Maca is a tough, perennially growing plant that is cultivated in high altitudes in the Andes Mountains, at heights ranging from 8,000 feet to 14,500 feet. This plant is known to be extremely resilient to frost among all indigenous cultivated plant species. The stem system of maca, a member of the mustard family, is low-growing and akin to that of a mat. In fact, this plant often goes unnoticed in the field of a farmer. The disc-shaped leaves of maca emerge very nearly on the ground and this plant bears tiny, off-white and self-fertile flowers characteristic to those of the plants belonging to the mustard family.
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Maca has a tuberous root and it is used for a number of purposes, including therapeutic and culinary. The root of maca has resemblance to a large radish often growing up to 8 cm across and its color may vary from off-white (beige) to yellow. Dissimilar to several other plants having tuberous roots, the maca plant is generally propagated by its seeds. While the plant is known to be perennial in nature, it is also cultivated as an annual plant. It takes anything between seven to nine months for the plants to produce healthy tuberous roots for harvesting.
In 1843, the famous German botanist Gerhard Walpers first described the maca plant (botanical name L. meyenii). However, it has been hinted that the maca plant cultivated presently is actually not L. meyenii, but a new species called L. peruvianum. This observation is founded on examinations of a variety of specimens that have been collected in the San Juan de la Jarpa district of Peru's Huancayo province since 1960. Although nearly all maca that is sold commercially these days is still sold as L. meyenii, trade and industry botanists are of the belief that majority of this maca is actually a different species - L. peruvianum.
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The region in the high altitudes of the Andes where maca is found growing is basically an uncongenial or unfriendly area receiving extreme sunlight. In addition, the area is swept by violent winds and the weather there is below freezing. The extreme temperatures couples with the infertile, mountainous soil, the region is known to be among the worst farmlands across the globe. Despite such conditions, the maca has evolved and flourished in the inhospitable region for several centuries. Available documents show that the Incas had domesticated maca nearly 2,000 years back. In fact, some ancient cultivars of maca have been discovered in a number of archaeological sites that date back as far as 1600 B.C.
It is interesting to note that the cultivation of maca too has increased in countries like Peru as well as Bolivia, as the demand for supplement industry has been increasing with each passing day. The most important maca product that is exported from these regions is maca flour or powder - baking flour produced by grinding the hard and dried out tuberous roots of this plant. As a bulk commodity, maca flour is a comparatively cheaper item, something very akin to flour made from wheat or potato flour. In fact, the supplement industry makes use of the dry roots of maca as well as maca flour for various types of processing as well as concentrated extracts. If you search the Internet, you will find that several dozen dissimilar extracts of maca are available commercially.
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A different type of maca supplement is prepared by a process known as gelatinization. This is basically a process of extruding wherein the hard fibers of the plant's roots are separated as well as removed by means of applying mild heat as well as pressure, because it is difficult to digest mace owing to the fact that it contains solid fibers as well goitrogen. In fact gelatinization for maca was developed particularly to imitate the action of cooking, as well as to enable better digestion of the herb or supplements prepared with it. Primarily, gelatinized maca is used for remedial as well as supplement purpose. However, it can also be utilized as maca flour to add essence to cooking. This herb is also available in the form of maca juice freeze dried, which is obtained by squeezing macerating the fresh root of the plant and thereafter it is freeze dried in high altitudes of the Andes.
Humans have been harvesting and employing maca in the Andes for several centuries now. Opposite to claims made frequently regarding maca's cultivation being as it is being done in contemporary Peru, documents show that till the later part of the 1980s maca was only cultivated in very limited areas in the region of the Lake Junin situated in central Peru. From the historic point of view, people frequently traded maca for food products cultivated in the lowland tropical regions, for instance rice, corn, manioc (also known as tapioca roots), papaya and quinoa. In addition, people also used maca to make payment of taxes to the Spanish royals.
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It is said that the Inca imperial soldiers consumed maca before going for a battle. The strength these warriors are renowned for is said to have come from consuming plenty of maca while preparing them for a battle. It reportedly fuelled these frightening warriors. It is also reported that these warriors became extremely potent sexually after consuming maca, so much so that the women of the cities they conquered required special protection. In fact, this masculine property of maca forms a vital as well as an appealing part of the campaign to market the supplements. However, this claim regarding the use of maca is yet to be proved scientifically.
Maca is a very important commodity for all Andean Indians as well as the natives of the region. This is primarily owing to the fact that hardly any other crop grows in this region. As a result, the locals often trade maca with people inhabiting the lower altitudes for other staple items like corn, rice, green vegetables and beans. The dried out tuberous roots of maca can be stored for as many as seven years. As a habit, the natives of Peru have used maca since the pre-Incan era in the form of food as well as medicine. Maca is definitely a very vital staple in these people's diet, because it possesses the maximum nutritional worth among all foods cultivated in their region. Maca contains elevated levels of protein, sugar, starches as well as several other essential nutriments, such as iron and iodine.
