What is an aphrodisiac food? Is it gently poached shrimp in red curry over grains of fragrant, jasmine rice? Would freshly shucked oysters served ocean-side with a glass of rosé wine work? Or what about the meat of crushed cocoa pods steeped with flecks of chile and sweetened by sugar cane?
Aphrodisiac foods are foods celebrated by the greatest cultures in recorded history. And thanks to modern science, we’re now able to clearly understand the impact of foods on your sex life. But what does aphrodisiac mean? By the dictionary definition, aphrodisiac foods meaning is ingredients that increase sexual desire and/or performance. But the meaning of aphrodisiac food is actually a little more complicated than what a dictionary entry can explain.
So what are aphrodisiacs? And why does the American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) say there is no such thing as “romance food?”
The FDA not only dismisses the existence of aphrodisiac foods but also warns consumers against natural aphrodisiacs. The organization maintains that no over-the-counter product, including food, works to benefit sexual function. This is mainly to keep consumers safe from manufactured pills and powders claiming to increase sexual performance, but making such a cut-and-dry definition of aphrodisiac really does more to confuse the issue than to help us understand the role of food in romance. And if you look at aphrodisiac effects in history, you’ll see that there are many ways to define the meaning of aphrodisiac foods.
A science-backed link between food and sex
Unfortunately, scientific studies on aphrodisiac foods are few and far between. A study completed in 2005 and presented to the American Chemical Society changed things. This study inadvertently discovered that rare amino acids found in shellfish raised sexual hormone levels in rats.
The scientists didn’t set out to find a potentially potent aphrodisiac. And yet, that’s the exact result they got. The study was investigating the amino acids, D-aspartic acid and N-methyl D-aspartic acid, in 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 other aphrodisiac seafood, (including oysters and clams), which contain these miracle aminos. It certainly does imply that these seafoods have the potential to be powerful aphrodisiacs. In conclusion, I think it’s safe to say that this accidental discovery makes a great argument for taking a closer look at the potential of aphrodisiac foods.
The best way to understand aphrodisiacs is to take a look at these foods’ roles in history. According to cultural anthropologist Marilyn Ekdahl Raviez, the origin of aphrodisiacs predates recorded history. The use of aphrodisiacs has existed in a nebulous zone between culinary and medicinal for centuries. Today we’ve replaced most culinary aphrodisiacs with medicines, both over the counter and prescribed, to the detriment of our overall health, not to mention fun.
Aphrodisiac use in both the West and East
The word aphrodisiac stems from the name of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. However, the use of aphrodisiacs in history was not limited to Western cultures. The use of historical aphrodisiacs was and still is, practiced in the East for centuries as well.
One of the most interesting facts about cultures before our time that used aphrodisiacs was that people in those times frequently didn’t have enough food. Aphrodisiac ingredients like honey or saffron or wine could be scarce. Therefore it wasn’t likely that people were going to waste these precious foods on a fanciful idea that they might improve sexual desire or fertility. They obviously noticed the effectiveness of these foods to hold them in esteem as culinary aphrodisiacs.
According to Temptations by Ellen and Michael Albertson, in modern culture, we all eat aphrodisiacs every day. The problem isn’t with getting aphrodisiacs into our diet, it’s with being mindful of what we consume and making the right choice for both culinary pleasure and increased pleasure in the bedroom.
A better definition of aphrodisiac foods
In order to bring about greater awareness of how aphrodisiacs work, I think we need to broaden the aphrodisiac definition offered by the FDA. After all, there are still people all over the world – medical professionals among them – who believe in and recommend food as an aphrodisiac. But there are many reasons why foods are classified as aphrodisiacs. Some are more effective than others in my opinion. But if you want to start to use natural aphrodisiacs effectively, it’s important to examine all the possibilities.
Some foods earn an aphrodisiac title for their ability to produce an immediate physiological effect on the body. Chile peppers, for instance, have been used as an aphrodisiac food throughout the Americas and Asia. Chiles, as anyone who enjoys their sweet heat knows, raise body temperature and can even bring about a release of endorphins. (They also bring a blush to the cheeks similar to a sexual flush.)
Ginger, another warming spice, can stimulate the senses in a similar, although more subtle way than chiles. This exotic spice can make the eater’s tongue tingle with anticipation. It can also make the lips temporarily swell and plump to proportions that will feed any Angelina Jolie fantasy.
