As long as there has been sex, there have been people trying just about anything to make it better. This includes putting faith in foods to jumpstart libido, improve erections, increase stamina, and generally make sex better. Aphrodisiac foods, named for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, have a long and fascinating history. They include some undeniably sexy items, like chocolate and honey, but also some strange ones like Spanish Fly, a purported love potion made from crushed "blister beetles" – aptly named because merely touching them can cause blisters. For the person who wants to dabble in aphrodisiacs, science will not give much guidance, so the best policy is to stick to foods that people consume on a regular basis. Go too far down the exotic path and aphrodisiac use can be more treacherous than titillating.
Every Valentine's Day for the last decade Dr. Dolores J. Lamb, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, has put on a very special luncheon in her lab. For this meal, the lab members, whose work focuses on male reproduction and infertility, each contribute dishes featuring aphrodisiacs as ingredients. As part of the tradition, prizes are handed out for best tasting dish and the one that uses the most aphrodisiac ingredients. Past recipes have included lavender lemon bars, tamales, and fruit salad.
It's quite the delicious competition but Lamb says it's purely done for fun. "The medical, scientific evidence for most of this is truly quite lacking," says Lamb. "If we could invent the pill for sexual motivation, we'd probably be richer than Pfizer." Aside from being a cute way to celebrate the holiday of love, Lamb says the luncheon encourages the participants to learn about aphrodisiacs, be creative, and foster some good-natured competitive spirit.
For a more serious examination of aphrodisiacs, there is some reasoning behind the designation of these sexy foods that largely falls into three categories. The first of these is shape. Certain foods may elicit sexual thoughts through visual suggestion. Bananas and oysters, each reminiscent of sexual organs, are examples of this type of aphrodisiac. The second category — which includes peaches and avocado — is aphrodisiacs that are associated with sex based on texture. Lastly, there are the aphrodisiacs that cause enhanced bodily sensations, like spicy peppers. Folklore, like the association of honey mead with honeymoons, also plays a vital role in the allure of nearly all aphrodisiacs.
Just because aphrodisiacs have yet to prove their worth, doesn't mean researchers have given up on them. All kinds of different foods and extracts are tested to see if they can improve sexual performance and many actually seem to have some effect. Unfortunately, these study outcomes are only witnessed in mice. That said, many aphrodisiacs do contain substances that can help overall health, and improvements in general health often beget improvements in sexual function. Substances often hailed as the potent elements of aphrodisiacs include polyphenols, antioxidants, flavonoids, potassium, zinc, B vitamins, and copper.
Increasing consumption of healthy nutrients with the aim of improving circulation or physical fitness is a smart way to try out aphrodisiac effectiveness. What people shouldn't do is buy unknown aphrodisiacs, which are readily available online. Aside from having no evidence supporting their effectiveness, these purchases are often unregulated — meaning there is no way of know what's in them. Worse, many of them come from foods that can be harmful or illegally-obtained. For example, yohimbe is commonly hailed as an herbal Viagra but side effects from taking it can include anxiety, hallucinations, and paralysis.
The science supporting aphrodisiacs is weak and, as Lamb pointed out, that should be fairly obvious given that no one is making millions off their fig tree harvest. However, that isn't reason for people not to give safe aphrodisiacs a go. "There is no science behind 99.9 percent of all of the claims of aphrodisiac foods, but it's fun to try," says Lamb. The allure of aphrodisiac foods persists to an extent because some work given the right people and the right circumstances. Chocolate-dipped strawberries are not going to be a miraculous fix for someone who's completely lost that loving feeling but for people looking to spice things up a little, it might work like magic.
Lamb's list of common aphrodisiac foods:
Bay leaf (bay laurel)
Pumpkin pie spice
Sea urchin (uni)
Uni (sea urchin)
Wolfberry (goji berry)