By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 2 June 2009)
Do foods with aphrodisiac properties really exist? Researchers have investigated this question, with surprising results.
There are a number of foods that have traditionally been granted aphrodisiac status such as chocolate, oysters, and certain fruits and vegetables, but research suggests that those who want to please their partners should probably do some good old-fashioned baking. Here is the science behind some popular (and not so well-known) aphrodisiac foods.
In addition to its appealing smell and taste, chocolate achieved aphrodisiac status due to its pleasing combination of stimulants such as caffeine and theobromine, sugar, tryptophan (also found in turkey and milk), and phenylethylamine.
Because tryptophan is a building block of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which soothes pain and enhances pleasure, and phenylethylamine is a substance released by the brain upon falling in love, many have attributed chocolate’s erotic powers to these substances. But this is unlikely, given that the amounts of these ingredients in chocolate are extremely small. Chocolate’s arousing effects are more likely attributable to its stimulant properties, which can also be achieved by drinking a cup of caffeinated tea without risk of weight gain.
Due to their texture and appearance, oysters have long been associated with eroticism, but if oysters do have aphrodisiac properties, this is probably attributable to their high zinc content. Both delayed sexual development and impotence can be caused by zinc deficiency, and zinc-deficient men who take supplements can achieve increased sexual prowess. However, there is no evidence that gobbling oysters will have the same effect on individuals who are not zinc-deficient.
For those who don’t like oysters, other natural sources of zinc include:
- Red and white meat
- Seafood such as crab, lobster, flounder, and sole
- Fortified cereals
- Cashews and almonds
- Dairy products
Fruits and Vegetables
A number of fruits and vegetables have attained the vaunted aphrodisiac status due to their appearance, with suggestively shaped berries and various phallic vegetables such as asparagus being given the classification. But fruits and vegetables may deserve their reputation as arousing foods for other reasons. Research indicates that the best way to ensure a healthy sex drive is to eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh produce.
Spanish Fly, made from crushed beetles, does not promote arousal. Instead, it causes an irritating, itching sensation and is quite toxic, carrying the risk of burns to the throat, permanent genital and kidney damage, and even death. Spanish Fly is illegal in North America, and although products are often sold carrying the Spanish Fly label, they are usually just cayenne pepper capsules or something similar.
Recent Aphrodisiac Food Studies
Most aphrodisiacs work through the power of suggestion. A person given a food that he or she believes is an aphrodisiac is likely to experience arousal as a result. But research indicates that there are a few foods that may actually generate measurable sexual arousal.
During various studies conducted at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, subjects were exposed to food aromas and their level of arousal was determined by measuring blood flow to participants’ genitalia. Surprisingly, the aroma most arousing to men was found to be pumpkin pie, particularly when combined with lavender. Other aphrodisiac scents for men included:
- Doughnuts (especially when combined with pumpkin pie or lavender)
- Black licorice
- Lily of the Valley
- Buttered popcorn
- Cheese pizza
- Cinnamon buns
Aromas that acted as aphrodisiacs for women included:
- Baby powder
- Pumpkin pie and lavender
- A combination of candy and cucumber
- Banana nut bread
Oddly enough, female arousal was actually decreased by the scent of men’s colognes, barbecued meat, and cherries.
It should be noted that sample sizes for the studies were relatively small, so results may not reflect responses in the general population. Also, because the researchers chose which aromas to expose their subjects to, it’s possible that many arousing scents were not included in the study.
While it has been traditionally believed that hot, savoury spices such as chillies are aphrodisiacs, overall, it is the sweet-spicy and comfort-food and aromas that have been found to act as aphrodisiacs, likely because of their ability to reduce anxiety. It’s also possible that subjects in the Chicago studies had associated certain foods with positive romantic experiences in the past.
Despite the limitations of the Chicago studies, there may be something to the pumpkin pie effect. Other researchers have found that nutmeg and cloves, common spices used in pumpkin pie and other sweet and spicy baked goods, increase sexual behaviour in mice. But those interested in taking these spices as a romantic aid should be aware that they can be toxic at higher doses. The relatively small amounts in baked goods are fine, but sitting down with a spice jar and a large spoon is not recommended.
Foods for a Romantic Evening
For more food and drink articles, see the main Nutrition and Food page.
- National Institutes of Health – Office of Dietary Supplements. (n.d.). “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Zinc.” ODS.OD.NIH.gov.
- O’Connor, A. (2007). Never Shower in a Thunderstorm: Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths About Our Health and the World We Live In. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
- Silverberg, C. (25 November 2008). “Sex and Thanksgiving: Pumpkin Pie May Trigger Sexual Arousal in Men.” About.com.
- Tajuddin; Ahmad, S.; Latif, A.; & Qasmi, I.A. (2003). “Aphrodisiac Activity of 50% Ethanolic Extracts of Myristica fragrans Houtt. (nutmeg) and Syzygium aromaticum (L) Merr. & Perry. (clove) in Male Mice: A Comparative Study.” BMC Compementary and Alternative Medicine, 3(6). PubMedCentral.NIH.gov.
- WebMD.com (8 July 2008). “Frequently Asked Questions About Sex and Relationships.”