For the people of Junin in Peru, maca has been used as a medicinal remedy to prevent and treat health conditions for over 2000 years. Traditionally it is used for its ability to balance hormones, mental health, reduce stress and adrenal fatigue as well as promoting vitality, focus, concentration, fertility, and sexual function. If you ask any of the Incan descendants how to prepare maca they all answer the same way “It must be cooked or boiled to extract the medicine”. So why in our western culture are we suddenly changing 2000 years of tradition and deciding to consume raw maca powder?
How is maca traditionally consumed in Junin, Peru?
Maca is a root vegetable that is 70% carbohydrate, with a high starch content (similar to a potato). As such, in Peru, it is traditionally cooked in ways similar to that of potatoes or starchy foods. The whole fresh bulb or dried bulb is either boiled in a soup or grated into fine pieces and boiled as a tea or porridge. Stories say that the Inca would boil and consume up to 200g of maca per day via these traditional methods, with the local people claiming that sites like Machu Picchu were built with the power of maca. In more recent times maca has been ground into powders (fresh and dried) to increase surface area and allow easier inclusion into various meals. The ground powder is a favourite additive to Inca Tea (boiled cinnamon, cloves, oats, and maca in water), one of the most popular way to drink maca in Junin (view here). For those from the region who want to eat their maca straight in milk, they use pre-baked or gelatinised maca powder.
Why it’s so important to cook maca or buy pre-cooked (gelatinised)
Raw maca is like a sponge for mold and the longer it sits in humid conditions the more mold it attracts. The problem with the type of mold that loves maca is that it produces highly toxic chemicals called aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and can have a serious long-term negative health effect on your body, even in tiny doses. The only way to kill this mold and remove the toxins is by cooking maca to sanitise it.
But doesn’t cooking maca destroy the nutrients?
This is the most common misconception about maca and a lack of understanding of maca biochemistry and it’s the medicinal mode of action. Almost all clinical studies demonstrating positive health effects of maca have been performed with maca prepared in its traditional manner (boiling or heating in water) or with gelatinized or extracted maca. From this it is evident that the active medicinal components are not denatured with heat and new studies suggest that the heating is actually necessary for the production of the various health enhancing metabolites. Dr Gustavo F. Gonzales who heads the Department of Biological and Physiological Sciences and High Altitude Research at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia stated in his comprehensive biochemical review of maca:
“The process of preparation of maca is important to obtain adequate biological effects. Traditionally maca is boiled or extracted in alcohol before it is consumed. In experimental studies, aqueous extract of maca is only effective after boiling pulverized maca hypocotyls in water….The boiling process seems to increase active metabolites.”
How does cooking maca make it more bioactive?
To understand this you must understand the reason we consume maca. Maca is a medicine, it is a medicine for prevention of disease and for treatment to bring balance to our endocrine system. The main bioactive inside maca that give this physiological response are unique to this plant and are called macamides. There are 17 known macamides and each of them works directly with your endocannabinoid and endocrine system to produce positive health benefits for your body (Read more here).
The science has shown that the bioactive macamides in maca are heat activated molecules
Their biosynthesis occurs from the breakdown of the heat-sensitive glucosinolates (1) in the fresh maca bulb (Read more here). During initial drying of maca post-harvest, there is hydrolytic processing of lipids and glucosinolates and a subsequent release of significant amounts of free unsaturated fatty acids (9, 10) and a key biochemical called benzylamine (7). Both of these compounds are precursors of, and whose accumulation correlates well with, the synthesis of bioactive macamides (11, 12, 13). What is now known is that the coupling of fatty acids with the benzylamine intermediate 7 (below), is a thermodynamic process (ie. it requires heat).
What is wrong with eating raw maca?
- As outlined raw maca accumulates mold that produces toxic aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are cancer-causing molecules that can remain in the raw powder of maca unless it is cooked. Eating raw maca is risky and can cause serious harm to your health and upset your gut biome (Read about examples of this here or here). In essence, it can do more harm than good.
- Raw maca root contains high levels of starch (amylose and amylopectin). Starch can often be hard to digest if eaten raw and may give some people symptoms such as bloating, gas, distention, and abdominal discomfort.
- Maca has always been traditionally cooked or heated and studies show that the health benefits are not diminished by these processes if anything they are enhanced. The active components responsible for most of the medicinal benefits of Maca (FAAH inhibitors, FFA’s and other metabolites) are heat activated. So if you are eating raw maca you may not be getting the health benefits you desire
- Our own analysis demonstrated that a commercially available sample of raw maca in New Zealand had 2x higher bacterial concentrations and 8x higher mould concentrations compared to our gelatinised (pre-cooked) sample
- The texture and flavour of gelatinised (pre-cooked) maca powder is more sweet, caramel and palatable. Raw maca has a more tart taste and often forms grainy starch sediments in solution when its not cooked, creating an unpleasant texture and flavour.
So what is the solution?
The solution is to follow the tradition and the science and consume maca the way it should be consumed. So either buy and cook raw maca powder or buy pre-cooked/gelatinised powder that you can consume raw or cooked. (NB. Gelatinised maca does not contain gelatin, gelatinising is the process of heating to remove starch – 100% vegan-friendly)
We only sell gelatinised maca (pre-cooked) as it is higher in potency, easy on the stomach, ready to eat and more versatile. You can put it straight in a smoothie or cook it. (NB: this is 100% vegan friendly and does not contain gelatin).
VitaHealth are proud suppliers of Seleno Health Maca Products
Written by Dr Corin Storkey Founder and Director of Seleno Health. www.selenohealth.com