The kick-ass Peruvian miracle tuber
By Mica James
Maca is touted as the Peruvian all-natural-secret-vitality-of-the-Incas-miracle-wonderplant-of-the-new-millenium-answer-to-Viagra. A little high altitude, high octane root for your root. Do a Google search on it and all you will find are promotional websites promising increased sexual drive and a cure-all for everything from chronic fatigue syndrome and depression to infertility and PMS.
The dealer in illicit pre-Incan artifacts—exquisitely beautiful, outrageously overpriced and oh-so-very illegal to remove from the country—in the Pisac market also sidelines in maca. Diversification is the key to all business success. Twenty bucks for a kilo of nasty looking brown powder, but he gives me a deal ‘cause I speak the lingo and might spread the word. While libido isn’t a problem, glowing accounts of increased energy, improved memory, and greater natural vitality had me intrigued.
Maca, Lepidium meyenii Walp., grows in the stark windswept reaches of the Peruvian Puna, a high-altitude desert-like landscape of intense sunlight and cool temperatures. Little else grows in the harsh climate and maca has been a mainstay of the local diet, both human and animal, since it was domesticated as early as 3800 BC. It is a member of the cruciferae family (think cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and others) and looks like a small rounded, often-shriveled turnip. The plants grow low to the ground and are harvested once a year. The leaves can be eaten in salads or added to soups but most often are fed to livestock. The roots are eaten fresh, either boiled or baked in earth pits lined with hot stones, or are spread out in the sun to dry. Dried maca retains its nutritional properties for several years, a bonus in times of drought and famine. It has been used for centuries to enhance fertility in humans and animals. Once the conquistadors noticed the effect it was having on their horses, they started shipping it back to Spain by the boatload.
Harvested maca roots and the Peruvian Puna where they grow
While its appearance is decidedly unassuming, in the past maca was considered a gift to the gods right up there with virginal maidens, llamas (the animals, not the Tibetan monks), corn and potatoes. It is commonly called "ginseng of the Andes." There is an Incan legend that tells of warriors being fed maca to increase energy and vitality before battle. The same legend also states that they were cut off once they had conquered a city to guard the women against their overly stimulated sexual appetites. The legend is a little weak on specifics, like how much maca for how long, but it does show that those Inca sure knew how to manipulate people and substances to their advantage.
Although yet to be substantiated by scientific research, other medicinal properties attributed to maca include regulation of hormonal secretions (helpful for symptoms of menopause and menstrual irregularities), immunostimulant, antidepressant and effectiveness in combating anemia, leukemia, AIDS, cancer, alcoholism and symptoms associated with PMS. Scientific studies on Chinese ginseng revealed benefits in combating the noxious effects of pollutants on the human system. Since I live in Lima, where buses belch diesel fumes like pre-pubescent boys with fizzy drinks, fighting the cell-mutating effects of airborne heavy metals and carbon monoxide sounded like a good idea. So, I bargained the maca dealer down to fifteen bucks for my miracle kilo.
He told me that it was delicious mixed with milk and honey. Several web sites touted the pleasant caramel-like taste. Pleasant my ass! I nearly gagged when I tried my first dose mixed with apple juice.
The artifacts dealer was enthusiastic in his praise for the beneficial effects. One spoonful mixed into papaya or pineapple juice in the a.m., another dose in the afternoon and miraculous new vim and vigor would be mine after just one week. I somehow forgot that he was, after all, in the business of selling things. Like good salesmen the world over, he suckered me into believing the dream. He told me that it was delicious mixed with milk and honey. Several web sites touted the pleasant caramel-like taste. Pleasant my ass! I nearly gagged when I tried my first dose mixed with apple juice. It had lumps that did not dissolve even after vigorous shaking in a martini mixer. After the first unfortunate experience, just the smell of the powder initiated the powerfully convulsive urge to gag. By the afternoon I was seriously hoping that hot soymilk liberally laced with honey would do the trick and pleasant caramel flavor would be coaxed from the vile powder. I envisioned the beginning of a comforting and healthy end-of-the-afternoon experience—hot maca. I was wrong. It was possibly even more vile than the morning drink. The powder refused to remain in suspension but formed a thick sludge at the bottom of my mug. I just couldn’t face the gritty resinous paste and dumped it down the drain.
On day 2 of the new maca-me, I mixed it with apple juice as an early morning, pre-surfing fortifying drink. It tasted rude but I chugged it—one of those college skills that has served me well in real life—and it was bearable. Out in the water, even after a week off, I felt like a pro. I paddled strongly and was regularly catching the overhead waves. I was pleased and thought there must be something to the wondrous strength and endurance enhancing effects.
Maca apple juice smoothy | Twenty bucks gets you a kilo of maca powder at the Pisac market
Maca is the Clark Kent of superfoods. Mild-mannered and deceptively plain on the outside, it packs a superman-sized cocktail of good-for-you chemicals on the inside. It is a protein powerhouse with 18 amino acids including seven of the nine essential amino acids. It is low in calories and fat. The fats that are present include two of the three essential fatty acids (Linoleic and Oleic). Read: good fat. Minerals abound: 100% of the USDA of copper, 23% of iron, and 18% of calcium along with high levels of iodine, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and magnesium. Want to know about vitamins? Try A, B1, B2, B12, C, D and E. Maca contains an abundance of biologically active compounds with complex scientific names like steroidal glycosides. These last are naturally occurring steroids. That’s why bodybuilders, weight lifters, and high school jocks are pumping maca caps by the handfuls.
