Maca: rise and fall of a hype

Historically, maca was cultivated only in a small region in Peru, and this plant was threatened with extinction in the 1980s. From the end of the 1990s, however, maca developed into a popular herbal remedy. It has since been cultivated on a large scale, even in China. Maca is sold as ‘super food’, ‘Peruvian Viagra’ and ‘Peruvian ginseng’. How could a plant that was almost forgotten, become so popular and how plausible are the claims? This essay tries to answer those questions, mainly from a historical perspective.

Maaike van Kregten
Nederlands tijdschrift voor fytotherapie, 32e jaargang, nr. 2, 2019:13-14.

Oldest sources
The first evidence of maca as a food crop comes from archaeological finds in a cave in the Junín department of Peru. This cave was inhabited from 7700 BC. until around 1200 AD. and is also the only archaeological evidence. This is striking because of most archaeological sites have a good indexing of food crops and maca is easier preserved than comparable crops. There are also no images of maca found on ceramics, while Peruvian ceramics are known for, among other things, the images of cultivated plants [3].

Several Spanish writings later reported maca cultivation, but only around Lake Chinchaycocha near Junín in Peru [3]. This is located at an altitude of more than 4080 meters above sea level [4]. One source mentions that people from this region paid taxes in the form of maca and another reports that they used it as a means of exchange. Only two sources were found that mention an effect. A Spanish source from 1615 mentions an invigorating effect. The most detailed description dates from 1653: it refers to fertility enhancing properties [3].

One of the most important writers about Inca culture is the sixteenth-century Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of an Inca princess and a senior Spanish official. In his famous work Comentarios reales, he describes the Inca culture. Although he gives detailed descriptions of cultivated crops, including edible roots, he makes no mention of maca [3]. If the Incas had used maca massively for centuries, Garcilaso would certainly have known this.

Furthermore, it is striking that references are missing more than once in articles that refer to historical usage [see 3; e.g. León 1964, Obregón 1998, Johns 1981]. This reinforces the idea that it is an assumption that ‘the Incas’ used it. Moreover, the Inca Empire was very large: during the peak of the empire it stretched from the south of Colombia to the Northwest of Argentina and Chile. If maca had been popular with the Incas, more remains would have been found.

The plant seems to have been forgotten for a long time. However, in the sixties of the last century the first newspaper articles about maca appeared, claiming positive effects on fertility. These early reports emphasize a relationship between maca and fertility, but do not portray the plant as an aphrodisiac [3].

From the late 1970s and early 1980s, a few small Peruvian entrepreneurs started to actively promote maca, based on claims they heard from the locals such as (sexual) endurance and fertility. Around that time, the first products also appeared on the market, with a lower concentration of the root or in which the strong taste was masked, making it easier to sell to city dwellers [3].

Around 1980 maca, however, is still only cultivated on a small scale and in particular for personal use; in total on around fifteen hectares. The plant is threatened with extinction and is still virtually unknown to most Peruvians [3].

During that period, the Peruvian government began to encourage the cultivation of maca in an attempt to combat malnutrition, a project that took shape only from the 1990s onward [3]. In 1991, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations recommended, among other things, maca consumption to combat malnutrition [2]. Maca indeed contains many nutrients, including minerals and in particular a number of minerals that are often missing in the highlanders’ diet [1,2,3]. The nutritional value of maca is comparable to that of corn, rice and grain [1].

Worldwide market
The nineties show a spectacular comeback of this almost forgotten plant. In recent decades, the interest and demand for maca has increased worldwide through an aggressive marketing campaign via the media and the internet. Maca is sold as ‘super food’, ‘Peruvian Viagra’ and ‘Peruvian ginseng’ in the form of powders, pills, capsules, flour, spirits and extracts [2].

At the end of the 1990s, consumers and the private sector are increasingly interested in maca, as a result of which prices have risen drastically. However, high market prices and, as a result, the intensification of the cultivation of maca, led to surpluses of dried maca in the early 21st century. Due to the abundance of now-cheap maca, it ended up in the informal economy. It is now also cultivated in areas outside the Andes, such as in the Yunnan province in China [2].

Scientific research on the plant also increased in the 1990s [3]. They have followed the popularity of maca, and are mainly focused on the alleged aphrodisiac potential and fertility-enhancing properties. To date, in vivo and clinical trials have not produced unequivocal results [2]. The medicinal effect of maca is often attributed to glucosinolates, but this claim cannot be confirmed due to a lack of data [2].

In 2006, research is being conducted among residents of the Junín region, where
maca is traditionally cultivated. The researcher concludes that farmers who grow maca eat the crop on average one to three times a week. She estimates the amount at 50-100 g maca per person per meal. For example, they eat maca when they go to work on the land, in their own words ‘so that they can handle the harsh and cold conditions all day long’ [3].

The same people indicate that maca was never used as a libido stimulant, but mainly because of the invigorating effect. It would provide better physical endurance, giving them more power for work on the land. Of the people interviewed in 2006, 40% considers the promoted fertility enhancing effects a myth, or they have no experience with that effect. It is possible that the 58% who believe in it, did not get that information from history, but from the media [3].

In conclusion
Modern knowledge about medicinal use of plants usually comes from traditional use. In the case of maca this seems to have been taken out of context. Based on historical sources, it is very unlikely that maca was popular with the Incas. Since it was only used in a small region, it is not surprising that little was found in the chronicles. Until recently, the Peruvian population barely knew the crop, it was almost extinct. Thanks to a few smart entrepreneurs and intensive marketing, it has ultimately become a hype.

The plant is used in the fight against malnutrition because of its nutritional value.
Perhaps this has led to the status of ‘super food’. Preventing malnutrition is something that well-fed Westerners generally do not need and moreover maca is no better in terms of nutritional value than crops known to us.

In the Andes maca is dried, heated and eaten. Nutrition however requires very different dosages than with medical use, where only a few hundred milligrams are capsuled. The preparation could also have an important effect on efficacy. Glucosinolate concentrations decrease due to drying and heating. It is therefore questionable whether an effect can be expected from a jar of capsules.

The most plausible traditional claim seems to be that of an invigorating effect. A fertility-enhancing effect has only been reported once in the chronicles and only make a come-back with the first entrepreneurs. It may have this effect, but the research results vary widely. The health claims from maca can certainly not fully supported from a scientific point of view and much more research is needed. Other claims based on indigenous knowledge could have been influenced by marketing campaigns that stem from the maca hype of the 1990s.

It seems maca was eaten because of an invigorating effect and to have more endurance at high altitude. Translated into modern times, this might be useful for (sexual) activities at or below sea level, but no miracles are to be expected.

[1] Flores HE et al. Andean roots and tuber crops: underground rainbows. HortScience 2003;38(2):161-167.
[2] Beharry S & Heinrich M. Is the hype around the   reproductive health claims of maca (Lepidium meyenii Walp.) justified? J Ethnopharmacol. 2018;211:126-170.
[3] Hermann M & Bernet T. The transition of maca from neglect to market prominence: Lessons for improving use strategies and market chains of minor crops [on-line]. Agricultural Biodiversity and Livelihoods Discussion Papers 1. Bioversity International, Rome, Italy; 2009.

Translations are by me: corrections are welcome!