The Benefits of Maca and How to Add It to Your Diet

Before you sprinkle the popular ingredient into your next smoothie, read up on maca's health benefits.

Maca, aka maca root, is having a moment right now. It's become a star ingredient in recipes and packaged products, from chocolate bars to drink mixes. But what is maca, exactly — and what does it do for your body? Read on to learn about maca root benefits, plus the best ways to eat it.

What Is Maca?

Maca, aka Peruvian ginseng, is a plant that's grown "exclusively" in the Central Andes of Peru, according to an article published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. A cruciferous vegetable, maca is part of the Brassicaceae family along with cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and mustard. It's also considered a type of root vegetable because the root (which grows underground) is the edible portion. Maca root is starchy, reddish, and has a round, turnip-like shape, according to a 2015 paper in the International Journal of Biomedical Science. Traditionally, whole maca root is boiled before it's eaten, and both raw and cooked maca can be dried and crushed into a powder.

The-Benefits-of-Maca-and-How-To-Add-It-To-Your-Diet-GettyImages-469436724
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Maca Nutrition Facts

Maca's claim to fame is its nutrient profile. The root (which, as mentioned, is used to make maca powder) offers fiber, protein, and unsaturated fatty acids. In fact, it has more of these three nutrients than other root veggies such as carrots and potatoes, according to a 2018 study. Maca root also contains vitamin C and key minerals such as calcium, iron, and copper.

Similar to other cruciferous vegetables, maca root has several stand-out compounds, including macamides and macaenes, both of which have antioxidant properties and are exclusively found in maca, says Ella Davar, R.D., C.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Nutritionist Ella. Maca root also contains glucosinolates, sulfur-containing antioxidant compounds unique to the Brassicaceae fam that give maca an earthy, somewhat bitter flavor, according to the journal Molecules.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), here's the nutritional profile for one teaspoon (about 5 grams) of maca powder:

  • 16 calories
  • 1 gram protein
  • 0 grams fat
  • 4 grams carbohydrates
  • 1 gram fiber

Health Benefits of Maca

Maca root has been used as food and medicine in the Andes for thousands of years, according to the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. But currently, there isn't a ton of scientific research on maca root and maca powder benefits, says registered dietitian Kerry Clifford, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. Experts are still learning about its purported effects, but here's what they've found out about maca benefits thus far.

Fights Oxidative Stress

ICYMI above, maca root contains several special compounds — including macamides and glucosinolates — with antioxidant properties. This is noteworthy, as antioxidants combat oxidative stress, a major factor in the development of chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease. Research shows that glucosinolates work by boosting enzymes (molecules that speed up chemical reactions) that prevent oxidative stress, and that macamides may work against cancer cells by targeting free radicals. Plus, maca root contains other antioxidants like vitamin C, flavonoids, and carotenoids. These compounds directly to prevent oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals, molecules that cause oxidative damage when they're present in high amounts.

May Improve Brain Function

Maca root is believed to improve cognitive function, including memory and learning, according to Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This may be related to its ability to combat oxidative stress, which can damage nerve cells. The macamides in maca may also inhibit an enzyme called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) which is associated with neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, according to Davar. A 2016 animal study also found that maca increased cognitive function in mice; however, more human studies are needed to understand for sure how these effects translate to human brain health.

Might Increase Energy

Maca may be a natural energizer, says Davar. Studies show that polysaccharides (a type of carb) in maca has an anti-fatigue effect in mice, including during physical activity. But take note: According to Clifford, animal studies often use mega doses of ingredients, so the results may not necessarily translate to similar benefits in people. While human research on maca's energy-boosting properties is lacking, maca is starchy and does contain carbohydrates, the body's preferred source of energy, notes Clifford. In this sense, maca may provide energy by simply fueling your cells.

May Boost Mood

Maca often gets touted as a food with mood-boosting benefits. As maca offers carbs for your cells, it might also support your mood by helping prevent low blood sugar. Low blood sugar can bring on symptoms like anxiety and irritability, and foods containing carbs can prevent this by raising your blood sugar, according to the American Diabetes Association. But otherwise, the research on this effect is scarce. A 2008 study found that maca reduced anxiety and depression in 14 women, while another study of 29 women also found that maca decreases depression. However, these studies were pretty small, and "there haven't been other large scale clinical trials on humans," notes Clifford.

Potential Risks of Maca

While maca has been used for thousands of years, research is still catching up, says Davar. As a result, it's unclear how maca may affect certain chronic conditions or interact with prescription medicine. According to Davar, maca might affect blood hormone levels, though the extent of its potential effect is TBD; the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center suggests using caution if you have a hormone-sensitive cancer, such as estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer. That said, it's a good idea to check with your doctor before eating and drinking maca, advises Clifford.

