The Right Kind of Maca
By Natalie Jacobs
There is a mythology surrounding the root vegetable Maca. The story goes that Incan warriors used to eat it before going into battle because it repaired their muscles and sustained their energy. Since being introduced to the US market in 1999, that mythology hasn’t exactly created a booming Maca industry here, but it is starting to grow in popularity. Dr. Oz has talked about it. Health-focused blogs are writing about it. Athletes are incorporating into their training routines.
In addition to the Incan uses for Maca, it is also said to regulate hormones in menopausal women, increase sexual appetite and function primarily in men, and enhance fertility in both men and women. These claims have not been extensively studied and the studies that do exist are not considered widely scientifically applicable as far as traditional Western medicine is concerned. But there is no arguing the nutritional value of this root vegetable. It is made up of approximately 60 percent carbohydrates, 10 percent protein, 8.5 percent fiber and 2.2 percent (good) fats. It contains the minerals selenium, calcium, magnesium and iron and includes the fatty acids, oleic acids, amino acids and polysaccharides. Additionally, it contains the four alkaloids that activate the pituitary and pineal glands. For it’s botanical composition, it is considered one of the most nutrient-rich foods in the world.
But not all Maca is created equal. Ken Stittsworth, owner of Sol Raiz Organics, the exclusive export partner of the president of ecological and organic Maca for the country of Peru, says there are currently two kinds of Maca on the market: one that does contain all those nutrients and one that doesn’t. He is the exclusive distributor of Lepidium Pervuianum Chacon, a classification of Maca that only grows above 14,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes. The particularities of the soil at that elevation are what make the Lepidium Pervuainum Chicon so densely nutritious. He explains that the more common Lepidium Meyenii Walpers, grown on co-op farms sometimes as low as 3,500 feet, “potentially has no nutritional value and is compromising the land and the culture that grows it.”
While surfers (like Kelly Slater and Jamie Sterling), conscious eaters and proponents of alternative medicines are interested in Maca for the energy, the muscle repair and the ability to get massive amounts of nutrients without over eating, international pharmaceutical and herbal supplement corporations are interested in it for other of the sexier medicinal properties (there are some rumblings of Maca being a potential herbal replacement for Viagra).
A 2008 New York Times article on Maca notes that “natural plant substances [like Maca] generate more than $75 billion in sales each year for the pharmaceutical industry, $20 billion in herbal supplement sales, and around $3 billion in cosmetics sales,” citing a study by the European Commission. Hence there is a lot of money to be made here if research companies can prove that Maca increases sex drive, sperm virility, fertility and regulates hormone imbalances. As long as they are studying the correct genus of the plant.
“Increasing production,” says Stittsworth, “to match demand can ruin the value of the product.” And there is risk of this if pharmaceutical and supplement industries find value in producing massive amounts on a global scale, and if general consumers start incorporating Maca into their diets without paying heed to where it comes from.
Curious about the health effects myself, I tried Sol Raiz Organic’s Maca for a few weeks, in powder form with yogurt and granola in the morning, and in chocolate form for an occasional afternoon snack. It takes a little getting used to, but after the second or third meal, it actually starts to taste quite good. I first explained it to my dad as tasting something like malty peanut butter dirt. I would still describe it like that, but with more affection.
As with most foods, it’s all in the preparation. I have come to really like it mixed with strawberry yogurt and honey granola. Stittsworth mentioned a lot of the surfers who use his product blend it up in smoothies before a morning session. The previously cited New York Times article notes that Peruvian locals eat the full root “boiled alongside dried vicuña meat in soups; or diced with carrots, peas and cauliflowers in salads.” Maca flour is used to make sponge cake or flavored with chocolate and made into Maca puffs. Villagers also use Maca powder in drinks and juices.
While I’m not sure what it did to my hormones, the energy effects are immediate. I often felt like I could go for a long run after I finished my bowl, which is strange because I don’t even own a pair of running shoes. Since I stopped drinking coffee a few months ago, Maca has become a great way to start the day without that twitchy stomach churn I realized I was getting from caffeine. In the dosage I was taking (about a teaspoon), the extra energy only stuck around for a few hours, but I was always very productive in those few hours. It also seemed to increase my attention-span, which is maybe just a result of not being drowsy at 8 a.m.
While there are reasons for Western medicine to be skeptical of the health claims for Maca, I think embarking on your own two-week trial is definitely worth the experiment, and adding extra vital nutrients to your diet can’t be bad.
Thanks to Ken Stittsworth of Sol Raiz Organics for providing the Maca for this article. Their Maca can be found on their website www.solraizorganics.com and in select health food markets across the county.