacy, and sexual behavior are well-documented, and include the roles that stressors, anxiety, exhaustion, and trauma play in balancing moods.

Statistics indicate that over 264 million people suffer from depression worldwide, however up to 85% of all people from low- and middle-income populations across the globe do not receive treatment for depression.

Reasons for this include stigma, lack of infrastructure, and the high cost of chronic medications and treatment for mental disorders in those countries. Depression is not picky about who gets it, but there are ways we can alleviate symptoms, eliminate causes, and improve our diets along the way.

Diet and exercise play a significant part in regulating our physical, emotional, sexual, hormonal, and mental wellbeing.

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IS MACA THE ANSWER TO MALE INFERTILITY?

Whilst maca can’t help you exercise, it is possible that regular use of maca can help you increase stamina and endurance for those times you feel the urge to exercise. Maca is also known as a superfood and an adaptogen, which works to alleviate and help you cope with the symptoms of stress.

Maca is considered a mood enhancer, a depression treatment, and as a source of many nutrients, minerals and vitamins. Maca is available for purchase online and in health shops worldwide. Labeling and packaging of purchased maca products should clearly indicate whether your product is Lepidium meyenii Walpers or Lepidium peruvianum Chacon.

Benefits of including maca in an everyday diet suggest a consistently positive and measurable impact on sperm production. Of concern however is the news that Maca does not contribute to an enhanced sex drive in either men or women, and that maca marketers have used this urban legend as a sales gimmick – while adding a Viagra base to maca products that are sold as sexual enhancers.

In 2019, the FDA consequently went on to issue a public notification that cautioned consumers against purchasing Peru maca.

Be that as it may, more research is needed to determine the extent of maca’s much-reported health-enhancing attributes, and specifically the effect on human male fertility rates and female sexual dysfunction.

HOW IS MACA PREPARED AND PACKAGED?

Recipes abound on the best way to prepare and serve maca to gain maximum benefits from this amazing root. Dr. Oz recommends serving it as a porridge, while others advise that it be dried and crushed into flour for baking, freshly baked or roasted as a root vegetable, or taken as a dietary supplement in powder or liquid form. Maca capsules, liquid, root, and powders are used in alternative health products and in traditional medicines.

Maca is sensitive to light, humidity, and oxygen and will need to be kept in airtight, sealed jars (such as those the products are purchased in). In higher humidities, it may be beneficial to store opened maca products in your refrigerator during hot, humid months. In all instances, store maca in a cool, dry place for up to 3 years.

MACA NUTRITIONAL VALUES AND RECOMMENDED DOSAGES

There is an extensive list of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals found in maca, most notable of which are amino acids, phytonutrients, fatty acids, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, fatty acids, calcium, niacin, and vitamin C. A full list of maca’s nutritional values is available here.

Recommended dosages may vary according to the condition being treated and the form of maca being consumed. Remember too that maca is an energy booster, so you may want to take maca in the mornings. In general however, there are a few factors to consider when consuming maca in any form:

  • Age
  • Weight
  • Pre-existing medical conditions
  • Overall health and mental well-being

Speak to your health practitioner, herbalist, or family doctor if you are uncertain of maca’s health benefits for you personally, have weight or age concerns, or if your current dosage leaves you with unpleasant side effects.

KNOWN CONTRA-INDICATIONS AND SIDE EFFECTS IN SPECIFIC MEDICAL CONDITIONS

In an article published in 2011, it was noted that there are no known toxicities or side effects from using maca, unlike pharmacological products.

However, the article does go on to caution that the correct dosage of maca be used in specific medical conditions, citing no noticeable contra-indications in mice and rats used in the study. Human trials and studies are ongoing.

Side effects and contra-indications in other studies and articles discuss a lack of human testing to determine the safety of using maca in pre-existing conditions such as:

  • Pregnancy
  • Lactation
  • Menopause
  • Any chronic, pre-existing medical conditions

Reported side effects include:

  • Feeling “too energized” or “jittery” from a large dose
  • Upset stomachs that include gas and cramps due to a high starch content in raw maca. Gel capsules may assist in alleviating this discomfort
  • Insomnia and an inability to fall asleep due to large doses late in the day
  • Hormonal imbalances may cause acne to appear but the acne will usually disappear as hormone levels balance out
  • Thyroid issues may need to be discussed with your doctor if flare-ups occur
  • Some vegetables are known for “repeating” and cause heartburn or acid reflux. While maca is not generally known for causing these ails, pre-existing stomach conditions could be exacerbated by consuming maca
  • Iodine allergies are rare but need to be brought up with your doctor

POSSIBLE FACTORS IMPACTING DISTRIBUTION

Regardless of the variant you purchase – or where it was grown – Covid-19 will have impacted production, harvesting, and supply of maca worldwide.

Strict lockdown, self-isolation, and border control measures put in place to prevent the spread of Coronavirus will have impacted distribution and shipping to all buyers, distributors, and consumers of maca products around the globe.

Whilst the export of maca is dominated by China and Peru, several other countries, manufacturing companies, and distributors are key players in the growth and distribution of maca products.

Peruvian maca is exported to the USA, the UK, Japan, Brazil, Germany, China, and more. Sectors of industry that may purchase these products for resale include:

  • Health food stores
  • Pharmacies
  • Health practitioners
  • Personal sport trainers
  • Supplement manufacturers

Be sure to do your research and purchase directly from a reliable and well-recommended Peruvian supplier, or Chinese suppliers if you prefer this variant.

Use reputable suppliers that offer satisfaction guaranteed, and shipping and return policies that meet your expectations.

Do your research and ask around your community and shopping centers for any recommended maca distributors, resellers, or stockists of maca products.

It is said that maca can be grown outside of its natural habitat and at sea levels below those that it reportedly only grows at. Due to the harsh growing conditions at thousands of feet above sea level, maca is well-adapted and tolerant of winds, drought, and hot or cold weather extremes.

When planting or growing maca, be sure to keep your soil pH as neutral as possible and to make sure your maca crop drains well to avoid root rot.

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