If you're in need of an energy boost, or feel your libido is a little low, you might be tempted to try maca powder.
Dubbed "nature's viagra", the native Peruvian plant maca has been cropping up on our Instagram feeds more and more recently.
But is the latest must-have smoothie ingredient really an aphrodisiac and, more importantly, can it damage health?
What Is Maca?
Maca powder is ground from the maca plant, which has grown high in the Peruvian Andes for thousands of years.
Legend says Incan warriors consumed maca before battle to make them strong, but after conquering a city maca was prohibited, protecting the women from the sex-craving warriors.
"It’s still used as a food staple: roasted, eaten as porridge, a fermented drink called ‘maca chica’ or ground into flour for baking." explains Tipper Lewis, head herbalist at Neal’s Yard Remedies.
How To Use
Add to smoothies, cakes, porridge, milk drinks or cacao treats.
"It’s malty taste works well with chocolate treats and it feels strengthening, not stimulating making it great for daily energy support," Lewis says.
Maca was traditionally used as an energy tonic and fertility aid in both humans and animals, but now more and more people are adding it to smoothies for some added energy.
"As an adaptogen, maca supports us in times of physical, emotional or environmental stress and is ideal for hectic lifestyles, when constantly pushing ourselves to perform better," Lewis says.
She adds that maca can also benefit our hormonal health by regulating the endocrine system - the collection of glands that produce hormones to regulate metabolism, growth, sexual function, reproduction, sleep and mood.
"Maca also helps restore normal function of the adrenal glands, thyroid, pituitary system and hypothalamus," Lewis adds.
"It powerfully enhances strength and stamina without stimulating, and may be used for long periods."
Not everyone is convinced by the beneficial claims linked to maca powder.
In a blog titled 10 Things You Need to Know Before You Take Natural Remedies to Improve Sexual Function, The Times sex columnist Suzi Godson says: "Although the internet is awash with promotions for natural sex remedies such as avena sativa, damiana, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, maca, muira puama, or zinc, there is no credible scientific evidence to show that any of them improve libido, or sexual function.
"More importantly, they can be dangerous if you mix them with other drugs, or take too much of them."
Rick Miller (@Rick_M_RDiet) , a clinical and sports dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association agrees that there is "extremely limited" evidence to support the claims that maca causes improved sexual function and energy.
"A total of 20 studies have been conducted in humans (both male and female) on various parameters of sexual desire, libido and circulating hormones associated with sexual function, for example, testosterone and oestrogen. Of which, four of these are randomised controlled trials of varying duration (2-12 weeks long)," he says.
"Maca does not appear to influence hormonal function in any way, with no change in circulating hormones.
"The evidence suggests after six weeks there may be a small improvement in sexual desire, although all of the trials used questionnaires that were not validated to assess this parameter. Therefore this reduces the validity of the findings considerably."
He adds that there are no studies that have assessed maca's long term safety or toxicity in humans and this "poses a considerable safety risk both in terms of general supplementation and interactions with medication."
"Side effects that have been reported include severe gastrointestinal distress and mixed effects on blood pressure," he says.
If you're concerned about the impact maca may have on your health, speak to your GP before making it part of your diet.