Aphrodisiacs: Fact or Fiction?

Food really can put you in the mood; find out how

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Can certain foods truly stimulate sexual desire, or is it all in our heads? Research shows us that it's mostly the latter -- but when it comes to aphrodisiacs, we should never underestimate the power of sensual suggestion.

Between 25% and 63% of American women (many of them postmenopausal) have some type of sexual dysfunction. And several major news articles have been published recently that paint a troubling picture of how many married couples today are lucky if they end up "getting lucky." (It seems that job demands, stress, and busy schedules are to blame.)

Enter aphrodisiacs. Basically, foods considered aphrodisiacs are those that aim to stimulate the love senses (sight, smell, taste, and touch). But can food, or even the simple act of eating, put you in the mood for love? The answer is YES -- but not in the way you might think.

No food has been scientifically proven to stimulate the human sex organs. But foods and the act of eating can suggest sex to the mind, which in turn can help stimulate desire in the body. And it certainly doesn't hurt to stack the sexual odds in your favor by enjoying foods you and your partner find sensual!

The 5 Types of Aphrodisiacs

Historically, most aphrodisiacs have fallen into five general types, all based on unproven theories:

  • Are you "hot" yet? Foods that create warmth and moisture (like chili or curry) were thought to arouse "heated" passion, while cold foods (like lettuce and purslane leaves) were supposed to "chill" passion.
  • If it looks like a sexual organ ... Foods that resemble male or female genitalia were believed to increase desire. The infamous oyster is one example, as are some fruits, and root vegetables like carrots.
  • The remarkable reproduction hypothesis. Reproductive organs and eggs (fish roe and bird eggs, animal genitals) were thought to increase sexual desire and potency.
  • If it's exotic, it must be erotic. Foods considered rare (and consequently expensive) were believed to be sexually exciting. When many of these foods, like potatoes and cocoa, became more widely available, their reputations as sexual stimulants waned.
  • Stimulate the senses, stimulate desire. Foods that stimulate the senses (sight, smell, taste, and touch) in a pleasurable way were thought to stimulate passion.

Erotic Edibles Through History

Throughout history, vegetables like onions, turnips, leeks, squash, asparagus, artichokes, and watercress were thought to not only stimulate desire, but also increase sperm count. Shapely fruits like the apple and curvaceous pear were seen as erotic edibles. And heavily seeded fruits like pomegranates and figs were compared to the "seeds of fertility."

And what about those notorious oysters? Alas, despite the sexual exploits attributed to their powers, oysters are made up of elements that cannot possibly chemically stimulate the genitals of either sex -- namely water, protein, carbohydrate, fat, some salts, glycogen, and tiny amounts of minerals like potassium and calcium. Apparently, the oyster can thank its shape and squishy texture for its aphrodisiac acclaim.

Chocolate is one of America's favorite "comfort foods," but to the ancient Aztecs, it offered a lot more than comfort -- it was considered a powerful aphrodisiac.

(In the early 1980s, researchers thought they had solved the mystery of our love affair with chocolate. They detected the chemical phenyl ethylamine (PEA) in chocolate. PEA is a central nervous system stimulant, usually present in the human brain, that is thought to help arouse emotions. But the human body actually absorbs very little PEA from chocolate -- not enough to affect our emotions, anyway. So, it seems the sexiest thing about chocolate is its taste and melt-in-your-mouth texture -- which, in my estimation, is not too shabby! )

In 14th century Europe, the spice trade from Asia added herbs and spices into the aphrodisiac equation. Historical accounts suggest that many of these foods ­ like cloves, anise seed, cinnamon, ginger, white pepper, cardamom, and thyme -- had sterling aphrodisiac reputations in their native regions.

The fact that potatoes (both sweet and white) were new to Europe in the 16th century helped perpetuate the belief that they possessed sexual powers. Other vegetables joined their aphrodisiac ranks in the 16th through 18th centuries, namely carrots (the vegetable, juice, and seeds) and the juice of asparagus.

By the 18th century, the influence of phallically oriented foods, such as eel, carrots, and asparagus, had taken shape (pun intended). Various bulb vegetables thought to resemble testicles, like the onion, were thought to affect a man's potency.



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