Ten things you should know about Maca Powder
Goji Berry & Cinnamon Oats Porridge Recipe with Maca Powder
In the high Andes of Peru the summer maca harvest is now underway. The plant they are pulling from the ground looks like a small turnip and is in the same botanical family. It grows at altitudes of over 11,000 feet, thriving in conditions of biting cold, intense sunlight and icy winds. No other food crop grows at a higher altitude. Since the conditions are so harsh few weeds or pests thrive the crop is largely cultivated organically – fertilised only by sheep and alpaca manure. It grows in varying colours which produces three types of Maca powder…black, red and yellow.1. In the high Andes of Peru the summer maca harvest is now underway. The plant they are pulling from the ground looks like a small turnip and is in the same botanical family. It grows at altitudes of over 11,000 feet, thriving in conditions of biting cold, intense sunlight and icy winds. No other food crop grows at a higher altitude. Since the conditions are so harsh few weeds or pests thrive the crop is largely cultivated organically – fertilised only by sheep and alpaca manure. It grows in varying colours which produces three types of Maca powder…black, red and yellow.
The plant has been eaten by Andean mountain communities for centuries. While legend has it that Inca warriors eat Maca before battle to make them strong there is no record of it having any kind of special qualities until half way through the 17th century when a priest wrote of it being used for nourishment and fertility. The plant was first identified for science by German botanist Wilhelm Gerhard Walpers in 1843 – he named it Lepidium meyenii – and it eventually came to public notice outside South America in the 1960’s.
By the 1990’s Maca had gained a reputation in the West for bossting fertility, libido and sexual performance and also become widely used as an energy booster. It has now achieved “superfood” status. The list of health benefits attributed to it include improving hormone balance, memory, circulation, prostate health, fatigue, joint pain, skin tone and hair growth. It is also said to help in combating depression, stress, osteoporosis, menstrual pain, migraine and symptoms of the menopause.
Maca powder is rich in amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, C and D, and minerals including iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, potassium and calcium. It is 13-16% protein and 8.5% fibre. But scientists have discovered that it also contains two types compounds found in no other plants. They are maccamides and macaenes. Some early research in rats suggested these may have a link to the libido boosting properties of Maca but to date their significance remains unclear.
There is still very little scientific research work carried out to test the health benefits associated with Maca and what has been done – much of it in Peru – has been small scale and inconclusive. There is some evidence that it may have a positive effect on libido. In 2008 researchers found that it appeared to help people whose medication for depression had affected their sexual performance. A four month fertility trial seemed to show an increase in semen volume and sperm count. Another study showed that Maca could reduce anxiety and depression in postmenopausal women of endurance cyclists using Maca showed nothing conclusive.
As the Peruvians have been eating maca as a vegetable for generations with no ill-effects it would be logical to assume that it is perfectly safe to eat. But no research has been carried out into the possible toxicity of the plant and it is recommended that Maca powder be consumed in limited amounts. The usually suggested daily intake is 5-15g or one to three teaspoons. It is also recommended that regular consumers take breaks in consumption of either one day a week or one week a month.
Traditionally maca is eaten roasted or dried in the sun for two weeks and then put in store. When required for food it is soaked overnight and then boiled in water or milk (usually for porridge). It can also be ground into flour and used in baking. To make raw Maca powder for export the dried roots are simply ground in a process involving no heat. To make gelatinised powder – produced since the 1990’s – the dried roots are boiled and then passed through a pressure process which removes the starch. While this affects the nutrient content it is also said to concentrate what remains.
The most popular use of maca powder is in smoothies or simple drinks (with rice milk for example) or even mixed into a cup of tea. But it can be used in baking cookies, brownies and cakes and making energy bars. Cooking raw powder may affect its qualities. It is suggested that the gelatinised product may be a better choice for cooking as it has already been heated.
There have been reports that consuming raw maca powder can caused gastrointestinal issues for some people and may have an effect on blood pressure in others. Maca is not recommended during pregnancy or for breast feeding mothers or for anyone suffering from a thyroid problem. If you are receiving treatment for a serious medical condition or have concerns about the impact maca may have on your health then you should speak to your GP before making it part of your diet.
The price of raw maca has increased 10 fold over the past years and the areas planted in Peru have more than quadrupled. The global surge in demand is partly accounted for by a massive appetite for the plant developing in China. The result has been a huge increase in income for the previously struggling growers who have simply broken their contracts with health food companies in the US, Japan and elsewhere in order to cash in on Chinese deals. But there is now major concern that maca seeds have been smuggled out of South America and that the Chinese will become major producers causing a slump in Peru. No one knows whether maca grown at lower altitude and in milder climates will have the same properties as the high mountain powder.
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