Maca: The Andean High-Altitude Root Vegetable

Maca — also called maca root or Peruvian ginseng — comes from the South American countries of Peru and Bolivia. Both of those countries are quite mountainous and maca grows best at high altitudes. Maca is a root vegetable in the potato family that is said to be the highest altitude growing food crop in the world. It became a staple because of its ability to withstand difficult conditions.

There are four types of maca root and they differ in color. Their colors are: yellow, pink, purple, and black. The color is on the surface only, with the inner part of the root being the same in all four types.

Maca was being used by Native Peruvians as far back as 3800 BCE. Some sources state that for much of the time that the Incas ruled the Andes region, maca was so valuable that no one else but Inca royalty was allowed to use it. However, according to other legends, Incan soldiers would use maca in battle to make them stronger and to increase stamina.

In the mid-16th century, native Peruvians gave a gift of maca to the Spanish explorer de Soto who took it back to Spain. It was used by the Spanish royalty and prized because of its nutritional value and its ability to boost energy. After the Europeans discovered its valuable qualities, the Peruvians began to barter with it.

In the 17th century, a Spanish priest named Bernabe Cobo documented the fact that maca grew in the coldest and harshest environments where no other plants grew.

The two botanical names given to maca are Lepidum meyenii and Lepidum peruvianum. The former is applied generally to wild maca and the latter to the maca variety that is cultivated only in Peru.

Maca flavor profile

The most common way to consume maca root outside of Peru is as a powder. The powder has a taste that can be described as both malty and nutty. It is sometimes described as having a similar taste to Graham flour.

Health benefits of maca

Maca is a valuable food crop because of how nutritious it is. Here are some of the nutrients that you can get from it:

  • Vitamins: Maca contains various B vitamins in addition to vitamins C and E.
  • Minerals: Maca offers a wealth of minerals such as iron, magnesium and zinc.
  • Amino acids: Maca is rich in amino acids, which are the components of protein.
  • Glycosides: The glycosides in maca are important for fighting inflammation and have antibacterial and antifungal effects.

You can use maca if you need to prevent or treat certain health conditions like:

  • Symptoms of menopause: You can use maca to treat hot flashes, osteoporosis and other menopausal symptoms.
  • Low libido: Maca is believed to boost libido in both men and women.
  • Fatigue: Maca has been used to increase energy.

Health concerns

One major health concern about maca is that it can affect how your thyroid functions due to its goitrogen content.

Common uses

The traditional way to process the root is to boil it then liquefy it by mashing. It is also sometimes roasted. Maca root is used to make beer or dried and used to make flour. Maca leaves are also consumed raw as salad greens or cooked.