Maca is mainly grown for the nutritional and health value of its root. The majority of harvested maca is dried. In this form, the hypocotyls can be stored for several years. In Peru, maca is prepared and consumed in various ways, although traditionally it is always cooked. The freshly harvested hypocotyl may be roasted in a pit (called huatia), and is considered a delicacy. Fresh roots usually are available only in the vicinity of the growers. The root also can be mashed and boiled to produce a sweet, thick liquid, then dried and mixed with milk to form a porridge. The cooked roots are also used with other vegetables in empanadas, jams, or soups. The root may be ground to produce a flour for bread, cakes, or pancakes. If fermented, a weak beer called chicha de maca may be produced. In 2010, a U.S.-based brewery called Andean Brewing Company, became the first company to produce and commercialize beer made from maca under the brand KUKA Beer.From the black morphotype, a liquor is produced. Also, the leaves are edible or may serve as animal fodder. They can be prepared raw in salads or cooked much like Lepidium sativum and L. campestre, to which it is closely related genetically.
The growing demand of the supplement industry has been one of the primary reasons for maca’s expanding cultivation in Peru and Bolivia. The prominent product for export is maca flour, which is a baking flour ground from the hard, dried roots. It is called harina de maca. Maca flour (powder) is a relatively inexpensive bulk commodity, much like wheat flour or potato flour. The supplement industry uses both the dry roots and maca flour for different types of processing and concentrated extracts. Another common form is maca processed by gelatinization. This extrusion process separates and removes the tough fiber from the roots using gentle heat and pressure, as raw maca is difficult to digest due to its thick fibers and goitrogen content. Gelatinization was developed for maca specifically to mimic the activity of cooking, and to allow gentler digestion. Gelatinized maca is employed mainly for therapeutic and supplement purposes, but also can be used like maca flour, as a flavor in cooking. Available also is a freeze-dried maca juice, which is squeezed from the macerated fresh root, and subsequently freeze-dried high in the Andes.
Maca has been harvested and used by humans in the Andean Mountains for centuries. Contrary to frequent claims that maca’s cultivation was common in what is today Peru, until the late 1980s, maca has been cultivated only in a limited area around Lake Junin, in central Peru. Historically, maca often was traded for lowland tropical food staples, such as corn, rice, manioc (tapioca roots), quinoa, and papaya. It also was used as a form of payment of Spanish imperial taxes. Maca was eaten by Inca imperial warriors before battles. Their legendary strength was allegedly imparted by the preparatory consumption of copious amounts of maca, fueling formidable warriors. After a city was conquered, the women had to be protected from the Inca warriors, as reportedly they became ambitiously virile from eating such quantities of maca. This is an endorsement for the masculine angle of maca’s recent marketing campaign. Whether or not this often-repeated legendary use is true has yet to be determined. Those who have studied maca’s history have not been able to locate formal mention of this particular use historically.
Maca is consumed as food for humans and livestock, suggesting any risk from consumption is rather minimal. It is considered as safe to eat as any other vegetable food, but maca does contain glucosinolates, which can cause goiters when high consumption is combined with a diet low in iodine. However, darker-colored maca roots (red, purple, black) contain significant amounts of natural iodine, a 10-gram serving of dried maca generally containing 52 µg of iodine.
Maca has been marketed for its supposed benefits for sexual performance, although there is insufficient evidence to show that it helps with sexual or erectile dysfunction in older people. Evidence of aphrodisiac properties is limited by small study sizes and scientific evidence on its effectiveness is limited.
In the United States, maca is promoted as a dietary supplement for several women’s health issues, including symptoms of menopause. A systemic review published in 2011 found few rigorous clinical trials, and that even those were difficult to interpret; the safety and efficacy of maca for alleviating menopause symptoms is not known.