The food of love: Do these 10 popular aphrodisiac foods really work?
The long history of libido-boosting cuisine
In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates advised that lentils were the food to promote potency.1 In the Late Middle Ages, scholars believed that warm, moist foods like egg yolks could enhance amorous feelings (while cold foods like cucumber would ‘’extinguish lust’’).2 And, to increase his virility, legendary lover Casanova is said to have routinely breakfasted on as many as 50 oysters at a time.3
Throughout history, humankind has had an ongoing love-affair with romantic dinners and aphrodisiac foods, with everything from sparrow brains to potatoes being championed as the perfect fare to give would-be lovers a boost in the bedroom.4 Even today we’re not immune: commonly touted aphrodisiacs include everything from oysters to alcohol.
But do any of these aphrodisiac foods actually work? We looked at the scientific evidence for and against 10 popular aphrodisiacs to find out whether there is a dish that can truly be called ‘the food of love’ – or whether these erotic eats are really just big plates of placebo.
Aphrodisiac food #1: Chocolate
Chocolate is often described as an aphrodisiac: both for its meltingly seductive texture and, some claim, for its chemical components. It’s certainly true that dark chocolate contains tryptophan, an amino acid that can help boost levels of serotonin (and thus elevate mood). It’s also true that it has phenylethylamine, a stimulant that helps produce so-called ‘’love drug‘’ dopamine, and thus can prompt the brain into feeling the euphoria associated with love.5
But does chocolate have enough of these chemicals to have a measurable effect on libido? The answer is probably not. In fact, researchers have theorized that an average-sized person would have to eat more than 11kg of chocolate at a time to make a difference!6 Chocolate is therefore more of a (delicious) placebo than a bona fide romance booster.
Is chocolate an aphrodisiac food? No, probably not.
Aphrodisiac food #2: Oysters
The slippery, suggestively-shaped oyster is one of the world’s most famous aphrodisiac foods. Those who believe in oysters’ libido-boosting prowess say that the carnal benefits of oysters are many – not only do they contain plenty of zinc (essential for healthy sperm production), an Italian/American study was widely reported to have found that the rare amino acids in bivalve mollusks like oysters can ‘’trigger increased levels of sex hormones.’’7
Yet, the often-cited study above actually looked at mussels rather oysters. Oysters are biologically similar, but their specific role as a genuine aphrodisiac is yet to be scientifically proven. Although they do indeed contain zinc and amino acid, and despite the fact that these are necessary for a healthy sex life, it's debateable whether oysters alone can do the trick!8
Are oysters an aphrodisiac food? Maybe – more proof is needed
Aphrodisiac food #3: Coffee
There are many, many, people who are well aware of coffee’s energizing effect on the body – particularly first thing in the morning! There’s a clear association with romance too: coffee dates are perennially popular and, in several parts of the world, it’s typical to finish a romantic meal off with coffee. But can coffee be considered one of the (liquid) aphrodisiac foods?
Surprisingly, preliminary studies suggest that yes, it can – at least if it’s the caffeinated kind. In a 2005 study, scientists gave female rats high and low doses of caffeine and observed that ‘’caffeine selectively increased visits to the male when physical contact was possible,’’ a result they say suggests that ‘’the effects of caffeine on female mating behavior may reflect an increase in both sexual motivation and locomotor activity.’’9
Is coffee an aphrodisiac food? Preliminary results say yes!
Aphrodisiac food #4: Vanilla
Anecdotal evidence says that vanilla is a sure-fire way to get attention – particularly from men. The actress Jennifer Love Hewitt has even gone on record to say that she wears vanilla extract (the kind you’d put in a cake) as perfume, and that men often tell her that she ‘’smells amazing.’’10 But does science say this is one of the aphrodisiac foods?
Alan R. Hirsch, M.D., F.A.C.P says yes. He ran a study where volunteers had their penile blood flow measured while also being subjected to various fragrances. The smell of vanilla increased blood flow by an average of 9%.11 Yet, his sample size was small, and it’s hard to say whether this effect was a result of the vanilla itself – or whether the home-baking scent of vanilla is simply one that many men associate with pleasant, affectionate, cuddly memories.
Is vanilla an aphrodisiac? Perhaps, if it triggers cozy memories
Aphrodisiac food #5: Pomegranate
In Greece, newlyweds are given a pomegranate as house-warming gift as the fruit is said to promote fecundity. Brides from Armenia would agree – an unusual wedding tradition from the country involves the bride hurling a pomegranate at a wall, attempting to scatter the seeds and enhance fertility. Even the original forbidden fruit of temptation from the Garden of Eden is thought by some to have been a pomegranate rather than the more traditional apple.12
Pomegranate is certainly tied closely to many myths about ripeness and richness, and some scientific studies suggest that there might be a reason for that. In 2007, a pilot study examined whether or not pomegranate juice could improve matters for men with ‘’mild to moderate erectile dysfunction’’ – men who drank the juice daily for 4 weeks did show improvement.13
Is pomegranate an aphrodisiac? Maybe: need more hard proof
Aphrodisiac food #6: Watermelon
Watermelon might be more closely associated with summer barbeques than with aphrodisiac food lists, but certain research may show that, in fact, it should be the opposite. Indeed, a study at Texas A&M University showed that, to some degree, watermelon can have an effect on the body that is similar to Viagra!
The university's Dr Bhimu Patil says that watermelon can have this effect due to the fact that is high in citrulline, an amino acid that is converted to arginine when consumed. And, as Dr Patil told Science Daily, ‘’arginine boosts nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels, the same basic effect that Viagra has.’’ He added, “watermelon may not be as organ specific as Viagra, but it’s a great way to relax blood vessels without any drug side-effects.”14
Is watermelon an aphrodisiac food? Yes, potentially!
