\Everyone wants to be loved. The desire to be loved and to love is as timeless as the phrase “is as timeless as”. It comes as no surprise then that one constant in the human spirit’s relentless search for knowledge has been the quest for those potions and lotions that will increase sexual desire and performance. Food has been at the forefront of this sexual safari, largely because it is so accessible and partly because it is so sensual.
So eager have we and our ancestors been to stoke the fires of passion that we have been willing to consume just about anything to fan the flames of desire. However, among the panoply of touted aphrodisiacs and love enhancers over the centuries, there have been some howling frauds so let us see what we can safely ignore and what might actually be of some use.
The chemistry of desire
The first thing to be clear about in the pursuit of aphrodisiacs is that there are two levels to desire: the mental arousal that creates the scenario for interest in another and the physical arousal that, hopefully, follows.
On a physical level, desire begins when a sight, smell or sound causes signals to be sent from the limbic system of the brain via the nervous system to the pelvic region. These signals tell the blood vessels to dilate. This dilation creates an erection in both men and women. For women, the erectile tissues are found in the clitoris and the region around the vaginal entrance while in men they are found in the penis. After allowing a literal rush of blood, the vessels then close so that those erectile tissues stay erect. This erection is accompanied by a rapid heart rate. At the same time, your brain is releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that tell your body that this is a good and pleasurable thing to be happening.
That is what happens when you are aroused but the burning (almost literally) question is: are there foods that will stimulate that arousal?
Foods and feelings
The only way to tackle the issue of aphrodisiac foods is one at a time, so here we go.
Why is a glass of wine a part of every romantic scene Hollywood ever screens? Is it because wine or alcohol is an aphrodisiac? If we could rely on the evidence of filmmakers in the 1940s and 1950s, apparently bathing in the plume of someone else’s exhaled smoke from a close-by cigarette, then smoking was also an aphrodisiac. Maybe Hollywood shouldn’t be our guiding light in health matters but filmmakers do reflect the world around them and there is something to alcohol being a sexual facilitator.
At the level of one to two standard drinks, alcohol will inhibit the parts of the brain that normally restrain behaviour. This could help an anxious would-be lover to free themselves from the shackles of restraint and allow love to flower. However, once you get to the level of three to four standard drinks, that disinhibition tips over into lack of coherence and, beyond that, you get issues of balance and co-ordination. A gibbering, slurring mess who has just tripped over their own feet is hardly going to be the object of someone’s desire, or be able to feel their own desire at that.
At the very beginning then, at that first glass or two, alcohol might help things along but beyond that, it becomes a hindrance.
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that you could increase desire by sucking on anise seeds. Aniseed does contain a compound called anethole, which acts like oestrogen in the body and might be behind its reputation as a stimulator of sex drive.
According to an Italian study (published in the Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics), women who eat an apple a day have better lubrication and sexual function and more enhanced sexual pleasure. Maybe Eve knew what she was doing.
In 19th-century France, bridegrooms were required to eat several courses consisting of asparagus, asparagus and more asparagus because of its reputed powers to arouse. There are no prizes for guessing why asparagus is associated with sexuality, especially that of a male. The phallic shape of this innocent and well-meaning vegetable is at the root of its reputation but it does have some general health benefits, too, that can support your sexuality as you age.
According to the “Doctrine of Signatures”, a theory that was popular in the 16th century, the appearance of a food suggests what part of the body it will affect. So, according to the theory, since asparagus resembles a penis (although you would hope not too exactly), then it is thought to aid your sexuality. We now know that asparagus is rich in calcium, vitamin E, phosphorus and potassium, all supporting endurance and the production of sex hormones. Vitamin E in particular is important for sex hormone production.
Research also tells us that asparagus is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It contains many anti-inflammatory nutrients including saponins, quercetin and rutin. On top of this, it provides the antioxidants vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E and the minerals zinc, manganese and selenium. Asparagus also contains a useful amount of the antioxidant glutathione (GSH). The amount of GSH in fresh asparagus is estimated to average 28 milligrams per 100 grams.
All in all, a healthy food but only really an aphrodisiac for those who see shape as function.
In Aztec society, virginal young girls were forbidden to wander among the avocado groves at harvest time. The avocado tree was called “testicle tree” by the Aztecs because its fruit hangs in pairs on the tree, resembling the male testicles. Its reputed aphrodisiac value is based on this resemblance but, although avocadoes are a healthy food, the capacity ends there.
Much like asparagus, the phallic shape of the banana has earned it a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Beyond its shape, though, bananas are rich in potassium and B vitamins, which are involved in sex hormone production, but there is much more to bananas besides that.
Even though bananas are a fruit that tastes quite sweet when ripe, they actually have a low-GI (glycaemic index) value. This is because a medium-size banana contains about 3g total fibre. Fibre regulates the speed of digestion and slows the release of simple sugars from foods. Some of the fibre in bananas is pectin and some of its components are water-soluble while others are not. As bananas ripen, the level of water-soluble pectin increases and this increase is one of the key reasons why bananas become softer in texture as they ripen.
Bananas also contain fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which help maintain the balance of friendly bacteria in your lower intestine. Regular banana consumption can lead to a significant increase in beneficial Bifidobacteria in the digestive tract.
