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What is Maca?

Maca is an annual and biennial herbaceous plant (1) and one of the 249 known Lepidium species of plants (2). Maca is the common name that refers to two distinct species known as Lepidium meyenii and Lepidium peruvianum (3). While it belongs to the same botanical Brassicaceae family as the turnip, cabbage, mustard, and broccoli, it is phytochemically distinct from this vegetable group (4).


Maca’s native growing location is 3500–5000 meters above sea level in Peru’s high, harsh-weathered Andean plateaus (5–9). Though it is also grown in Bolivia and northwestern Argentina and due to the increased demand in more recent years, it is also being grown in China (10–12).


Maca, first described in 1553, serves as a dietary staple of native Peruvians, particularly in its dried hypocotyl (tuber) format at >20 g daily (4). In the mid to late 17th century, it was reported that Peruvians revered maca for its nutritional content, ability to grow in some of the coldest areas of the mountains, and for its impact on fertility (10).


As a traditional Peruvian food, it is roasted, commonly added to soups, made into a fermented beverage called “maca chica”, and can be ground into a powder to be added to smoothies, juices, coffee, chocolate, or oil preparations (13).


Historically it was known for and used as an aphrodisiac, dating back to the Inca empire (13), though it is also reported it was used primarily for energy (10). In modern times, it has been used therapeutically for energy, fertility, libido, and as a vitality tonic for aging (4,14,15). Beginning with the early 2000s, preclinical and clinical research has provided data that would expand maca’s use into other areas of health such as menstrual cycle regulation (16,17), menopausal symptoms (18–21), osteoporosis (22), sperm quality (23–29), memory (30–33), mood (32,34), prostate health (35–40), and fitness optimization (e.g., reducing inflammation and increasing strength) (41–43).


Even though maca has broader applications, there has been historical research emphasis on its ability to modify the endocrine system, pioneered by the work of Gonzales et al. on males (23,25,29,39,44,45) and Meissner et al. on pre- and post-menopausal women (18–21). Meissner et al. continue to conduct ongoing research at five universities in Poland to investigate the use of different maca phenotypes to treat specific medical conditions associated with various menopausal symptoms, men’s health, and even prevalent health areas of concern shared by both genders (46).


Parts of maca


The main edible portions are the hypocotyl (tuber) and tap root, commonly referred to as hypocotyl and root in the literature (47), when it is noted. The plant can grow to approximately 20 cm (about 8 inches) in height with the root measuring up to 7 cm in diameter (47). A medium sized root, measuring 5 cm long and 3-5 cm wide, is often preferred by Peruvians due to its shorter cooking time (48). Additionally, the shape of the root also has variations growing spherical, oval, spherical oval, and spindle shaped (47). The aerial parts consisting of the leaves, flowers, stems, and its seeds (contained in a silicle) are less utilized (47). Generally, hypocotyls are the plant part of maca harvested and processed for food and supplements, rather than the leaves, which are sometimes used for animal feed (49). In comparison to the other parts of the plant, the hypocotyls are higher in glucosinolates, macaenes, and macamides, while the leaves are noted to have greater beta-sitosterol and total phenols (49).

Maca Parts.png

Image 1: Parts of Maca

Image credit: Minich DM, Ross K, Frame J, Fahoum M, Warner W, Meissner HO. Not All Maca Is Created Equal: A Review of Colors, Nutrition, Phytochemicals, and Clinical Uses. Nutrients. 2024 Feb 14;16(4):530.

Colors of Maca

The most known or obvious feature of the root is the variations in colors (also referred to as phenotypes), for which 17 different colors have been identified (46). The most researched colors are black, red, yellow, and purple (violet). The hypocotyl is the part of the plant where colorful pigments are contained in the skin (outer layer), with one exception of yellow maca, which is also yellow on the inside flesh (49).

Image 2: Seventeen (17) Colors of maca

Image credit: Minich DM, Ross K, Frame J, Fahoum M, Warner W, Meissner HO. Not All Maca Is Created Equal: A Review of Colors, Nutrition, Phytochemicals, and Clinical Uses. Nutrients. 2024 Feb 14;16(4):530.

To date, maca colors have been grossly overlooked in the methodology of published research studies. This website aims to delineate the importance of not just the color of maca, but also the growing location and phytochemical makeup of the colors of maca in order to best apply the science into clinical application.


Written by Kim Ross, DCN

Reviewed by Mona Fahoum, ND

Last Updated: March 13, 2024




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