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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). Flour is also prepared from the dried roots for making bread and cookies. Maca is mixed with "chuño" (freeze-dried potatoes), oca, quinua and soy beans to prepare different dishes and dessert. Toasted and ground ”˜hypocotyls' are used to prepare “maca coffee” (Castro de Leon 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 colour preference is due to the belief that yellow roots are sweeter than those of other colours. Darker roots are stronger and a little bit bitter.

The pharmaceutical industry is now a main consumer of maca, and processes practically any roots that are in acceptable sanitary condition. The main centres of commercialization of maca are in La Oroya , Junin and Huancayo. The total production of maca is estimated to be approximately 320 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 ( Leon 1964). Sanchez Leon (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 Junin, 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" (during the Inca's empire), 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.

Chemical analysis by Johns (1981) suggests that the fertility-enhancing properties of maca may be due to the presence of biologically active aromatic isothiocyanate , and specifically due to benzyl isothiocyanate and p-methoxybenzyl isothiocyanate . 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 Junin 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 Leon 1990).

Medicinal properties attributed to maca are regulation of hormonal secretion, stimulation of metabolism, memory improvement, antidepressant activity and effectiveness in combating anaemia, leukemia, AIDS, cancer and alcoholism among others. Maca is good as an aphrodisiac, stamina-builder and fertility-promoter. It is also good for rheumatism, respiratory ailments and as a laxative.

The nutritional value of the dried ”˜hypocotyl' of maca is high, resembling that found in cereal grains such as maize, rice and wheat. Fresh hypocotyls contain 80% water.

Dry maca hypocotyls in general have the following composition: 59% carbohydrates, 10.2% proteins, 8.5% fibre and 2.2% lipids among a few other compounds (Dini et al. 1994) - values may vary depending on the type of hypocotyls used.

Maca has a large amount of essential amino acids and higher levels of iron and calcium than the white potato. In addition, it contains important amounts of fatty acids, of which linoleic, palmitic and oleic acids are the most prominent. Maca is also rich in sterols and has a high mineral content, in particular Fe, Ca and Cu. Alkaloids are also present, but these have yet to be determined (Dini et al. 1994).

Maca has a strong and peculiar flavour being the glucosinolates (T. Johns, pers. comm.) the compounds responsible for maca flavour.

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