Sexual vitality is partly about physical performance and the unique mix of vitamins, minerals and low-GI carbohydrates in bananas has made them a favourite fruit among endurance athletes. One study of distance cyclists found that eating the equivalent of half a banana every 15 minutes of a three-hour race was just as good at keeping energy levels steady as drinking an equivalent amount of carbohydrate and minerals from a processed sports drink. Bananas have long been valued by athletes for prevention of muscle cramps. They are a good source of potassium and low potassium levels are known to contribute to muscle cramps. So, the healthy endurance boost you get from bananas might be good for your sex life — in the long run.
For centuries, it was believed that basil stimulates sex drive and boosts fertility, as well as producing a general sense of wellbeing. The scent of basil was said to drive men so wild that women would dust their breasts with dried and powdered basil (the added benefit of this approach is that if no passion is generated, you at least have the basis of a nice pesto!). Probably best not to rely on this otherwise excellent herb for your boudoir boost.
Including beetroot in your diet can not only help improve your health but can help boost your sex drive, too. Studies have found that this root vegetable is high in nitrates, which help improve circulation and blood flow to the genitals, promoting firmer, longer erections. Beetroot can be beneficial for boosting libido and improving sexual dysfunction. Consuming beetroot can also help reduce high blood pressure, which can also have a positive effect on the libido. Drinking vegetable juice with beetroot is a great way to reap its libido-boosting benefits.
The phallus-shaped carrot has been associated with sexual stimulation since ancient times and was used by early Middle Eastern royalty to aid seduction. It is more about shape than substance with the carrot, however, as worthy a vegetable as it is (and remember, carrots were once purple).
Eating celery can increase the production of pheromone androsterone, which is a natural aphrodisiac found in male perspiration. Celery also contains chemicals that can help dilate blood vessels, increase sex drive and enhance climax. Try a vegie juice with celery or snack on this sex-boosting vegie with hummus or almond butter.
The sexual reputation of chilli comes from a few factors. The deep-red colour of many types of chilli pepper suggests their association with love and passion — in many cultures the colour red is linked to these emotions. The fiery, heated nature of the fruit also gives it “naughty” connotations and erotic associations. On top of all these apparent things, chilli peppers do contain concentrated quantities of the chemical capsaicin, which, when consumed, increases heart rate, induces sweating and increases the sensitivity of nerve endings, which is all very reminiscent of physical reactions experienced during sexual arousal. Furthermore, it stimulates the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that provide a feeling of a natural high, which are also generally released during sexual intercourse.
The other thing about chilli is that it does support general health and so supports sexuality. Chilli is an excellent source of carotenoids, volatile oils, vitamins B, C, D, E and K, manganese and dietary fibre. It is also an antioxidant due to its high content of beta-carotene.
Chilli is also a general stimulant. It stimulates circulation and it boosts metabolism. Of course, a lot of your sexual vitality revolves around your self-image and if you are carrying extra weight, your self-perception may suffer, which can follow onto your sex life. There is evidence that chillies also contain an ingredient that can help you lose weight. That component is dihydrocapsiate (DCT) and it is found in hot chillies, although it is not the element that gives chillies their heat. In one study, people were put on a controlled-kilojoule diet for a month. They were divided into three groups and either given a high-dose DCT capsule, a medium-dose DCT capsule or a placebo. After eating a high-protein meal, those given the high-dose DCT burned twice as many kilojoules as those given the placebo. Additionally, fat oxidation increased significantly, indicating that more fat was being burned.
As a generally healthy food, providing you can stand the heat, chillies will be a useful way to support your sexuality as you age. A word of caution: do not attempt to use chillies in any sort of topical way to boost sexuality — the results could be painful.
Chocolate has forever been associated with love and romance. The Mayan civilisation of Central America worshipped the cacao tree and called it “food of the gods”. When the Spaniards encountered the Aztec civilisation, the Aztec ruler Montezuma drank 50 goblets of chocolate (cacahuatl) each day, reportedly to enhance his sexual abilities.
Analysis has found that chocolate contains phenylethylamine and raises serotonin levels, which is partly why it has a “feel-good” effect. Chocolate also contains substances that have the same effect on the brain as marijuana. The substance is a neurotransmitter called anandamide, which binds to the same receptors in your brain that your natural endorphins normally occupy. The amount of anandamide in chocolate is not enough to get a person “high” like marijuana does, but it could be enough to add to the good feelings that serotonin and phenylethylamine produce. All of this does not necessarily mean that chocolate will increase desire but if it makes you feel good enough, it might lower your inhibitions so that you are more receptive to certain suggestions.
One thing that chocolate does do, however, is melt at the temperature of the human tongue. That makes for a sweetly sensuous mouthfeel experience that, if conditions are right, could ignite the fires.
