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Here’s what science has to say about this trendy Peruvian root powder.
In a long line of powders and supplements dotting our Instagram feeds (remember matcha, moringa, and turmeric?), maca root powder is the latest superfood trend picking up momentum. One quick search of #macapowder on Instagram and you’ll find more than 48,000 posts, most of which include colorful smoothies, frothy coffees, oatmeal bowls, and healthy baked goods. Even mainstream brands, like Califia Farms Almond Milk, are adding maca root to their products.
So why is everyone hopping on the maca train? For one, the plant-based powder has been touted for its health benefits, especially its ability to improve your energy and boost your libido—and who doesn’t want a quick fix for either of those?
But as with any new plant powder, we can’t help but wonder: do these claims actually live up to the hype? Or is maca root just another trendy smoothie add-in that will fade away in a year or two? Here’s what you should know before you try it.
Maca root powder comes from the roots of a Peruvian plant called (you guessed it!) maca. The plant is in the same family as radishes and resembles a turnip, but it’s usually grown at higher elevations, says Gina Keatley, CDN, a New York-based nutritionist. “The roots are ground up and dried to create the powder,” she says.
Maca also typically comes in one of three colors: black (which can appear to have a deep purplish hue), red, or yellow, says Lorraine Kearney, CDN, NDTR, adjunct professor at the City University of New York.
But regardless of color, the powder really does (or should) come solely from the plant itself. “It’s not really a supplement; it’s just a dehydrated vegetable,” says Kearney.
Although it’s most commonly described as having an earthy or nutty taste, Kearney says she gets some sweetness from it. “You would think it would be like a beet or something, but to me personally, it tastes like a butterscotch,” she says.
Maca has one major health claim in its corner: it touts tons of different nutrients. “It is a root, which is where plants store most of their nutrients,” says Keatley. Maca root contains vitamin C (to boost immunity), copper (vital for red blood cell production), potassium (for your heart health), and iron (to carry oxygen around the body), says Kearney. It even packs some brain power in the form of B6, a not-so-talked about vitamin that helps protect the neurons in your brain and is key in the creation of serotonin and norepinephrine, two chemicals that help balance your mood, says Keatley. You’ll also get a dose of bone-building calcium, at roughly 39 milligrams per tablespoon.
MACA ROOT POWDER NUTRITION: 60 calories, 3 g protein, 12 g carbs (3 g fiber), 0 g fat, 6 g sugar in 1 tablespoon
Maca contains antioxidant plant compounds called anthocyanins, which give the root its deep purplish/blackish hue. “The more purple or black the root is, the more anthocyanins can be found,” Keatley adds. Research shows anthocyanins may ward off inflammation and help protect against cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.
Maca root powder packs a nutritional punch, but there aren’t many reliable studies proving many of the benefits that have been associated with it—at least, not yet. “Overall, I think there is some evidence, but the studies are generally of poor quality and small,” says Michael Heinrich, PhD, a professor at the University College London who has studied maca, specifically for its reproductive benefits.
Overall, maca is still too new to tell for sure whether its claims are reliable, and much more research needs to be done to understand its full impact on the body. Here’s where the science stands on its most popular health claims.
“Much like other foods that claim to ‘get your motor started,’ if you have a deficiency in something like B6, maca root will fill that need and allow for the full production of sex hormones,” says Keatley. But keep that hype low: “In the very limited human trials using the root, some of the sex drive claims may be true, but all of the studies are small and have glaring flaws in them,” adds Keatley.
Plus, so many different things can squash your libido—everything from certain medications to alcohol to relationship troubles can impact your sex drive. “It wouldn’t be out of the question that maca root might have a placebo effect when it comes to female libido,” says Alyssa Dweck, MD, a New York-based gynecologist and author of The Complete A to Z For Your V. “It’s also really important to give credit to the complexity of women’s libido because there are so many things that go into it.”
Before turning to a magic pill—or, in this case, powder—to boost your libido, Dr. Dweck recommends paying a visit to your gynecologist first. Often, a low libido can be addressed by your healthcare provider in a way that’ll be way more effective than trying something like maca powder.
Kearney still recommends maca root to her clients, specifically to women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome or acne, since it might have a positive impact on your body’s hormone balance and stress response, she says.
Maca root powder is known as an adaptogen, which theoretically means it adapts to the needs of the body. “Adaptogens work by supporting adrenal function and by decreasing the stress response,” says Kearney. In theory, this works to calm the endocrine system so it produces fewer stress hormones that can throw your system off, such as cortisol and adrenaline, says Kearney.
The powder doesn’t have any caffeine in it, so don’t ditch the cold brew just yet. However, Kearney has anecdotally had plenty of clients experience energy boosts from it. “But then I do have one or two who say they haven’t felt a difference at all, so it really does vary,” she says.
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If you’re up for trying the powder, make sure you talk to your doctor first if you’re on any regular medications or have any health conditions, especially if those conditions are thyroid-related, says Kearney. Maca does contain goitrogens, substances that are known to interfere with thyroid function.
Women who are breastfeeding should also be cautious, as should those with hormone-related conditions, including ovarian cancer, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
If you get the go-ahead from your doc, the first thing you should always make sure of is that you’re getting your maca root powder from a reliable source, since many powders on the market aren’t regulated or controlled for quality. If you really want to be safe, Keatley recommends buying the whole root and just powderizing it yourself. “Shave it into your dishes like you would a truffle,” she says.
It adds a subtle sweetness to morning dishes like overnight oats or chia seed pudding, says Kearney, but it can also taste delicious on cooked dishes for dinner, like cauliflower or sweet potatoes. “With the sweet potatoes, I take them out of the oven, and then I put the maca root on it,” says Kearney.
She recommends having 1 to 2 teaspoons per day for a minimum of 21 days to see the best results, since the powder can take a while to adapt to your body.