Are aphrodisiac foods fact or fiction?

Aphrodisiacs: Can Eating Increase Sex Drive?

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Aphrodisiacs: fact or fiction?

Food can really get 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 really stimulate sexual desire, or is it all on our minds? Research shows 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 post-menopausal) have some type of sexual dysfunction. Several major news articles have recently been published that paint a troubling picture of how many married couples are lucky if they are "lucky" today. (It seems that work demands, stress, and busy schedules are to blame.)

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

It is scientifically proven that no food stimulates the human reproductive organs. But food and the eating can suggest sex to the mind, which in turn can help stimulate cravings in the body. And it certainly doesn't hurt to pile the sexual opportunities in your favor by enjoying foods that you and your partner think are sensual!

The 5 types of aphrodisiacs

Historically, most aphrodisiacs are divided into five general types, all of which are based on unproven theories:

  • Are you "hot" yet? Foods that create warmth and moisture (like chilli or curry) should arouse "heated" passion, while cold foods (like lettuce and purslane leaves) should "cool" passion.
  • If it looks like a sexual organ ... Foods that resemble male or female genitals have been thought to increase cravings. The infamous oyster is an example, as are some fruits and root vegetables like carrots.
  • The remarkable reproductive hypothesis. It was believed that reproductive organs and eggs (fish roe and bird eggs, animal genitals) increase sexual desire and potency.
  • If it's exotic, it has to be erotic. Foods that were considered rare (and consequently expensive) were considered sexually exciting. As many of these foods, such as potatoes and cocoa, became more common, their reputation as sexual stimulants waned.
  • Stimulate the senses, stimulate the desire. It was believed that foods that stimulate the senses (sight, smell, taste and touch) in a pleasant way stimulate passion.

Erotic foods through history

Throughout history, vegetables like onions, beets, leeks, pumpkin, asparagus, artichokes, and watercress have been believed to not only stimulate desire but also increase sperm count. Shapely fruits like the apple and the curvy pear were seen as erotic foods. And heavily sown fruits like pomegranates and figs have been compared to the "seeds of fertility".

And what about those infamous oysters? Unfortunately, despite the sexual exploits attributed to their powers, oysters are made up of elements that the genitals of either sex may not be able to chemically stimulate - namely water, protein, carbohydrates, fat, some salts, glycogen, and tiny amounts of minerals like potassium and calcium . Apparently, the oyster can thank its shape and mushy texture for its aphrodisiac appreciation.

Chocolate is one of America's most popular "comfort foods", but for the ancient Aztecs it was much more than convenience - it was considered a powerful aphrodisiac.

(In the early 1980s, researchers thought they had solved the mystery of our love affair with chocolate. They discovered the chemical phenylethylamine (PEA) in chocolate. PEA is a central nervous system stimulant that is normally found in the human brain to arouse emotions. But the human body actually absorbs very little PEA from chocolate - not enough to sway our emotions, anyway. So it seems that the sexiest thing about chocolate is the taste and texture that melts in the mouth - which I don't think is too shabby! )

In 14th century Europe, the spice trade from Asia added herbs and spices to the aphrodisiac equation. Historical reports suggest that many of these foods like cloves, anise seeds, cinnamon, ginger, white pepper, cardamom, and thyme had good reputations as aphrodisiac in their home regions.

The fact that potatoes (both sweet and white) were new to Europe in the 16th century helped maintain beliefs that they possessed sexual powers. Other vegetables, such as carrots (vegetables, juice, and seeds) and asparagus juice, came to their aphrodisiac ranks in the 16th through 18th centuries.

By the 18th century, the influence of phallic-oriented foods like eel, carrots, and asparagus had taken shape (pun intended). Various onion vegetables that are believed to resemble testicles, like the onion, have been thought to affect a man's potency.