According to a study at The University of Queensland’s school of medicine, the fenugreek spice can apparently liven up a lot more than a curry. Researchers found that men who consume fenugreek regularly can experience a boost in sex drive, by as much as 25 per cent. However, the men in this study took an extract so whether eating fenugreek as a food has the same effect remains open to debate. Fenugreek contains active compounds called saponins, which help regulate hormones and increase testosterone levels. Testosterone levels commonly decrease in men with age. Fenugreek is a common ingredient in curry powder, Asian sauces, chutneys and other condiments. Its seeds can also be sprouted to use on salads and sandwiches. The key here is regular consumption; don’t nibble on fenugreek or dine daily on curries and expect instant ecstasy.
Figs are another fruit that claim aphrodisiac qualities based on their appearance. An open fig is thought to look similar to female sex organs but that’s about as far as a fig’s genuine aphrodisiac effects go.
In ancient China, people used liquorice to enhance love and lust. The smell appears to be particularly stimulating. Dr Alan Hirsch, neurological director of the Smell & Taste Research Foundation in Chicago, conducted a study that looked at how different smells stimulate sexual arousal. He found that the smell of black liquorice increases the blood flow to the penis by 13 per cent. When combined with the smell of doughnuts, that jumped to 32 per cent.
Mind you, Hirsch’s research also found that the smell of pumpkin pie stimulated blood flow to the genitals, which raises the question of how specific his findings are to the American context.
In ancient China, women prized nutmeg as an aphrodisiac and researchers have found it to increase mating behaviours in mice. There is no evidence to prove the same happens in humans but we do know that, in high quantities, nutmeg can have a hallucinogenic effect.
Oysters have been thought to be an aphrodisiac for a long time now. The Romans documented oysters as aphrodisiacs in the second-century AD. Many centuries later, one of the preferred forms of seduction by renowned womaniser Casanova was reportedly to slip an oyster from his mouth into the mouth of his prospective lover while kissing. Whether you find it erotic to have someone slipping something into your mouth with the consistency of a bolus of mucus is a highly individual thing but, nutritionally, there is evidence that oysters could be a useful sexuality food.
For instance, oysters contain D-aspartic acid and NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate), both of which may be effective in raising levels of the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen. Whether there is enough of either of these compounds in oysters to make any difference has yet to be proven.
The real sexual punch of oysters is their zinc content. Zinc is essential for hormonal activity, reproductive health and has been associated with improving sexual potency in men. Oysters provide the highest concentration of zinc of any food, more than 33mg per 100g. Oysters are also an exceptionally good source of vitamin B12 and the trace minerals copper, iron and selenium. A 100g serving of oysters contains approximately 14g of protein, 105mg of cholesterol and 4.9g of fat, with good levels of omega-3 fatty acids (536mg of EPA and 584mg of DHA).
As with so many of these foods, it’s all about reputation and long-term health benefits.
People have been using pine nuts to stimulate the libido for centuries. Like oysters, they too are high in zinc. The famed medical scholar Galen recommended eating 100 pine nuts before going to bed. Other than being a nutritious and tasty snack, not much supports them as an aphrodisiac.
Pomegranate symbolised the love goddess Aphrodite in ancient Greece and the powerful antioxidant flesh of this fruit is gaining a reputation as an overall tonic. There is, however, some evidence that pomegranate does have specific benefits for sexuality. A study published in the International Journal of Impotence Research found that four weeks of drinking pomegranate juice improved erections in men with mild to moderate erectile dysfunction.
A compound found only in pomegranates called punicalagin is also shown to benefit the heart and blood vessels. Punicalagin not only lowers cholesterol, but also lowers blood pressure and reduces plaque build-up in arteries.
Truffles are not readily available in Australia and New Zealand but they deserve mention here if for no other reason than a memorable quote from Europe’s great 19th-century lawyer, politician and gourmet Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who said, “Truffle. As soon as the word is spoken, it awakens lustful and erotic memories among the skirt-wearing sex and erotic and lustful memories among the beard-wearing sex. This honourable parallelism comes not only from the fact that this esteemed tuber is delicious, but also because it is still believed to bring about potency, the exercise of which brings sweet pleasure.”
Truffles are technically fungi but their symbiotic relationship with certain tree roots means they are only found in a handful of places around the world. Truffles derive their aphrodisiac status in part from their rarity, expense and connotations of luxury. However, the real story is that truffles emit a pheromone from male boars, which is why truffle hunters employ the aid of amorous sows to eagerly nose out and dig up the tubers. The same pheromone that is such a turn-on to sows is found in the sweat of human males, which may explain why we’re so drawn to truffles’ musky, earthy aroma and flavour.
Nutritionally, truffles are not outstanding but they are certainly adequate and do not contain any bad elements. A 100g serve of truffles provides around 5.6g of protein, 6.5g of fibre and trace amounts of vitamins B5, B3 and B2. The real aphrodisiac effect of truffles is in the overall experience and enjoyment that they offer. Enjoying your food without consuming harmful substances is the essence of good living and a healthy sexuality arises out of that well-lived life.
The only really immediate aphrodisiac effect from food is a mental one, with the possible exception of alcohol, which, at the moderate level of one to two drinks, may diminish inhibitions enough to allow social conventions to slip away and unbridled passions to take their place. Most “aphrodisiac” foods are long-term health boosters that may raise the factors underpinning healthy sexuality. As far as immediate effects go, however, they are mostly in the mind.