Turmeric, matcha, bone broth—when the healthy-food crowd decides it’s interested in a trendy food, you suddenly see it everywhere. Right now, maca is having a moment, popping up in everything from protein powders and snack bars to drinks and popcorn.
This root, part of a cruciferous plant that grows in Peru, looks like a turnip and smells a bit like horseradish if you break it open when it’s fresh, says Chris Kilham, natural-medicine researcher and author of more than a dozen books on natural health. Luckily, maca is dried and ground before you consume it, and that process tames the horseradish smell into a sweet, butterscotchy aroma.
Peruvians use the ground maca to make hot and cold drinks, cakes, cookies, pies, bread, fry breads, soups, and stews, Kilham says. And though it’s new to us, it’s certainly not new; maca has been cultivated for at least 2,000 years.
“Maca has been used for hundreds of years for infertility, hormone balance, and as an aphrodisiac,” says integrative medicine dietitian Robin Foroutan, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “I think when anything has a long aphrodisiac history, people are interested because it’s fun. Plus there is the promise of feeling better and more vibrant and having more stamina.”
Though there currently isn’t that much formal scientific research on it, maca may improve fertility, help balance hormones, alleviate symptoms of menopause, reduce depression in menopausal women and boost sexual desire.
Another reason why maca is trendy: It’s an adaptogen. “An adaptogen works in two directions,” Foroutan explains. “For instance, an adaptogen may be good for both stress and energy. If you’re stressed, taking it can be calming; but if you’re tired, it can be energizing. Adaptogens are all about rebalancing.”
In the case of maca, the hypothesis is that it “rebalances the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands so that the body can rebalance its own hormonal chemistry,” she adds.
As appealing as these benefits may be, if you look at some maca powder and supplement packages, you may see a warning that “this product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.” This statement refers to Proposition 65, which requires that companies add this warning to the labels of any product that would cause a consumer to ingest more than 0.5 micrograms (mcg) of lead in a day.
“Maca—as would be the case in quinoa, chocolate, and other things grown in the Andes—picks up natural heavy metals from the ground,” Kilham explains. The amount that winds up in products exceeds California’s state limits, but meets other state and federal limits. For comparison, the FDA says up to 75 mcg daily is safe.
Foroutan cautions pregnant and breastfeeding women to avoid maca—but not because of the lead. “We just don’t have a lot of data on the safety of herbs and foods like maca in pregnancy, so I always err on the side of caution when a woman is pregnant,” she says.
Anyone taking medications should also check with their doctor before consuming maca.
Once you get the ok and start shopping for maca, look for a seal to indicate it’s third-party verified by a group such as the United States Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLabs.com.
One way not to judge maca: Its color. “When you harvest maca, you get all different colored roots from the same seeds,” Kilham says. “There are now people expressing that red maca, for example, is somehow superior. Clearly something makes them different from one another, but we don’t know what this means yet and don’t have any substantiation beyond the aesthetic to appreciate.”
Otherwise, “maca has been used for so long safely and effectively there’s something to it,” Foroutan says. Mix it into smoothies, add it to baked goods (Kilham says to replace half the flour with maca), or try one of these tasty and healthy products.
This organic trifecta of coconut milk, coffee, and maca is a creamy kick of energy. Even better, REBBL sources its maca through a direct relationship with the grower families through a fair-exchange program.
A combination of sprouted brown rice, yellow pea, sacha inchi, and cranberry seeds gives this powder up to 19 grams of protein, with a complete amino acid profile. Plus, it only has 1g sugar.
Sweetened with a touch of maple syrup and coconut palm sugar, maca gives these nuts a butterscotch note.
Brown rice protein, seeds, nuts, fruit, and spices come together in this soft, chocolatey snack bar, which also has a nice kick from cayenne. Or, if you prefer a mild flavor, try the company’s Longevity bar.
Grab this maca popcorn for the 2 billion CFUs of probiotics in each bag—or for the flavor combo of cinnamon and smoke, which comes from mesquite.
Organic blueberries, bananas, kale, dates, spinach, almond butter, cacao powder, vanilla bean, Himalayan pink sea salt, and maca—that’s a lot of ingredients to buy for a smoothie. Instead, let Daily Harvest send you everything in a cup; all you do is toss the frozen ingredients into a blender, add milk, puree, and sip like a boss.
BIO: Brittany Risher is a writer, editor, and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. She loves experimenting with new vegan recipes and believes hummus is a food group. To stay sane from working too hard, she turns to yoga, strength training, meditation, and Scotch.
Also published on Medium.