Cooking up love

Do aphrodisiacs really boost libido?

The_Birth_of_Venus_by_William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1879)

Image credit: the Birth of Venus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1879), Wikimedia Commons

It seems as though food has always been tangled up in sex. From Montezuma II’s infamous 50 cups of hot chocolate a day and the very etymology of the word honeymoon,* to swapping dark chocolate on Anna Howard Shaw Day,* aphrodisiacs have been swimming in and out of vogue for centuries.

But are they scientifically proven to boost libido?

As it turns out, yes, they are.

Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley host a podcast called Gastropod that investigates food through the dual lenses of science and history. This February, Graber and Twilley did a Valentine’s Day deep-dive into the chemistry and mythology behind aphrodisiacs and both were surprised to discover that there is both logic and a spark of science at work.

 

Aphrodisiacs: A historical tour

According to Graber and Twilley’s episode on food and sex, aphrodisiacs historically overlap with rare and exotic foods.

The conch, the truffle and yes, the potato were each, at one time, imbued with powers. That’s because each was considered rare in its historical context. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, potatoes were ported laboriously overseas from the New World. These novel veggies charmed European palates and were eaten to kick-start arousal.

Potatoes don’t pack any sort of scientifically proven punch, but because they were scarce in 1800, they became sought after (a.k.a. sexy).

Chocolate also arrived in Europe from the Americas. But, unlike its sibling the potato, chocolate continues to crop up in the aisles of Rite Aid every February 14th. So, does it work?

Image credit: US advertisement for Vig Tabs (1926), Wikimedia Commons

Graber and Twilley spoke with Drs. Elizabeth West and Michael Krychman who co-authored a scientific review of popular aphrodisiacs. West and Krychman were able to dig up several small studies that use the Female Sexual Function Index to measure the sexual satisfaction of people who consume large quantities of chocolate against those who don’t. It turns out, there is no significant difference between the two groups. Yes, chocolate can be energizing, but it isn’t technically an aphrodisiac.

According to Dr. West, the idea that oysters increase arousal is just as bogus as the chocolate myth. Despite the fact that they contain zinc, an element known to play important roles in spermatogenesis, there is no scientific data to support the theory that oysters increase pleasure or potency.

“Neither [oysters nor chocolate] have been shown to have real aphrodisiac effect,” said Twilley, “so that’s just about what foods you think are delicious and might make you happy.”

But some so-called aphrodisiacs are backed by scientific proof.

 

Studying food and sex

Edible aphrodisiacs are notoriously difficult to study for a few reasons.

“First of all” Graber said, “[it] depends on what we’re calling aphrodisiacs. There are so many different aspects of sexuality. Lumping them together to call something an aphrodisiac is challenging.”

Image credit: taken by user jules (CC BY 2.0), Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, the definition of an “aphrodisiac” is historically fluid and, therefore, difficult to pin down. In early Europe, aphrodisiacs were seen as tools to overcome infertility. Today the definition has morphed. Aphrodisiacs in 2016 are less about producing offspring and more about performance and titillation. “Is it just that they give you more energy so you both have more zip? Or is there something else at work that increases arousal? The science hasn’t been as in depth as I think I personally would like to see,” said Graber.

According to Dr. West, the ingredients for an ideal setup would include a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, as well as a firmly defined qualitative measure (like the Female Sexual Function Index).

“But,” said Twilley, “ one of the interesting things we learned is that, because the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements in the same way that it does medicine or even food…there isn’t much incentive for [companies] to do these kinds of trials.” Why spend time and massive amounts of money to prove that zinc is linked to fertility when you don’t have to answer to the FDA? “Much better to not know in many ways and claim whatever you like.”

For example, damiana — an extract taken from a Mexican shrub and used to encourage copulation in rats — is often sold as a potency-enhancing supplement. According to West, damiana has not been proven to increase human sexual potency, but commercial companies market it as such.

 

The ones that work

So, which aphrodisiacs have been through the wringer and given the scientific stamp of approval? According to Dr. West, Korean red ginseng has been shown to help cancer patients, athletic performance, and after seven double-blind trials, to enhance sexual performance. While researchers have yet to hammer out the optimal dosing, ginseng is one of the few scientifically proven aphrodisiacs in the natural world.

“For a long time,” said Twilley, “the Chinese had sort of attributed wonder powers to ginseng not just aphrodisiac, but all kinds of wonderful benefits to all aspects of life. Basically ‘take ginseng and win’ is the short version.”

Maca — a root vegetable from Peru — is also in the “yes” column for scientists. During the time of the Conquistadors, farmers fed maca to their livestock to encourage procreation.

In their review, Drs. West and Krychman site four clinical trials that studied the effects of maca on human participants. While the science behind maca remains a mystery, three of the four trials showed that the root veggie has a statistically significant effect on male sexual dysfunction.

Researchers suspect that the natural hormone-like chemicals in maca (phytoestrogens) play a key role.

And, finally, according to Graber and Twilley, the best and most cost-effective aphrodisiac is, drumroll…the placebo effect!

“It’s all about the ritual and the ambiance and engaging all your senses,” said Nicola. “Food can be really sexy.” The common contention that “your brain is your most powerful sexual organ” is right on the money. Your brain is capable of setting off a frenzy of neural activity in response to real or imagined sensory stimuli. Chocolate-shaped or otherwise.

 

Footnotes

*The word honeymoon is partially derived from the fifth-century practice of consuming a honey-based alcohol for the first few months of marriage to induce pregnancy

*Valentine’s Day