Aside from their appearance and shape, there are five other properties of foods that are believed to induce sensuality. Foods considered sexy generally include the following:

  • Smooth
  • rich
  • Creamy
  • Exotic
  • Spicy

So if you are planning a romantic dinner keep this in mind. Why not try to serve a dish that fits into each of these categories?

"You can also benefit from foods from your sexual past - perhaps foods you ate before or during a particularly enjoyable sexual encounter."

And when you talk about food properties, remember that it is subtly sexier than it is on your face. Phallic and shapely foods, as well as exotic and rare foods, are likely to always be aphrodisiac. But these days we appreciate foods that suggest sex with a whisper instead of a scream. Instead of serving your sweetheart a dessert that makes him or her think, "Yeah, this looks like a male body part," try something a little more discreet, a brandy-baked banana half that's drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Let's not forget the placebo effect

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

If a person believes that eating raw oysters is affecting their sex drive and stamina, their expectation of this powerful effect may help make it come true.

Memories of past foods

You can also use foods from your sexual past - perhaps foods you ate before or during a particularly enjoyable sexual encounter. Or go a step further and write new history with your spouse or partner. Whether it is hand-fed grapes to your partner or his or her favorite dish served during romantic foreplay on the fine china, the bedroom door is wide open so that you can put together your own repertoire of "aphrodisiacs".

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

With alcohol, less is MORE

As early as the late 16th century, scientists documented the sexually inhibiting and enhancing properties of alcohol. One wrote that "excessive alcohol is more of a sexual depressant than a stimulant, and wine consumed in moderation does the opposite." They even knew 400 years ago that a small amount of alcohol can aid our sexual desire, while too much can hinder it!

How much is too much The amount of alcohol that would hinder us as drivers seems to hinder us as lovers too. This can be more than two drinks per night for men and one drink per night for women.

The nose always knows

Don't underestimate the suggestive power of smell. Certain smells - like chocolate chip cookies, bread or apple pie baking - fill our thoughts with visions of favorite dishes that pamper our taste buds with anticipation. Fragrances can also bring back memories or feelings from pleasant experiences associated with this smell.

You may recall a study a few years ago that found that men were more responsive to the smell of baked cinnamon buns than to any perfume. (A combination of the scent of pumpkin pie and lavender was a hit too). Some of the sexiest scents for women included liquorice, cucumber, and banana-nut bread.

How to stimulate the 5 senses on Valentine's Day

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

  • view. Light these candles or the fireplace to create a relaxed, seductive atmosphere. And keep your romance scene as clear and clean as possible. In terms of food, choose the dishes that visually suggest sex and seduction to you and your partner. Take into account the color and shape, as well as texture and taste.
  • sound. Instantly set the mood with music. This could mean piano concerts, steamy jazz - even a CD with 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 towards your loved one. Don't just say "I love you" (although this is a good place to start). Share what you love - your favorite things about your partner (physical and not physical). You get the picture!
  • odor. Avoid smelly foods like cooked cauliflower or cabbage. If you do choose garlic, keep it subtle or try toasting it (it tastes delicious and won't be overwhelming). You can also fill the room with romantic scents from fragrant oils or candles.
  • Touch. There are so many ways that touch comes into play on a romantic evening. If you have finger food, eating is all about touch. The texture of the carpet or ceiling in front of the fireplace, the feeling of sheets under your skin - all send sensual signals to your brain. But maybe the best way to stimulate that sense is to touch each other. Not only is it stimulating to get a massage, it can also be really tempting to give one. Try one of the wonderfully scented massage oils and creams available in stores like Bath and Body Works. Or wash each other's hair and / or body - a very special way of touching your loved one.
  • taste. Serve small servings of foods that stimulate your taste buds without overwhelming them. Very strong or spicy foods can backfire. Therefore, serve them with caution. And a dessert that is subtly sweet (try semi-sweet chocolate) beats an extra sugary one. Remember, you want to leave your mouth and want more.

Originally published February 6, 2004
Medically updated May 3, 2018.