Is the hype around the reproductive health claims of maca (Lepidium meyenii Walp.) justified?

J Ethnopharmacol. 2018 Jan 30:211:126-170. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2017.08.003. Epub 2017 Aug 12.


Ethnopharmacological relevance: Maca - Lepidium meyenii Walp. has been cultivated and used by Andean people for over 1300-2000 years in Peru as food and medicine. Starting in the late 1990's it has developed into an important herbal medicine in China and is now cultivated there widely, too AIM OF STUDY: This study aims to provide an insight into the emergence of maca on the global market as an alternative remedy to treat reproductive health related problems in both men and women and to critically assess these health claims.

Methodology: A search of electronic databases such as EMBASE and a hand-search was done to acquire peer-reviewed articles and reports about maca.

Results and discussion: Lepidium meyenii is used traditionally as a tonic, fertility enhancer for both humans and cattle, and to treat a variety of ailments such as rheumatism, respiratory disorders and anaemia among others. Maca root is cooked, baked, fermented as a drink and made into porridge. In the last twenty years, maca was introduced onto the global market and demand has dramatically grown over this time with its promotion on the internet, as the 'Peruvian Ginseng' for libido and fertility enhancement. It has also been said to treat menopausal symptoms, erectile dysfunction and benign prostatic hyperplasia. The sky-rocketing demand for the plant has seen a shift from traditional cultivation methods to mass production practices with the use of fertilisers and also pesticides; as maca is now grown in areas other than the Andes such as in the Yunnan province in China. This can potentially affect the phytochemistry and composition of the plant and thus, the quality, safety and efficacy of maca products. Meanwhile, research into maca's medicinal properties has followed the spike in popularity of maca and has been focused mainly on maca's aphrodisiac and fertility enhancing properties. So far, the in vivo studies and clinical trials conducted have yielded inconclusive results. Some of the key limitations reside in methodology and sample size. Chemical profiling, led to the discovery of new compounds unique to maca, such as, 'macamides' and also other active metabolites like the glucosinolates; to which the medicinal effects of maca have been ascribed but cannot be confirmed due to lack of data.

Conclusions: To date, the health claims of maca cannot be fully supported from a scientific standpoint and more research is needed. It appears that the indigenous local knowledge about the health benefits of maca has been dragged out of context to fit the demands of a growing market for herbal remedies. This globalisation (or hype esp. in China) also has had serious consequences for the local producers in Peru. The lack of protocols to regulate the production and marketing of maca during this rapid expansion, poses a threat to both the safety of consumers and the sustainability of supply.

Keywords: Glucosinolates; Imidazole alkaloids (Lepidiline A, Lepidiline B, Lepidiline C, Lepidiline D and macaridine); Lepidium meyenii; Lepidium peruvianum; Maca; Macahydantoins; Macamides (alkamides unique to maca); Macathiohydantoins; Meyeniins; Pharmacological activity; Phytochemistry; Reproductive health; Tetrahydro-β -carboline.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • China
  • Humans
  • Lepidium*
  • Medicine, Traditional
  • Peru
  • Reproductive Health*