Gently poached shrimp in red curry over grains of fragrant, jasmine rice. Freshly shucked oysters served ocean-side with a glass of golden Sauternes. The meat of crushed cocoa pods steeped with flecks of chile and sweetened by sugar cane. Aphrodisiac foods were celebrated by the greatest cultures in recorded history. Today, modern science is proving the nutritional validity of foods historically regarded as aphrodisiac. So what is an aphrodisiac food? And why does the American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) say there is no such thing as a culinary aphrodisiac?
The FDA not just dismisses the belief but also in fact warns consumers against natural aphrodisiacs, maintaining that no over-the-counter product works to treat problems with sexual function. Of course, the FDA is trying to protect consumers from products like the manufactured packets labeled “Spanish Fly,” sold at the checkout counters of seedy convenience stores. But it also tends to define aphrodisiacs rather narrowly as only those products directly improving sexual hormone levels.
A groundbreaking discovery
It’s true that, until recent years, no controlled studies discovered any food that could make sexual hormones multiply like jackrabbits. However, a study completed in 2005 by a group of Italian and American scientists inadvertently discovered that a rare amino acid raised sexual hormone levels in rats. The study was investigating the amino acids of a Mediterranean variety of mussels. And the sexual health discovery was simply a sideline of the group’s true goals. So, unfortunately, no follow-up studies have endeavored to harness the Viagra-like potential of mussels and the other bivalves, (including oysters and clams), which contain this miracle amino. But I think it’s safe to say that this accidental discovery, without a doubt, shoot a few holes in the FDA’s story.
Immediate aphrodisiac impact
Despite the FDA’s cold shoulder toward foods of love, people around the world continue to define culinary delights as aphrodisiacs. Some foods earn their title for their ability to produce an immediate physiological effect on the body. Chile peppers, for instance, have been used as aphrodisiacs throughout the Americas and Asia. Chiles, as anyone who enjoys their sweet heat knows, raise body temperature and can even release endorphins. (They also bring a blush to the cheeks similar to a sexual flush.) Ginger, another warming spice, can make the eater’s tongue tingle with anticipation and lips plump to proportions that could meet any Angelina Jolie fantasy.
Alcohol is also considered aphrodisiac for its physiological effects. We all know what happens when the first sips of a drink hit the blood stream and the world becomes a warm and glowing place. Champagne is a particularly effective aphrodisiac. The delicious “pop” of a cork and the tickling of bubbles on the nose make the drink much more than an inhibition assistant. Life becomes a celebration with Champagne in the glass. The teasing notion in the back of the mind that the entire bottle really must be drunk (you really can’t save Champagne for another day), adds a feeling of indulgence to the act of drinking Champagne. But, of course, the aphrodisiac of alcohol must be administered in careful doses. As Shakespeare warned of the temptation of the bottle, ‘It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.’
The smell of success
Thanks to the work of two rather quirky figures in the world of science, we now know that the mere scents of some foods can evoke sexual arousal. In the late 1990’s, Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago completed a study in which food aromas caused sexual arousal in subjects in both waking and sleeping states. The most successful scent tested in the study to tempt men was a combination of pumpkin pie spice and lavender. For women, it was cucumbers and Good & Plenty candies. Other scents, such as glazed donut, buttered popcorn and vanilla also offered arousing results.
In a series of slightly less formal studies, the late Dr. Max Lake, an MD and vintner from Australia’s Hunter Valley, discovered similarities between the scents of certain foods and the aromas of human pheromones. In his book Scents and Sensuality, Dr. Lake describes the aromas of some Blanc de Blanc Champagnes, as well as ripe cheeses, as startlingly similar to female pheromones. He also discusses the aromatic similarity between truffles and the male pheromone androstenone. (Ever stop to ponder why truffle hunters employ female pigs? Those randy girls are after the scent of androstenone!)
The impact of appearance
Other foods are considered aphrodisiac for their appearance. This, I believe, is the weakest definer for declaring a food aphrodisiac. For example, I’ve heard a European belief from a previous century that strawberries are aphrodisiac for their resemblance to a woman’s nipples. This rumor was clearly started during a time period in which nudity was frowned upon, because I’ve looked in the mirror and can assure you that there is absolutely no resemblance.
The same goes for phallic foods. If size matters, why would any man want to compare his anatomy to a stalk of asparagus?
Why you need nutrition
It is my belief that foods with nutritional content essential for sexual health were, in previous centuries, often explained by appearance since the science of the times did not allow for nutritional analysis. Celery, for example, another one of those rather thin phallic foods, contains natural plant estrogens.
In fact, if you look at the nutritional makeup of most foods celebrated as aphrodisiacs throughout the course of history, you will find ingredients rich with vitamins and nutrients essential to a healthy libido. We now know that oysters, the most clichéd of all aphrodisiac foods, contain that aforementioned amino acid promising to raise sexual hormone levels. But oysters are also an excellent and easily digestible source of zinc, an ingredient that promotes blood flow to the body’s every region.
Oysters are not the only food to get your blood pumping. Almonds, eggs, pumpkin seeds and shrimp are also aphrodisiac foods serving up your daily dose of zinc. Other nutrients that work to embellish your sexual self include–but are not limited to–vitamin C, iodine, Omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium.
Many ingredients are considered aphrodisiacs because of their ability to provide sustained energy. Lean proteins like wild boar, fish and fowl give the body energy for an all night pas de deux. Foods with natural sugars and caffeine can give the body a surge of energy when it is needed most. (This explains the aphrodisiac reputation of decidedly un-sexy ingredients like yams and beets.). Imagine honey drizzled across warm flesh or fragrant coffee served in bed on a cold morning, which tends to rouse more than a lover’s tousled head.
As we learn more about brain chemistry and its impact on the games of love, we will likely discover more reasons to toss out the prescription pad and write a grocery list. We now know that certain foods can trigger chemical reactions in the brain to send a flood of happy hormones through the body. (You may have heard that chocolate can create such euphoric effects. Unfortunately, you would have to eat a diabetic coma-inducing quantity of chocolate in one sitting in order to ingest enough of the needed compounds. Sad, but true). But more and more secrets of the brain are unlocked through the miracles of modern science. And it is very likely that we will discover a dazzling array of foods with abilities to balance mood, invoke romance and trigger sexual desire.
In the meantime, however, we must swallow the bitter pill of the FDA and, at least from a marketing perspective, deny foods their aphrodisiac allure. I look forward to the day when the American government comes to a less simple minded understanding of the relationship between food and romance. After all, wouldn’t you rather sit down to a dazzling dinner than pop the blue pill?
The pleasures of romance
That being said, I believe romance is the key to the success of aphrodisiacs, not a a prescription checklist. For a romantic meal to achieve the desired results, the experience of sharing it must be an act of pleasure. When planning a meal of seduction, I recommend carefully contemplating not just a menu of aphrodisiac ingredients but elements of indulgence, surprise and even downright daring. After all, as Dr. Ruth Westheimer famously quipped, “The most important sex organ lies between the ears.”