Turmeric, matcha, bone broth—when the healthy-food crowd decides it’s interested in a trendy food, you suddenly see it everywhere. Right now, maca is having a moment, popping up in everything from protein powders and snack bars to drinks and popcorn.
This root, part of a cruciferous plant that grows in Peru, looks like a turnip and smells a bit like horseradish if you break it open when it’s fresh, says Chris Kilham, natural-medicine researcher and author of more than a dozen books on natural health. Luckily, maca is dried and ground before you consume it, and that process tames the horseradish smell into a sweet, butterscotchy aroma.
Peruvians use the ground maca to make hot and cold drinks, cakes, cookies, pies, bread, fry breads, soups, and stews, Kilham says. And though it’s new to us, it’s certainly not new; maca has been cultivated for at least 2,000 years.
“Maca has been used for hundreds of years for infertility, hormone balance, and as an aphrodisiac,” says integrative medicine dietitian Robin Foroutan, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “I think when anything has a long aphrodisiac history, people are interested because it’s fun. Plus there is the promise of feeling better and more vibrant and having more stamina.”
Though there currently isn’t that much formal scientific research on it, maca may improve fertility, help balance hormones, alleviate symptoms of menopause, reduce depression in menopausal women and boost sexual desire.
Another reason why maca is trendy: It’s an adaptogen. “An adaptogen works in two directions,” Foroutan explains. “For instance, an adaptogen may be good for both stress and energy. If you’re stressed, taking it can be calming; but if you’re tired, it can be energizing. Adaptogens are all about rebalancing.”
In the case of maca, the hypothesis is that it “rebalances the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands so that the body can rebalance its own hormonal chemistry,” she adds.