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The “magical” root is all over Instagram right now.
Move over, matcha, there’s a new superfood in town: maca.
No, not matcha. Maca. (Confusing, right?)
The root, also known as Peruvian ginseng, recently made waves in the health and wellness community for its long list of supposed benefits. Just look up “maca powder” on Instagram and you’ll see people putting maca into their coffee and shakes or even sprinkling it into their baked goods.
So what do all of those maca (not matcha!) lattes in your Instagram feed actually do for you? Time to sift through the hype around maca root benefits:
It is a cruciferous veggie like kale, cauliflower, or radishes. It’s been grown in the Andes mountains of Peru for the last 3,000 years, according to the National Institutes of Health. There, it’s a traditional medicine that’s also a key ingredient in a fermented drink called maca chicha.
Most people consume maca root powder. And nutrition-wise, maca powder benefits are pretty impressive. One-half teaspoon (2.5 grams) of maca powder has around 10 percent of your daily iron needs, 10 percent of your recommended vitamin C, and about 15 percent of your copper needs—all for just 10 calories. Not a bad deal!
Maca is a traditional remedy that has been used to treat anemia and chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s been said to enhance energy, stamina, and athletic performance. People have even taken maca in the hopes it can help with stomach cancer, leukemia, HIV/AIDS, osteoporosis, and tuberculosis. But bottom line, says the NIH: For now, there’s “insufficient evidence” to rate the effectiveness of maca to treat any of these conditions.
However, most claims—and most research—on maca focus on its supposed ability to rev up your sex drive.
Salena Zanotti, M.D., an ob-gyn at Cleveland Clinic, says that low sex drive affects somewhere between 36 to 50 percent of women. “It’s hard to measure, as many women are not honest about this,” she says.
And some research is promising. Christy Brisette, R.D., president of 80 Twenty Nutrition, notes that some small studies have shown that both men and women have found a libido boost after taking one and a half to three grams of maca a day for one to six months (although she notes that a lot of this evidence is pretty “weak” scientifically).
Other research has found maca may improve sperm count and motility in men. And some early research even suggests that taking maca slightly improves sexual dysfunction in women taking antidepressants. But again, these findings come from very small studies, making them not totally reliable.
“There are no large or good studies that show that maca consistently increases sex drive,” says Zanotti. “Several reviews showed no effect. One showed some increase in desire in men and women, but no good trials in humans have been done.” Translation: Take all libido-boosting claims with a grain of salt.
Instead, Zanotti suggests first talking with your doctor and your partner to address the root causes of low sex drive, like depression, anxiety, stress, and medications. If everything else is ruled out, Zanotti says she’s okay with patients trying herbal remedies, “as long as they know there isn’t a lot of data behind it and they have checked into its safety.”
The NIH says Maca is “likely safe” when eaten as a food, and “possibly safe” when taken in larger quantities—up to three grams (about half a teaspoon) per day for up to four months. Although Zanotti does not recommend maca to her patients, she notes that “there doesn’t seem to be any significant side effects from its use.”
Just be sure to check in with your doctor first before starting any new supplement. Maca extracts may act like estrogen, says the NIH, so it’s best avoided if you have a condition that’s estrogen-sensitive, like fibroids or endometriosis. Since it’s not well-studied, it’s also best to avoid if you’re expecting or breastfeeding.
Brisette says maca powder works well in smoothies, cappuccinos, guacamole, or hummus thanks to its nutty flavor and butterscotch aroma. You can also mix it into your energy balls and homemade granola bars, or add to soups and stews. Brisette says between one and a half to three grams of maca per day (about a quarter to a half of a teaspoon) is the amount that seems to show some benefits in research—although she’s not necessarily a fan.
“I focus on helping my clients choose healthy local foods first rather than starting with expensive supplements,” she says.
But she’s open to people trying it for themselves. Just remember that some of those hyped-up benefits are, well, just hype.