The magic of maca: a fertility-boosting food

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  • Published: Apr 7, 2016
  • Author: Ryan De Vooght-Johnson
  • Channels: Laboratory Informatics / Chemometrics & Informatics
thumbnail image: The magic of maca: a fertility-boosting food

The stuff of legends

The maca plant (Lepidium meyenii) has been grown in the high Andes of Peru for thousands of years, where it was traditionally consumed as a vegetable. According to legend, Incan warriors consumed maca before battle to make them strong. The plant also has reported aphrodisiac properties and the ability to boost fertility.

The maca plant (Lepidium meyenii) has been grown in the high Andes of Peru for thousands of years, where it was traditionally consumed as a vegetable. According to legend, Incan warriors consumed maca before battle to make them strong. The plant also has reported aphrodisiac properties and the ability to boost fertility. Indeed, recent studies in rats and men have proven its ability to increase the production and motility of sperm.

As a result of these findings, commercial interest and research on maca has accelerated. It can now be bought as a nutritional supplement or as a powder to add to cakes and smoothies by those seeking a fertility aid, or perhaps just an energy boost.

This is because, as well as being rich in protein, maca contains a range of bioactive compounds, including macamides – a class of alkamides that contribute to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and pro-fertility properties.

Although native to South America, maca is now also grown in China. The origin of the product, as well as its colour, is thought to play an important role in its bioactivity. For example, black maca is more effective at improving sperm count while red maca is more beneficial for prostate health.

Metabolites in maca

This all comes down to the metabolites it contains. Although there are several theories, exactly how maca gets is metabolite profile remains an uncertain science, partly owing to problems caused by interference in past studies.

To overcome this issue, scientists from Yunnan in China – the province where maca is mainly cultivated – developed a method that focuses on specific compounds and is able to precisely detect chemical changes under different conditions.

This approach, known as chemical fingerprinting, can handle large amounts of data and is recommended for quality assessment by the World Health Organization. By focusing on specific compounds, it reduces the likelihood of interference from other metabolites and, when combined with chemometrics, can separate compounds based on characteristics, such as where they were grown.

Recognising the potential of the approach, researchers have for the first time applied it to maca in an attempt to determine how macamide content varies between samples grown in different areas. The researchers collected maca samples from various sites in Yunnan and Peru. In total 114 samples were profiled using liquid chromatography with UV detection and tandem mass spectrometry. Fourteen individual compounds were identified, 12 of which were macamides.

Authentic aphrodisiacs

Fingerprinting analysis was first performed using the ‘Similarity Evaluation System’ developed by the Chinese Pharmacopoeia Committee. The samples were separated into batches, based on their origin and colour, and a reference chromatogram was taken from each group. This showed that the samples differed significantly based on their ‘macamide fingerprint’.

Next, they used a more sophisticated, statistical technique for classification called Partial least squares Discriminant Analysis (PLS-DA). All chromatographic data were subjected to the technique, which successfully separated the samples based on their source (with an astounding 91% accuracy).

However, the technique could not separate the samples based on their colour, which suggests that origin is more important for macamide content. This process also revealed five distinct macamides that could be used as chemical markers for classification.

The findings of this study show that environmental factors, such as origin, do indeed have an effect on the active ingredients contained within maca, and thus its quality. This knowledge could be applied to select the best growing locations and to label maca from different regions for quality control.

Related Links

J. Sci. Food Agric., 2016, Early View paper. Characteristic fingerprinting based on macamides for discrimination of maca (Lepidium meyenii) by LC/MS/MS and multivariate statistical analysis.

Effect of a lipidic extract from Lepidium meyenii on sexual behavior in mice and rats

Maca powder: Health benefits and concerns

Effect of Lepidium meyenii (maca) roots on spermatogenesis of male rats

Lepidium meyenii (Maca) improved semen parameters in adult men

Article by Ryan De Vooght-Johnson

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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