Day 3, I was wide-awake at 3:45am and couldn’t fall back asleep. I thought I would be doomed to doing the bob and weave over my computer all afternoon. It wasn’t so. I did not succumb to post-lunch couch-suck. Perhaps I was experiencing increased mental alertness and energy.
I decide to add chocolate powder to my afternoon hot soy milk-maca power drink. Two big spoonfuls of chocolate powder, an extra spoon of brown sugar and probably all the health enhancing effects of the maca were countered by the caffeine and sugar. It was a waste of good caffeine and sugar. It was still equally vile. I concluded that there was only one good way to take maca and that is to open the throat and get the liquid down as fast as possible, completely bypassing the taste buds. I vow to the soymilk gods never again to mix their fine beverage with the dreaded powder; I’ll stick to apple juice chugging from now on.
That’s what got the conquistadors started on it, their horses weren’t getting it on at altitude—you try having sex above 13,000 feet, you’ll be wheezing for help too—and the locals suggested feeding them maca. It worked like triple-X movie night at the OK Corral.
OK, enough background material! Let’s talk sex. Walk into any marketplace in Lima or the Puna region and you can find someone pushing maca juice. The stall is usually surrounded by a bunch of short Peruvian men all too happy to make room for a gringo to take part in the elixir. Knowing glances are exchanged, suggestive movements made with forearms, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, snicker, snicker. Belly up to the bar, down the frothy, oversweet beverage and you’ve been initiated into the brotherhood. Men are men the world over, and Latino men are doubly so, or so they are wont to believe. Maca’s benefits as an aphrodisiac are all anecdotal. In general, aphrodisiacs work more on the placebo effect (they say it works, I think it works, therefore it does) than any demonstrated scientific basis. With so many factors, from work stress to the demands of parenthood to legitimate health concerns affecting libido, who can really tell if maca will make you hornier than usual. But it certainly can’t hurt, right? Now fertility is a whole other ballgame. Scientific studies on rats, guinea pigs (a Peruvian delicacy), rams and cows all indicate increased fertility after introducing a diet rich in maca. That’s what got the conquistadors started on it, their horses weren’t getting it on at altitude—you try having sex above 13,000 feet, you’ll be wheezing for help too—and the locals suggested feeding them maca. It worked like triple-X movie night at the OK Corral.
Day 8. I’ve resigned myself to the twice-daily maca-apple juice cocktails but I decide to expand my experiment to include other edible uses of the plant. Maca has traditionally been used as a food. Visualize a large helping of mashed potatoes vs. a couple of puny gel-caps or spoonfuls of powder. In this case quantity may very well be the secret to reaping the health improving rewards. The yellow tubers appear in the produce section of my local supermarket from time to time and seem to disappear rapidly. I threw some into my shopping cart but going through the checkout line was reminiscent of the first time I bought condoms. Yep, everyone knows there’s only one reason to buy condoms or maca for that matter.
Back home, I tried juicing. Ugh! A straight up maca juice shooter is the most evilly heinous gastronomic experience I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing. Kids, do not try this at home. Fresh maca juice is not an option. I experimented with boiling the little beasts but the results were less than stellar, although at least edible. Let’s just say that it is not the next great culinary trend waiting to be discovered. There was nothing left to do but bake some. Success at last! They were tasty but the quantities of butter and sour cream necessary to render them palatable were an arterial deathtrap. I was striking out. One afternoon, my friend Jane pulled out a jar of maca jam; she and her husband add it to their morning oatmeal. She declined to comment on the experienced benefits. The jam tasted pretty good in a weird medicinal kind of way that wasn’t completely unpleasant. Still not convinced, I headed over to my local health food store. On their shelves I found maca breadsticks and maca cookies. Yum! They were good by anyone’s standards. Perhaps things were looking up for a modern diet rich in maca.
Typical Peruvian street scenes
In the end, very few scientific studies have been carried out on the beneficial effects of maca. Most of the claims are tenuous at best and along the lines of: "This element elsewhere has been shown to cure this, so therefore this same or similar compound in maca could be beneficial." So, following these lines, we get that cruciferae vegetables contain glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, which have been shown to have anticarcinogenic properties. The same sterols that are pumping up the body builders may also be helping the healthy pumping of blood. Studies have shown that the same sterols found in maca may significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. As to all the other claims, testimonial evidence abounds on “wellness” websites but I’ll wait for the scientific studies.
Three weeks later. Well, I can’t honestly document any life altering improvements. Yes, I feel pretty good. Yes, I no longer gag at the smell, taste or ever-present lumps. Am I still just running on placebo fumes? I don’t know. What about my original reason to take maca, as a guard against pollution? Well, maca is called Peruvian ginseng for its adaptogenic qualities. That is its ability, like ginseng, to improve the overall adaptability of the body and to restore balance, but it is not actually related to the Panax family and thus is not a true ginseng. So, who knows about the pollution-fighting benefits, maybe the placebo effect will take care of that too. And as for the effect on my libido, well now, put it this way: I’m just about through my 1 kilo and am thinking about calling my dealer for another hit. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more.