Maca is cultivated for consumption of its root-hypocotyl axis, and is used extensively for medicinal purposes.
The maca ‘hypocotyls’ are eaten fresh, cooked in pachamancas (cooking of meat and vegetables in underground ovens lined with hot stones) or stored dried for later consumption. The dried roots are eaten after boiling in water or milk, and are sometimes mixed with honey and fruit for preparation of juices, and addition of sugarcane rum for cocktails and other alcoholic beverages (Johns 1981; Tello et al. 1992) (Fig. 9). Flour is also prepared from the dried roots for making bread and cookies. Maca is mixed with chuño (freeze-dried potatoes), oca, quinua and soyabeans to prepare different dishes and dessert. Toasted and ground ‘hypocotyls’ are used to prepare, “maca coffee” (Castro de León 1990).
Local consumers close to the production sites prefer medium size and yellow maca roots. This is because larger roots take longer to cook and the colors preference is due to the belief that yellow roots are sweeter than those of other colors. Apparently any root shape is acceptable. In general, however, there are no established quality characteristics for this crop. The pharmaceutical industry is now a main consumer of maca, and processes practically any roots that are in acceptable sanitary condition. The main centers of commercialization of maca are in La Oroya, Junín and Huancayo. The total production of maca is estimated to be approximately 850 t/year, and it is possible that the demand is twice as much.
According to folk belief, maca is an aphrodisiac which enhances sexual drive and female fertility in humans and domestic animals, which tends to be reduced at higher altitudes (León 1964). Sanchez León (1996) presents an interesting account of the role of maca in the conquest of the Inca Empire. The Spaniards when arriving in a hostile environment, such as the puna of Junín, were afraid of losing their horses because of the lack of conventional pastures and their inability to reproduce at high altitudes. They soon learned about the nutritious and fertility-enhancing properties of maca, allowing their horses to pasture in fields of this crop. The conquerors found “well fed babies and tall adults” in the high Andes, which was attributed to their diet based on maca. Owing to these beliefs, maca had a prominent place as a crop used to enhance the reproduction of pigs, chickens and horses. During the times of the Tawantinsuyo, the legend says that before going to war the Incas used maca to feed the warriors to increase their energy and vitality. However, after conquering a city the soldiers were prohibited to consume it as a measure to protect women from their sexual impulses.
Beliefs of fertility-enhancing properties of maca have been partially substantiated by limited experiments in rats, which indicate that gains in fertility are due to the probable increase in the development of the Graaf follicles (Chacón 1990; Rea 1992). Chemical analysis by Johns (1981) suggests that the fertility-enhancing properties of maca mar be due to the presence of biologically active aromatic isothiocyanates, and specifically due to benzyl isothiocyanate and p-methoxybenzyl isothiocyanate. The latter is also found in mashua (also know as añu and isaño) (Trapaealum tuberasum Ruiz and Pavon). This species, however, is reputed to be an antiaphrodisiac and antireproductive agent in males, but a promoter of female fertility (Johns 1981). The putative aphrodisiac powers of maca also can be attributed to the presence of prostaglandins and sterols in the ‘hypocotyls’ (Dini et al. 1994). In early times, maca was appreciated not only as nutritious food, but also as a gift to the gods along with corn and potatoes. Mountain Raco in Junín was considered the god of stewed food. In its honour, the natives buried potatoes and maca there among other offerings.
Maca also was used in beverages with hallucinogenic products in dances and religious ceremonies (Castro de León 1990). Today in the local markets it is advertised as an aphrodisiac, stamina-builder and ferility-promoter. It is also often promoted as a cure for rheumatism, respiratory ailments and as a laxative. Dried maca roots are ground to power and sold in drugstores in capsules as a medicine and food supplement to increase stamina and fertility. One of the leading pharmaceutical laboratories in Peru has started an aggressive advertising campaign promoting maca capsules as a magnifier of sexual potency. Other medicinal properties attributed to maca are regulation of hormonal secretion, stimulation of metabolism, memory improvement, antidepressant activity and effectiveness in combating anemia, leukemia, AIDS, cancer and alcoholism among others. None of these properties, however, has been substantiated by scientific research. Because of these putative virtues, maca is also known by the name of Peruvian ginseng (Rea 1992).