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The tuberous root of maca can be eaten fresh as well as dried. The freshly obtained roots of maca are believed to be a delicacy and may be consumed after baking or roasting them in ashes, much in the same way as people consume sweet potatoes. The dried out tuberous roots of maca are stored and used later. These dry roots are boiled in milk or water to prepare porridge. In addition, the dried roots may also be used to make a popular sugary, aromatic, fermented beverage known as maca chicha. Peruvians also use the dry maca roots to prepare jams, sodas as well as puddings, which are all popular among the locals. The maca roots taste flavourful and sweet and their scent are akin to that of butterscotch.
Maca is an energizing plant that is also known as the Peruvian ginseng. However, it needs to be noted that maca does not belong to the same family as ginseng. People in the Andes region have been using maca for several centuries now to augment the fertility in humans as well as animals. Immediately after the Spanish conquered South America, they discovered that the reproduction rate of their livestock was very poor in the highlands. At this time, the native Indians suggested that the Spanish feed maca to their animals. The detailed reports of the amazing results were later documented by the Spanish chroniclers. In fact, some colonial records dating back to 200 years ago hint that the Spanish had demanded a payment of an estimated 9 tons of maca from only one region in the Andes for this particular purpose.
In the current herbal medicine of Peru, maca is said to be employed in the form of an immunostimulant (to invigorate the immune system); for treating anemia, stomach cancer, tuberculosis (TB), symptoms related to menopause, menstrual problems, infertility (several reproductive as well as sexual problems) and even to improve the memory. Over the past many years, the popularity of maca has been increasing throughout the world, primarily owing to many massive marketing campaigns in the United States that advertize the plants various properties, including the fertility enhancement, energizing, aphrodisiac, hormone balancing and particularly, augmented sexual performances. Among its various therapeutic uses, one unreliable herbal uses of maca in the United States as well as several countries abroad includes enhancing vitality, stamina, as well as endurance in sportspersons. It has also been claimed that maca is effective in augmenting clarity of thoughts, curing impotence in males, as well as aiding in treating hormonal imbalances in females, menstrual irregularities, chronic fatigue syndrome and problems related to menopause.
Presently, the dried out roots of maca are pulverized to produce a powder and marketed in the form of food supplement capsules that are meant to enhance stamina (both athletic and sexual) as well as fertility. As consumers are regularly being showered with the marketing claims regarding the ability of maca to stimulate thyroid glands, balance the hormonal secretions, aiding in weight loss, augmenting athletic and sexual performance and several other attributes, it is important to note that the original uses of this product mentioned by the marketers are actually in dosage measured by ounce and pound every day and not only taking one or two grams of maca.
It is worth mentioning that notwithstanding the fact that the natives of the Andes region consume about five pounds of maca on average every week, so far no one has been able to find any superhuman race having unbelievable athletic or sexual competence in the land where maca is grown and consumed. When the media reported about the qualities of maca for the first time approximately six years ago, it was advertised as the latest 'natural Viagra' meant for men. In fact, it was claimed that consuming maca would definitely augment the testosterone levels and also enhance the sexual performance of men.
Following initial vigorous sales, the market for maca declined owing to the fact that it failed to yield the results claimed in the advertisements. Many years afterwards and immediately after the U.S. national media engaged in unrestrained reports regarding the alleged negative influences of the usual estrogen replacement therapy, companies marketing maca changed their strategy and are now selling maca in the form of the latest hormone replacement therapy (HRT) substitute for women, which would 'definitely' augment their estrogen levels and help to cure their menopausal symptoms.
Maca is primarily cultivated for its tuberous roots, which have very high nutritional value and are beneficial for our health. Most of the maca that is cultivated is dried after harvesting its roots. This helps to store the hypocotyls for many years and can be used when needed in future. In Peru, people prepare and consume maca in a variety of ways. However, it is traditionally cooked all the times. You can roast the hypocotyls soon after harvesting in pots, which are known as huatia, to prepare a delicacy. Generally, freshly harvested maca roots are only available in the region where the plant is cultivated. In addition, you can also mash the roots and boil them to make a sweet, dense liquid, which is dried and blended with milk to make porridge. The cooked maca roots may also be used together with different vegetables in soups, jams or empanadas.
Alternatively, the roots may be dried out and pulverized to make flour, which is used to make bread, pancakes or cakes. A very low potent beer known as chicha de maca may be produced by fermenting the maca roots. In 2010, Andean Brewing Company, a brewery in the United States, became the first brewery to make as well as commercially market the beer prepared from maca. It was sold under the brand name Kuka Beer. Liquor is also produced from the black morphotype. The leaves of the maca plant are also edible or they may also be used in the form of animal fodder. The leaves can also be consumed raw by blending them in salads or cooked in the same manner as Lepidium campestre (field pepperweed) and Lepidium sativum (garden cress), which are genetically close to maca.
