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.

Other than their appearance and shape, there are five other qualities of foods that are thought to elicit sensuality. Foods considered sexy are generally those that are:

  • Smooth
  • Rich
  • Creamy
  • Exotic
  • Spicy

So if you're planning a romantic dinner, take note. Why not try to serve a dish that fits into each of those categories?

"You can also capitalize on foods from your sexual past -- perhaps foods that you ate before or during a particularly pleasurable sexual encounter."

And speaking of food characteristics, remember that subtle is sexier than in-your-face. Phallic and shapely foods, as well as the exotic and rare, will probably always be in aphrodisiac fashion. But these days we appreciate foods that suggest sex with a whisper instead of a shout. So instead of serving your sweetie a dessert that makes him or her think, "Yup, that looks like a male body part," try something more discreet ­ say, a brandy-baked banana half, drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Let's Not Forget the Placebo Effect

A placebo is an inactive substance -- like a sugar pill -- given to a research participant who is under the impression it is a drug. So the "placebo effect" is when the belief that something is helping has as much or more of a therapeutic effect than the substance itself.

So if a person thinks eating raw oysters will give a jolt to her sex drive and sexual stamina, her anticipation of this powerful effect can help it come true.

Memories of Foods Past

You can also capitalize on foods from your sexual past -- perhaps foods that you ate before or during a particularly pleasurable sexual encounter. Or take this a step further and start making new history with your spouse or partner. Whether it's grapes hand-fed to your partner, or his or her favorite dish served on the good china during a romantic dinner prelude, the bedroom door is wide open for you to create your own repertoire of "aphrodisiacs."

To understand the powerful connection between mind and body, just think about the shapely and phallic foods that were in favor in the 18th century. Because they suggested sex to those who used them as "aphrodisiacs," they may well have had the desired effect. So let the sight and smell of certain foods take you back to that sexy, provocative time you shared together.

With Alcohol, Less Is MORE

As far back as the late 16th century, scientists documented both the sexually inhibiting and enhancing properties of alcohol. One wrote that "excessive alcohol is a sexual depressant rather than a stimulant, and wine taken moderately does the opposite." They knew even 400 years ago that a small amount of alcohol may help our sexual desire, while too much can hinder it!

How much is too much? The amount of alcohol that would impede us as a driver seems to also impede us as a lover. This might be anything more than two drinks a night for men, and one drink a night for women.

The Nose Always Knows

Finally, don't underestimate the suggestive power of scent. Certain smells -- like chocolate chip cookies, bread, or apple pie baking -- fill our minds with visions of favorite foods as they tantalize our taste buds with anticipation. Scents can also bring back memories or feelings from pleasurable past experiences associated with that smell.

You may remember a study a few years back that found men responded more powerfully to the scent of baked cinnamon buns than any perfume. (A combination of the scent of pumpkin pie and lavender was also a hit). For women, the sexiest scents included licorice candy, cucumber, and banana nut bread.

How to Stimulate the 5 Senses on Valentines Day

Now, here's how to put it all together and set the stage for that romantic evening tonight:

  • Sight. Light those candles or the fireplace for a relaxed, seductive atmosphere. And keep your scene for romance as clutter-free and clean as possible. In terms of food, select whatever dishes visually suggest sex and seduction to you and your partner. Consider color and shape as well as texture and taste.
  • Sound. Set the mood instantly with music. This might mean piano concertos, steamy jazz -- even a CD of the sound of waves crashing on the shore. And don't forget the sound of your own voice. On this special night, express your feelings to your loved one. Don't just say "I love you" (though that's a great start). Share what you love -- your favorite things about your partner (physical and nonphysical). You get the picture!
  • Smell. Stay away from smelly foods like cooked cauliflower or cabbage. If you go for garlic, keep it subtle or try roasting it (it will taste delicious and won't be overpowering). You can also fill the room with romantic scents from scented oils or candles.
  • Touch. There are so many ways touch comes into play during a romantic evening. If you have finger foods, eating is all about touching. The texture of the rug or blanket in front of the fireplace, the feeling of sheets under your skin -- all send sensual signals to your brain. But perhaps the best way to stimulate this sense is by touching each other. Not only is it stimulating to get a massage, it can be truly tantalizing to give one. Try one of the wonderful scented massage oils and creams available at stores like Bath and Body Works. Or wash each other's hair and/or bodies -- a very special way to touch your loved one.
  • Taste. Serve small portions of foods that stimulate your taste buds without overwhelming them. Very strong or spicy foods can backfire, so serve them with caution. And a dessert that's subtly sweet (try semi-sweet chocolate) beats an extra-sugary one. Remember, you want to leave the mouth wanting more.

Originally published Feb. 6, 2004
Medically updated Jan. 3, 2004.

SOURCES: Nurse Practitioner Forum, December 2000. Annali Dell Istituto Superiore di Sanita, 2002: vol 38(3). The Change of Life Diet and Cookbook, by Elaine Magee, MPH, RD. WebMD Feature: "Love Grub," published Feb. 1, 2002.

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