Over recent years the raw food movement has trained many people to believe that consuming foods raw offers nutritional benefits over cooking them and cooking may ‘destroy the nutrients’. There are some truths behind this logic as many enzymes and proteins can be denatured by heat,1 but what about foods that have always been traditionally cooked? One example of this is with the superfood maca, a small root vegetable that originates from the Andean farming region of Junin, in Peru.
For the people of Junin 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.2 If you ask any of the Incan descendants how to prepare maca they all answer the same way “It must be dried for 3 months under the sun, then cooked to extract the medicine”. Traditionally it is boiled into teas, porridges, soups, and stews. So why in our western culture are we suddenly changing 2000 years of tradition and deciding to consume raw maca powder? And who is correct, the Incan descendants or our modern raw foodies?
To understand this we need to look at the biochemistry of maca, how it works as a therapeutic and see what changes when we follow traditional preparation. Recent studies have shown that the main bioactive components in maca are unique derivatives of fatty acids called macamides.3 These molecules work in our brain to change the way the body responds to stress and increase natural human cannabinoid production.4 It has been shown that the total levels of macamides in maca will determine the potency of the powder, the more macamides the more potent. Despite being very closely related to the radish family maca is never consumed fresh in Peru, but always harvested and dried under the sun for 3 months before being boiled or cooked. When we follow the tradition we find that drying maca creates 10x higher levels of macamides and heating activates even more. In fact, fresh maca is almost devoid of these essential molecules and the highest levels are found in dried and heated forms as the formation of macamides is a heat activated process.5
So when it comes to maca, it seems that you cannot beat tradition and heating is essential to its bioactivity in the brain and body. Furthermore, it has since been shown that raw maca also has a very high risk for mould and aflatoxins,6 that can be nasty for gut and liver health.7 For those who are concerned don’t worry there is a very simple solution to this problem, there are heat treated forms of maca available that can be used straight in your smoothies without cooking. Look for ‘gelatinised’ or ‘activated’ maca powder, they DO NOT contain gelatin, but are heat treated via the process of gelatinisation to reduce the starch content, activate the macamides and kill the mould that produces aflatoxins. They have a sweeter and more caramel flavour, higher potency and are ready to eat without requiring cooking, perfect for your raw food creations.
Three things to note before buying maca:
- Check what type of powder it is – raw, gelatinised, activated or atomised. Raw powders should always be cooked before use. Gelatinised, activated or atomised powders can be consumed straight or cooked again.
- Check the level of total macamides – this can tell you the quality of the powder and potency. Quality powders have approximately >0.6% total macamides.
- For best therapeutic benefit try to take 1-1.5 tsp daily for a minimum 8-12 weeks. This is the time at which clinical benefit has been demonstrated in studies.
If you want to try maca and recreate a traditional Incan tea, we’ve included a great recipe for you below.
1/2stick of cinnamon
4-5 whole cloves
1 cardamom pod
1 tsp of dried apple pieces
1 tsp Seleno Health organic activated maca powder
1-2 cups of boiling water
Add all ingredients to your tea infuser, stir the maca through rapidly to break down the lumps and brew for 5 minutes before consumption.
For more information on Maca, head over to the Seleno Health Guide
- Fabbri et al. Int Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science 3 (2016) 2–11.
- Gonzales et al. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;(2012): ID 193496.
- McCollom et al. Phytochem Anal. Nov-Dec;16(6);(2005) 463-9.
- Almukadi et al. Mol Neurobiol. Oct;48(2);(2013) 333-9.
- Esparaza et al. Phytochemistry. Aug;116;(2015) 138-148.
- Mavungu et al. Food Additives and Contaminants 26 (06); (2009) 885-895.
(a) Liew et al. Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 8;(2018) 60. (b) WHO/NHM/FOS/RAM/18.1 (2018) Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).