Maca seeds are generally sown during October, the rainy season, and it takes about a month's time for them to germinate. The growth of the upper portion of maca's tap root as well as the lower portion of its harvestable hypocotyls takes place during the plant's vegetative stage, which continues between May and June. The hypocotyls become fit for harvesting after the plant has grown for about anything between 260 and 280 days. After harvesting the hypocotyls, the root of the plant remains in the soil in a dormant stage for about two or three months during the cold, dry season which continues till August. After this period, the root develops a shoot, which bears the seeds. It takes about five months for the maca seeds to mature. One maca plant usually produces several thousand tiny seeds - they are so minute that as many as 1,600 seeds weight just about one gram. Therefore, comparatively just a few maca plants are required to propagate this species. The plants are selected for cultivation depending on their chosen size as well as color. Subsequently, they are put in pits whose depth varies from 50 cm to 100 cm with every other layer containing grass and soil with a view to protect the seeds from dehydrating. Heavy amounts of fertilizers are supplied to the plants and their cycle of cultivation is exactingly related to seasonality.
Conventionally, the land for cultivating maca was prepared manually. Even in contemporary times, people use tractor plowing for preparing the land. Maca is generally cultivated in places where no other crop can be grown, often it is found after long periods of uncultivated land that have been used for grazing sheep. Hence, traditionally, the farming sites of maca are only fertilized using alpaca and sheep manure. Nevertheless, it is advisable to apply fertilizers to these crop lands, as it would help in retaining the nutrition of the soils.
In fact, applying pesticides or weeding is not needed while cultivating maca because the climate at the sites where this crop is grown does not allow weeds to grow or inhabitation of pests. In Peru, most of the maca cultivation is done in an organic manner, because the maca plant is rarely attacked by insects or weeds. At times, potato plants are inter-planted with the maca, because farmers growing this crop are aware of the fact that this species acts as a natural repellent for almost all pests that attack root crops.
Like preparing the crop bed, even the maca hypocotyls are harvested manually. After the harvesting, farmers leave the leaves of the plant on the field to serve as organic fertilizer or as food for livestock.
On average, the yield of maca for every hectare of land may reach approximately 15 tons of hypocotyls when fresh and they reduce to just 5 toms after drying. However, the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture estimates that the average yield of maca during 2005 was just 7 tons per hectare. However, the amount varied greatly between different cultivation sites. While maca has also been cultivated in places outside the Andes region, it is yet to be ascertained whether the plants cultivated outside its original habitat also enclose the same active elements or properties. However, it has been found that when hypocotyls are cultivated from seeds from Peru at places in lower altitudes, they form with great difficulty, irrespective of whether they are grown in warm climates or in greenhouses.
The dried out root of maca possesses high nutritional value, similar to the amount of nutriments contained in rice, maize and wheat. Chemical analysis of the maca root has revealed that it encloses about 60 per cent to 70 per cent carbohydrates, 8.5 per cent fiber, 10 per cent to 14 per cent protein and roughly 2.2 per cent lipids. The proteins found in maca mainly exist as amino acids (counting considerable quantities of arginine, aspartic acid, histidine, glutamic acid, serine, valine, glycine, threonine, tyrosine and phenylalanine) and polypeptides. In addition, 100 gram of dried maca root also encloses roughly 250 gram calcium, 15 gram iron and 2 gram potassium, in addition to significant quantities of fatty acids, which include linolenic acid, oleic acid and palmitic acid. The tuberous roots of maca also enclose roughly 0.05 per cent to 0.1 per cent sterols as well as different vitamins plus minerals. It is also an excellent source of essential nutriments and contains alkaloids, saponins and tannins.
A chemical analysis of the maca root undertaken in 1981 revealed that it also contains biologically active scented iisothicyanates (a chemical found commonly in all plants belonging to the mustard family and has been found to be an insecticide as well as a preservative for wood). Chemical studies have shown that the tuberous root of maca also encloses a chemical known as p-methoxybenzyl isothiocyante, which possesses well-known aphrodisiac attributes. While maca root also contains no less than four alkaloids, thus far scientists have not been able to quantify them. Freshly dug out maca roots encloses roughly 1 per cent of glucosinolates, which are phytochemicals present in several plants belonging to the family Brassicaceae, which also includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage as well as different cruciferous vegetables. Although chemical analysis of the maca root has not revealed the presence of any new glucosinolates, many chemicals present in the plants belonging to this group have been found to aid in preventing cancer.
The primary chemicals present in maca include amino acids, alkaloids, beta-ecdysone, carbohydrates, calcium, glucosinolates, fatty acids, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, p-menthoxybenzyl isothiocyanate, saponins, protein, stigmasterol, sitosterols, zinc, tannins, vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin B12, vitamin B2 and vitamin B1.
As both humans as well as livestock consume maca as a food, there is hardly any risk associated with its consumption. In fact, consumption of maca is known to be safe like any other vegetable. Nevertheless, maca encloses glucosinolates that may result in goiter, especially when one consumes it in excessive amount coupled with a diet low in iodine content. It is said that the dark hued roots of maca (for instance, red, black and purple) enclose considerable amounts of usual iodine. In fact, a serving of 10 gram dried maca usually contains 52 µg of iodine. While all other foods containing a high concentration of glucosinolate also have a similar level of iodine content, it is yet to be ascertained whether consuming maca may lead to or deteriorate a goiter.