(aka L. weddellii, L. affine, L. gelidum, L. peruvianum)
Maca (pronounced mah-cah) is also known as maca-maca, maka, mace, Peruvian ginseng, maino, ayak chichira, ayuk willku, or pepperweed. It is in the same hot tasting plant family as radishes and mustard, but also broccoli, and watercress: Brassicaceae, or Cruciferae (cross shaped flowers). The root is where the nutrition is found that is so highly touted as the next best thing since sliced whole grain. Recently there is a controversy brewing, and it's not in a cooking utensil, but in a pot filled with a quagmire of legal and proprietary stew. Note: In the Fiji Islands they have a yaqona (Kava-kava) drinking ceremony where they yell, "Maca," (pronounced Mar-THA) that is just a coincidence to this plant's name.
Let us first look at the botanical information, before we get into the medical or food value of this plant, and then finally the extraordinary news concerning it.
The plant thrives in Peru, South America, but not in all of the eight climate zones, that include: coastland (Chala)(maize), lowland valleys (Yunga)(warm valley), a temperate, middle-altitude zone (Quechua)(their name), highlands (Suni) (high), inhospitable highlands (Puna)(altitude sickness), snowy mountain peaks (Janca) (white), high interior jungle (Omagua) (fishing area), and lowland jungle (Rupa-Rupa)(ardent). This staple diet plant thrives from 8500 to almost 15,000 feet up in the spine of the South American continent, the Andes that we know now they call the Puna: the dry, windy, sunburned, frosty, and rocky area that is the last area inhabitable and least agriculturally desirable part of Peru.
The Maca that had been cultivated since the earliest settlers two millennia ago tolerates these conditions and feeds the indigenous people there. (There was a 1600 year old sample found.) I'm sure the native guinea pigs would be happy if more people ate Maca instead of them, too. Visiting the agricultural area, one might not even notice the Maca close to the ground, with its very scalloped leaves, and small white flower.. Who knows which ancestor of the Quechua tribe discovered the off white radish-looking tubers (now) about 8 cm across, beneath the matted low-growing perennial plant. . They harvest the plant as an annual to take advantage of the 8 month average required to grow the important roots; and contrary to normal cultivation of tuberous plants, they use seeds. It is traded with other crops and items from the other regions. The dried root powder can be stored for up to seven years, and it is eaten raw or cooked. They cook the tubers like sweet potatoes, or rehydrate the powder. When fermented, it becomes the drink, maca chicha.
In 1843 famed German botanist Wilhem Gerhard Walpers first described L. meyenii. Though currently this is the scientific name that is commonly used for the present commercial Maca, since 1960 it has been identified in reality as another species, L. peruvianum. It was in 1961 that rats fed Maca proved to have increased fertility. In the 1990's the cultivation has increased 200 fold or more after it's being touted as a stamina supplement for strength and libido (maybe the p-methoxybenzyl isothiocyanate). Because of this it is also known as Peruvian ginseng, though not related to the latter at all. These ancient Peruvians knew how to concoct an elixir, which has a butterscotch taste, that could ward off altitude sickness and more. And, the Spanish settlers 200 years ago were turned on to it's use as helping their ailing livestock in that environment. Now the demand for it started to grow and there are colonial records of it's trade --nine tons worth!.
It is jam-packed with all kinds of nutrition, in 10 grams of it are a little over a gram of protein, with many important amino acids, and about 6 grams of carbohydrates, balanced with 850 mgs of fiber. This bit of Maca would yield a whopping 25 mgs of Calcium and a healthy 205 mgs of Potassium. You will get a bit of your daily need of vitamin C with its contribution of almost 29 mgs of it.
Pharmaceutically, the Peruvian medical authorities think it helps with, cancer, tuberculosis, increasing immune response, anemia, all reproductive problems, and to help memory issues. The U.S. companies want to add its use for athletic enhancement, and chronic fatigue syndrome as well as the above mentioned sexual helps. The latter aided by the amino acid more than some other esoteric substance. It also has tannins (like tea) and saponins (foaming agent) as well as various alkaloids.
In 2001, PureWorld Botanicals of New Jersey patented an extract derived from Maca that gave them exclusive commercial distrubion trademarking it, MacaPure. Peru is calling it biopiracy and it will be taking it to U.S. courts. Cases from empoverished countries losing court battles has antecedents, even Brazil, and Peru's were the hallucinogenic ayahuasca and the bean, nuna. In rebuttal, the chief scientist, ex CEO Qun Yi Zheng, considers it bioprospecting, and mentions his company in 3 years sunk a million dollars into research and development and adds they should be thankful Maca's been marketed so well for them. A French company, Naturex, bought them in 2005, and Antoine Dauby, head of marketing, says it's just one chemical they've patented, and they'll give free licenses to Peruvian companies. Agronomist Alejandro Argumedo and Quechua Indian activist is still putting up resistance to the idea of privatizing information gleaned from their natural resources, "...knowledge that belongs to an entire region."
Sadly, the United States is the only country to not ratify The Convention on Biological Diversity put out at the Rio de Janeiro 1992 Earth Summit. This is supposed to allow countries to share in the profits from chemicals etc. by their plants and animals, and that 188 other countries voted in the affirmative.