Although it’s not a food, alcohol is also considered an aphrodisiac for its physiological effects. We all know what happens when the first sips of a drink hit the bloodstream 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. Some say it increases sexual desire.
Life becomes a celebration with Champagne in the glass. There’s a teasing notion in the back of the mind that the entire bottle really must be drunk. (Champagne may lose its fizz if you try to save it). This adds a notion of indulgence to the act of drinking Champagne.
But, of course, the aphrodisiac of alcohol should only be used in moderation. As Shakespeare warned of the temptation of the bottle, ‘It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.’
And alcohol is not the only thing on the list of aphrodisiac drinks. If you’re a coffee drinker, here are a few things you’ll want to know about this powerful stimulant and its connection to sexual desire.
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 play a role in increasing sexual desire. In the late 1990s, 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 donuts, 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!)
There are foods considered aphrodisiacs based on appearance. But I don’t necessarily think that when you ask “What are aphrodisiacs?” the best answer is something that looks like a part of the human anatomy.
For example, I’ve heard a European belief from the previous century that strawberries are aphrodisiacs 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.
This game of how not to define an aphrodisiac food goes for phallic foods as far as I’m concerned. If size matters, why would any man want to compare his anatomy to a stalk of asparagus?
What’s interesting about foods labeled aphrodisiacs because of their appearance are almost always foods high in a nutrient or compound important to maintaining optimal sexual health. Celery, for example, another one of those rather thin phallic foods, is an important aphrodisiac largely because it contains natural plant estrogens. And those strawberries said to resemble women’s nipples? Well, their nutrition ranks them on the list of the 10 Best Foods for Women’s Sexual Health.
In fact, if you look at the nutritional makeup of the best aphrodisiac foods 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.
Which natural aphrodisiac foods are most likely to impact your sex life?
Oysters are not the only food to get your blood pumping with zinc. Almonds, eggs, pumpkin seeds and shrimp are also aphrodisiac foods serving up your daily dose of zinc. And all of these are historically foods that are aphrodisiacs. Other nutrients important to sexual health that are frequently found in aphrodisiac foods include – but are not limited to – vitamin C, vitamin E, iodine, Omega-3 fatty acids and manganese. (Before changing your intake of any of these vitamins and minerals to support sexual health, check with a medical professional.)
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 dance of love. 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.
Picture honey drizzled across warm flesh. Or imagine fragrant coffee served in bed on a cold morning, which tends to rouse more than a lover’s tousled head.
When discussing what foods are aphrodisiacs, there’s one more effect we have to consider. 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. Instead, we’ll be writing a good 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 aphrodisiac chocolate can create such euphoric effects.
Chocolate contains a neurotransmitter called phenylethylamine that is associated with feelings of amorous love and excitement. (It is also involved in stimulating the brain during orgasm.) In fact, it contains more phenylethylamine than any other natural food. However, it is believed that most of the phenylethylamine is metabolized before your body actually uses it.
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 as aphrodisiacs with the ability to balance mood. Not to mention invoke romance and trigger sexual desire and help us to better define aphrodisiacs.
The role of romance
All of these elements, including nutrition, appearance and brain chemistry play a role in the definition of aphrodisiac foods. That doesn’t mean any one of those elements is going to make a natural aphrodisiac successful.
You can certainly modify your diet with certain ingredients considered an aphrodisiac because they offer key nutrition to support your sexual health. A well-balanced diet can make a huge improvement in sexual desire and performance for many individuals who struggle with these challenges. But if you want to make aphrodisiacs work for you in games of love, the true key to success is romance.
Don’t try to drill it down to a 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, don’t just showcase all the powerful aphrodisiacs in the kitchen.
Think about possible elements you can add to create an experience of indulgence, surprise and even downright daring. This is how you create the most successful aphrodisiac meals. Find ways to show that you’re thinking about the other person. Yes, serve aphrodisiacs but think about the types of aphrodisiacs your lover, or potential lover will like. Don’t serve a table full of food, serve them a feeling. After all, as Dr. Ruth Westheimer famously quipped, “The most important sex organ lies between the ears.”
Now that we have a better understanding of food as an aphrodisiac, it’s time to talk about what is a good aphrodisiac with my aphrodisiac list.
This article was most recently updated in March 2021.
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