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Seduction Secrets: Do Aphrodisiacs Boost Desire?

There’s not much science behind the claims — but don’t underestimate the placebo effect

Oysters on a wooden serving tray

Thousands of years of lustful thinking share a common belief: The secret ingredient for toe-curling sex MUST be somewhere in the kitchen.

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Legend says that certain foods serve as natural aphrodisiacs, powering passion and driving carnal pleasure. Basically, serve up the right cuisine and the results might be extra spicy. (Wink, wink.)

But is there any truth to these steamy claims? Research findings aren’t exactly arousing on the topic ­­— but don’t lose hope of meals delivering some sensual sorcery if your mind is in the right spot.

Let’s break down our romantic appetite with registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD.

What is an aphrodisiac?

Aphrodisiacs are foods, drinks and other products thought to rev up your sex drive. The name comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty whose libido generated mythical tales.

Historically, aphrodisiacs have been divided into three main categories, says Zumpano. They’ve been used to increase:

What are some foods considered aphrodisiacs?

Cultures around the world view (and have viewed) many different foods as aphrodisiacs. Some of the reasons why dishes earn erotic labels aren’t exactly based on solid science, says Zumpano.

For instance:

  • Foods shaped like genitalia (oysters, figs, asparagus, root veggies) are thought to have aphrodisiacal qualities just by getting you to think about genitalia.
  • Eating delicacies rooted in the reproductive process is often said to boost a person’s sexual energy. Examples include caviar, quail eggs and “Rocky Mountain oysters” (aka, bull testicles).
  • Want to turn up the heat in the bedroom? Some believe you can ignite passion by eating fiery fare such as chili peppers, jalapenos and curry.

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In fairness, though, some foods do contain nutrients, vitamins and minerals that may bring the zing to intimacy. But the association is often in theory. Very little is based on proven fact.

Here are 10 foods (or spices) regarded as aphrodisiacs and what can be said about each.

Oysters

Legend has it that famed philanderer Giacomo Casanova ate 50 oysters a day to fuel his promiscuous lifestyle. And while science hasn’t proven him right, there may be something to his diet.

Oysters are loaded with zinc, which can nudge up testosterone levels to spur sex drive. Zinc also raises levels of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone in your brain that heightens the sense of pleasure, says Zumpano.

But can we definitively say oysters boost libido? Not exactly, given the lack of research.

Dark chocolate

Cacao has long been thought to increase sexual desire, which may explain why it’s such a popular Valentine’s Day gift. It includes a compound called phenylethylamine, a mild stimulant that can positively affect your mood.

But it may be a stretch to think it gets sexual engines revving, notes Zumpano. In fact, one study found that women who eat chocolate more often become LESS interested in sex.

Chili peppers

Capsaicin is the fiery compound in chili peppers that singes taste buds and activates sweat glands. “Some people believe it can also boost testosterone and kick your libido into high gear,” shares Zumpano.

But while your rising body temperature may make you feel like peeling off clothes, there’s no scientific proof it will make sex any hotter.

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Watermelon

Summer’s favorite fruit is rich in citrulline, an amino acid known to relax and dilate blood vessels in much the same way as erectile dysfunction (ED) medications. That’s why some refer to watermelon as “Nature’s Viagra®.”

That said, you couldn’t possibly consume enough watermelon to make it worthwhile, clarifies Zumpano. Plus, the rind is the part of watermelon most packed with citrulline — and that’s not likely to be eaten.

Strawberries

Let’s face it: Strawberries have become a symbol of sexy food. There’s just something about nibbling on the sweet, heart-shaped fruit that screams sensuality. Dip it in dark chocolate and … oh, my.

That reputation is more Valentine’s Day marketing than fact, though: “Strawberries pack a nutritional punch and play a role in immune, heart and brain health, but they do not have any special sexual powers,” says Zumpano.

Honey

When it comes to endorsements for stimulating sexual arousal, honey landed a pretty significant voice: Hippocrates, long regarded as the father of modern medicine for his healthcare work in Ancient Greece.

It’s said that Hippocrates prescribed honey to patients who needed help getting their groove on. Today, we know that honey can help boost testosterone levels, so maybe he was onto something.

But again, there’s no substantial evidence that honey will help you get it on.

Be wary, too, of honey-based products marketed as sexual enhancers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warnings about hidden drug ingredients contained in several supplements.

Figs

Here’s another touted aphrodisiac connected to Ancient Greece.

The Greeks connected figs to fertility because of the fruit’s many seeds. There’s some truth to the concept, too. Figs are high in iron, which studies show plays a key role in both female and male fertility.

Again, though, Zumpano emphasizes that there’s not enough research to label figs as a fertility wonder or libido builder.

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Pistachios

Want to get the blood flowing for a hot and heavy night? Try eating a few pistachios.

The tree nut is rich in l-arginine, an amino acid that dilates blood vessels to improve blood flow. That’s a big perk if you have ED. One small study showed that eating 100 grams of pistachios daily for three weeks reduced symptoms of ED.

Maca

Think again if you don’t consider root vegetables all sorts of sexy.

Maca is a Peruvian root vegetable with a well-earned reputation for jumpstarting libidos. Studies show it may be effective at increasing sexual desire and alleviating some forms of sexual dysfunction. There are signs it may improve semen quality, too.

But while some studies show potential bedroom benefits, others advise caution. One group of researchers said health claims have been “dragged out of context” and couldn’t be fully supported by science.

Saffron

This sweet, earthy spice has been shown to improve sexual function, but those positive results are largely confined to people taking antidepressants.

Researchers found that saffron brought firmer erections in men and improved arousal and lubrication in women who were taking fluoxetine (commonly prescribed under the brand name Prozac®).

Findings are not quite as bullish regarding saffron’s effect on people not taking medication for depression, notes Zumpano.

Could there be a placebo effect?

From everything you’ve just read, it’s safe to say science isn’t exactly a booster of food-as-an-aphrodisiac theories. There’s simply not enough evidence to make definitive and affirmative statements.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t crank up sexual energy. “Just because a food doesn’t have scientific properties declaring it helpful for your libido doesn’t mean that it’s not still doing a little something for your libido,” states Zumpano.

Chalk it up to the placebo effect. That’s the term for when your mind essentially tricks you into thinking a sham remedy brings results. It’s a phenomenon that illustrates the power of positive thought.

Essentially, it’s saying if you believe something works … well, maybe it will.

So, when it comes to aphrodisiacs, if you find a certain food sexy — be it chocolate, oysters or something else entirely — taking a taste can’t hurt, according to Zumpano.

Be cautious with supplements

Government oversight of dietary supplements isn’t very stringent. They don’t get the same scrutiny as food or medications. That makes it difficult to know exactly what you’re getting in quality and concentration.

Given that, Zumpano recommends staying away from supplements marketed as aphrodisiacs. “They aren’t approved by the FDA and may negatively interact with medications you’re taking.”

Dealing with sex drive issues

Aphrodisiacs often are just part of the flirtatious fun to set the mood for a romantic evening. It’s the culinary equivalent of dimming the lights and letting Marvin Gaye croon some suggestive lyrics.

But if you’re experimenting with aphrodisiacs because of low libido, ED, vaginal dryness or related issues, know that there are medical solutions. Talk to a healthcare provider about your options. Because in the end, Zumpano says that you’re much better off turning to medical professionals than chocolate bars.

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