Otherwise, in the general population, maca is generally considered safe and side effects are uncommon. When they do occur, negative reactions might include mild GI upset and headaches. This may be due to the fiber in maca powder, notes Clifford, so she recommends sticking to the serving size of 1 teaspoon. If you still experience discomfort, check with your doc to make sure something else isn't causing the problem, she advises.

How to Buy and Eat Maca

In the United States, maca root is most commonly found as a powder — e.g. KOS Organic Maca Powder (Buy It, $23, amazon.com) — which is used in food. It's also available as capsules and liquid extracts, which are consumed as supplements.

Additionally, maca can be found as an ingredient in packaged snacks — like Bearded Brothers Mega Maca Chocolate Food Bar (Buy It, $25, amazon.com) — or drinks, like REBBL Maca Mocha Balancing Elixir (Buy It, $50, amazon.com). You can buy these products online and at health food stores.

However, as consumers become more conscious about the nutritional benefits of their food, retailers are taking advantage of the growing market and heightened consumer demand, says Clifford. That said, you may start seeing more maca products at bigger supermarkets as demand increases.

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KOS Organic Maca Powder

KOS Organic Maca Powder
Amazon

When shopping for maca powder, you have two choices: raw or gelatinized. Raw maca powder is made by drying and pulverizing the peeled uncooked root, according to Celine Beitchman, chef and director of nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education. Its flavor is often described as nutty, bitter, and earthy. On the other hand, gelatinized maca powder is made by drying and pulverizing maca root that has been heated (i.e., cooked). The heat makes the finished powder sweeter, which is sometimes compared to butterscotch, notes Beitchman. It also breaks down the starches in maca, which might make it easier to digest. Furthermore, the process for making gelatinized maca powder mirrors the way maca is traditionally prepared, says Beitchman. Indigenous communities in the central Andes of Peru suggest cooking maca before eating it, according to Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

So, which one is better — raw or gelatinized? There's no "right" answer. Clifford recommends picking maca powder based on your taste preferences and your digestive health; if you have difficulty digesting starches or prefer sweeter tastes, gelatinized maca powder might be ideal. Otherwise, "there's no solid research on which form is better," says Beitchman. In either case, choose maca powder that lists "maca" as the only ingredient, notes Clifford. She also suggests buying packaged maca products, like snacks or drinks, without added sugars or sodium.

As for fresh, whole maca? It's difficult to find the whole root in the United States, but if you can get your hands on it, use it like potatoes or other root vegetables, suggests Beitchman. Dried whole maca is also available online, but it's quite pricey, she adds. You might also want to pass on making DIY maca powder. It's will be difficult to turn whole maca into a fine powder without heavy-duty grinding equipment, explains Davar. That said, your best bet is to leave it to the pros.

Once you've snagged maca powder, Clifford suggests adding it as a nutritional "booster" to what you're already eating. If an earthy or nutty flavor would work well with your dish, then try using some maca, she says.

Luckily, one of the top benefits of maca powder is that it's easy to add to recipes. Here are several ways to make it happen:

In smoothies. Elevate your go-to smoothie with maca powder. "Try a little at a time to see how the flavor appeals to you or [if it works] with your recipe," recommends Beitchman, or try a matcha maca milkshake.

In baked goods. Give your baked goods an earthy twist with maca. About 1 to 2 teaspoons should do the trick; simply add it to the dry ingredients of your recipe, says Beitchman. Try it in apple bran muffins, adds Clifford, or check out these chocolate maca zucchini muffins from the blog The Nourished Mind.

In pancakes. Not in a baking mood? Toss some maca powder into batter for whole grain pancakes, says Clifford — or try these maca chia cocoa protein pancakes from the blog Cali Girl Cooking.

In overnight oats. Better yet, take the no-cook route and stir maca powder into your overnight oats. Its nutty flavor pairs well with toppings like walnuts and cacao nibs.

In soup. Maca powder isn't limited to sweet stuff — its mild butterscotch taste is ideal for adding warmth to savory soups. Also, don't forget that maca is a root veggie, so try pairing it in root vegetable soups like this sweet potato and maca soup from Hello Veggie.

As a latte. For a caffeine-free latte, dissolve maca powder, cocoa powder, and sweetener in milk of your choice. You can try this maca latte recipe from Hey Nutrition Lady or buy a pre-made maca latte mix, like Pukka Organic Herbal Latte Cacao Maca Majesty Mix (Buy It, $10 per bag, amazon.com).

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