Aphrodisiac food #7: Asparagus
Food writer Tori Avery says that asparagus has a long history as an aphrodisiac – not (just) because of its phallic shape! Indeed, she says, its been a feature of both the Karma Sutra and ancient Greek love poetry, while ‘’the French once dined on three meals of asparagus the day before their wedding in hopes of increasing their libido for the big night ahead.’’15
But does it have an aphrodisiac effect beyond the poetic? If the definition of an aphrodisiac is something that can give you stronger orgasms, then yes, asparagus might be able to help. This is because increased histamines can lead to a healthy sex life and better orgasms for both men and women –and asparagus is high in folic acid, which boosts histamine production.16 You may not see this result instantly – but upping your folic acid intake can help over time.
Is asparagus an aphrodisiac food? Yes, over time it might be!
Aphrodisiac food #8: Chilies
When you eat a hot chili pepper, the capsaicin (the active ingredient that makes spicy peppers spicy) causes a physical reaction that, once experienced, is hard to forget. Essentially, the fiery capsaicin triggers certain pain neurons, making the brain think that there is actually something burning the body and causing it to trigger reactions designed to cool things down.17
This means that, when someone eats a hot chili, chances are they'll sweat, their heart will beat faster, their blood vessels will widen (causing flushed cheeks and, perhaps, slightly swollen lips), and they'll get a surge of pain-numbing, euphoria-inducing endorphins. And this is where chili’s reputation as an aphrodisiac comes from – for the symptoms above closely mimic the symptoms of sexual arousal and, as such, can potentially trigger genuine arousal.18
Are chilies an aphrodisiac food? Yes, but remember, the burn can be felt all over, so it pays to be cautious!
Aphrodisiac food #9: Red Wine
Alcohol can potentially do more for libido than just lowering inhibition. In 2009, an Italian study suggested red wine can positively affect women’s sexual health. When those who regularly drank moderate amounts of red wine were compared to teetotalers, the wine drinkers were found to have higher scores for sexual desire, lubrication, and ‘’overall sexual function.’’19
Of course, moderation is key – anyone who has had a few too many will be able to relate to the truth of Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth, when he states that booze “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” Indeed, if you’re treating wine as one of the aphrodisiac foods, it’s best to err on the side of caution: as sexual health expert Dr Jennifer Berman told Buzzfeed, too much alcohol can actually dull sensations and inhibit orgasm.20
Is red wine an aphrodisiac food? Yes - but only in moderation!
Aphrodisiac food #10: Ginseng
There have been many studies that involve aphrodisiac foods. In 2011, Professor Massimo Marcone from the University of Guelph decided to do a detailed examination of them; discarding those that relied on anecdotal evidence, and narrowing the field of natural libido enhancers down until only those studied under ‘’the most stringent controls’’ were left.21
He and his team found that there were a few foods that could indeed improve ‘’human sexual function’’ – saffron, yohimbine (a chemical from a West African tree), and that staple of traditional Chinese medicine; ginseng. However, the studies did not mention how much ginseng one would need to consume to have an effect, so Professor Marcone did issue a caveat that, really, should apply to all aphrodisiac food claims: more clinical trials are needed.
Is ginseng an aphrodisiac food? Yes - but only potentially
Can aphrodisiac foods be a recipe for love?
So, with all the scientific analysis examined, can we say that aphrodisiacs work? And, if so, what are the best aphrodisiac foods?
It’s safe to say that aphrodisiac evidence is…inconclusive. We can probably rule out some contenders like chocolate, while other foods like oysters, vanilla, coffee and pomegranate need further study. Some studies do look promising, such as those for watermelon, asparagus, chilies, red wine and ginseng. However - and it’s a big however - even the most promising foods are not guaranteed aphrodisiacs.
For starters, the majority of these foods are not aphrodisiacs in the traditional sense – they don’t instantly raise libido and improve performance. The benefits, if any, mostly come from moderate, regular intake over time. Secondly, many of the claims are based on small-scale studies: it’s no sure thing that the results would be the same for everyone.
Finally (but perhaps most importantly), many of the highest-ranking aphrodisiac foods are fruits and vegetables. Yes, they might have ingredients that can enhance sexual health, but so do many other plant-based, 'healthy' foods. Perhaps the sensible conclusion then, is that the best libido-booster of all is to eat healthily and live an active lifestyle.
The power of the placebo
However, there is one final thing that, although more subjective than scientific, is nonetheless important when discussing aphrodisiacs, and that’s the power of the placebo.
It’s no coincidence that many of the foods commonly touted as aphrodisiacs have sensual connotations: chocolate has a way of silkily melting in the mouth, oysters and red wine are common indulgences on a romantic date night, ruby-ripe pomegranates have a long cultural history that is often linked to eroticism and fertility.
Essentially, if we are culturally conditioned to think of a food as ‘sexy,’ or if the luscious texture and scent make us feel sensuous while eating it, the placebo effect can kick in – by surrounding ourselves in a pleasure-focused environment we will actually start to feel more hedonistic. Much like wearing a silk negligee, or dining by candlelight, the aphrodisiac effect of food may be mostly in our minds: but if it makes us feel sexier, it might just do the trick.
Ultimately, of course, it’s not wise to trust that any one aphrodisiac food will get you in the mood. However, if you do want a boost in the bedroom, take the time to be more sensual and decadent – it may just have a positive effect on your desire for pleasure.