About Aphrodisiacs

Once upon a time, I hosted a blog on which a modest cadre of columnists wrote about sex and sexuality.  The focal point of the blog was an advice column, but we also posted personal narratives, links to resources, polls, and so on.  My interest in food scholarship was just stirring at the time, which prompted a post on aphrodisiacs – half research and half rumination, since most science on the topic is inconclusive.

That blog now lives strictly in the twilight world of the Wayback Machine, but I thought I’d repurpose the aphrodisiac post in time for Valentine’s Day.

If you search the library database for scholarly research on aphrodisiacs, you’ll likely learn a lot about the turn-ons of fruit flies and butterflies.  Human sexual desire is a bit more… intricate, and so much of desire takes place in the imagination.  (As we often noted on the erstwhile sex blog: the largest sexual organ is the brain.)  Perhaps it’s not surprising then that the aphrodisiac reputation of certain foods is more a matter of culture than science: no foods have yet been proven to have a measurable effect on arousal or libido, and only a few of the foods traditionally considered aphrodisiac have even a tenuous effect.  For example:

  • Oysters are high in zinc, which stimulates blood flow.  Beyond that, the sexual connotation is largely sensory (salty, slippery… yeah).
  • Ginger, chilies, and other spicy foods can may the lips tingle and raise the body’s temperature, which feels like arousal.
  • Everyone has heard that chocolate contains serotonin, a chemical associated with pleasure – including but not only sexual pleasure.  But chocolate does not actually contain enough of this to cause a change in the body’s chemistry.  (Cheese does, though.)
  • For a little more info, enjoy this 2006 National Geographic article.  Apparently that’s the last time a considerable study on this subject was released; the research is also referenced in Men’s Health, US News, and Jane in the same year.

So much for science.  Instead, foods with aphrodisiac connotations tend to depend on resemblance and cultural associations.  Honey is often associated with sex and love, as are many sweets.  Chocolate has been considered a love drink forever, far longer than its tenuous link to pleasure biochemistry has been known.  Asparagus, pomegranates, and figs can all be accused of reminding eaters of various organs.  On the more… savory… end of the spectrum, eating the penises of various quadrupeds (bulls, horses) is said to transmit virility to the (presumably male) eater.  Garlic has been used in all kinds of cures, not just aphrodisiacs, though its reputation of “inflaming the passions” might be ascribed to its spiciness.

It’s interesting to contrast the qualities of foods that are associated with sex and romance.  The Official Foods of Valentine’s Day tend to be sweet, very sweet, but most of the sexy foods I’ve encountered in life and literature are savory or spicy.  I recently read a novel, White Truffles in Winter, in which the titular saprophytes are strongly associated with romance and sexuality: whether shaved to garnish a dish or infused in cream, truffles add an earthy, savory depth to nearly every dish that the main character cooks for the women he loves.  (Interestingly, truffles produce a compound very similar to a sex pheromone found in boar saliva, which is why sows are often used to locate them.  There’s your biochemistry!  No word on whether boar saliva also turns on humans.)  For another example, my friend who recently graduated baking school makes a kind of bread that she calls “love cake”; it’s a doughy, yeasty, extremely buttery bread that her class agreed would make anyone fall in love with its baker.  It is melty, and both sweet and savory at once due to the butter; basically, it makes a great metaphor for love.

I’d be interested to hear other examples of foods with aphrodisiac associations, whether embraced culturally or encountered individually.

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