Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr takes it regularly, saying that it helps her keep down her weight. Television personality Dr Oz also touts the benefits of the supplement on his show.
Meet maca root, the new superfood. But if you were planning to rush down to the health food store to get some, you may be a little too late.
That’s because the Chinese have been buying up all the maca from Peru, where it originates.
The Peruvians have been taking maca for thousands of years and when Spanish colonists arrived in the country, they accepted the turnip-like root as payment for taxes, valuing its properties highly after the indigenous people demonstrated how maca boosted the fertility of their livestock.
Now health-conscious Chinese consumers have caught the maca bug, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that buyers have swooped into the Junin region of Peru to buy up as much as possible. Growers say that this has led to a tenfold increase in the price of maca, and in some cases even more.
Through September, the value of formal maca exports to China rose to $6 million, compared with $540,000 for all of 2013, according to Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism. But officials say that traders are smuggling more of the root out of the country, dodging rules that require it to be processed in Peru before it can be exported.
The increase in prices will soon be noticed by American consumers. Zach Adelman, the founder of Navitas Naturals, told the New York Times that his company previously paid about $3.60 a pound for maca powder. Now some suppliers are asking for more than $20 a pound, although consumers are yet to feel the full impact. “It’s going to hit them like a tonne of bricks in the new year when they go and find a bag that’s three times as much,” says Adelman.
Why did maca root become so popular in China? An article in 21CN Business Herald says the superfood helps to fight fatigue and boost energy. It is also reckoned to be a cheaper alternative to ginseng, another highly prized root much used in traditional Chinese medicine.
More importantly, 21CN believes the market has boomed because maca is being promoted as a “natural Viagra”. Some experts are unconvinced, however. “As a health supplement, it certainly has an impact on the human body. But it is not the miracle food that some of the sellers claim. And besides, it is also impossible to get the full effect unless one takes it continuously,” Xue Runguang, deputy director at the Agricultural Science Institute of Industrial Crop, told Chuncheng Evening News, a Yunnan newspaper.
Wen Wei Po, another newspaper, also warns that maca’s reputation is being overstated. “No one in Peru has heard that maca can enhance sexual performance. This is definitely a concept Chinese businessmen have invented to boost demand. Consumers should be more rational,” it suggested.
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