Maca is a plant that is native to the mountains of Peru. It is a root plant that is a part of the cruciferous family, and it closely resembles a radish. The National Research Council of America refers to it as “one of the lost crops of the Incas." Throughout Peruvian history, it has been used as a food source and medicine. It is rich in vitamins and minerals and is believed to enhance fertility.
The Peruvian mountains offer the perfect growing environment for the plant, because it prefers elevations above 10,000 feet (about 3.0 km). It is one of the few edible foods that can grow and thrive at these altitudes. This is one of the reasons it became so valuable to the early Peruvians, who were said to use it as type of currency.
Isothiocyanates and glucosinolates are found in the roots of the plant and are considered the primary medicinal components. They are believed to be cancer-fighting agents, and in addition, isothiocyanates may promote sexual libido. The maca plant also has 22 phenolic compounds that act as antioxidants. Antioxidants help eliminate free radicals that attack healthy cells in the body. This function is believed to be crucial in preventing cancerous cells from forming.
Ancient Incas believed that maca could increase fertility, and research conducted in Peru may have offered some evidence to support that belief. In 1960, Doctor Gloria Chacon de Popovici published papers related to studies she conducted using maca on mice. The rodents who were given maca appeared to show an increase in sperm count.
For centuries, maca has been a valuable food source for people living in the mountainous areas of Peru. It is typically eaten like a potato, either boiled, roasted or fried. It is also used in breads and tea. The roots are rich in protein and the triple minerals, iron, calcium, and phosphorus. Raw maca contains the highest levels of nutrients, but some studies indicate that ingesting the plant without cooking it can lead to indigestion.
Though no well-documented studies have addressed the issue, there does not appear to be any negative side effects related to the use of maca as a nutritional supplement or herbal remedy. Generally speaking, due to the thin research, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should avoid its use. Thyroid patients should also avoid using it because of the glucosinolates it contains. These glucosinolates, in combination with low iodine levels associated with hypothyroidism, can cause goiter.