Mankind has been on a mission to Enhance Stuff since sages and seers were gazing into the branches of banyan figs and composing the Vedas. Some people swear it’s highly possible to alter your libido with certain foods—others consider it… uh, whimsical. In less empirical science-forward times, the aphrodisiac qualities of foods were probably based on things like the Doctrine of Signatures, which held that plants telegraphed their usefulness to humans by their appearance—walnuts were considered brain tonics because they looked like brains, heart-shaped leaves on an herb were a sure sign of a cardiac-friendly nutrient, and so you can probably see where I’m headed with cucumbers, bananas, figs… and mussels. Like I said: whimsical, right?
Bearing in mind that one man’s aphrodisiac is another man’s “Get the Epi-pen, would you dear?” and that nothing is going to turn you on if it grosses you out, the following are foods that have more to them than just whimsy.
Casanova’s breakfast of choice, the oyster has long been associated with heightened sexual responsiveness. As it turns out, the guy was actually on to something. Besides their high levels of zinc (which is a major player in testosterone balance) oysters have been found to have some unusual amino acids (D-aspartic acid and NDMA) that have a marked, significant effect on male and female sex hormone production. But it’s not all about phytochemicals—if the silky, briny flavor and texture of raw oysters is sensually appealing to you, that alone will trigger a little pituitary happy-dance that will put you in the mood for love. Just as we synthesize vitamin D from sunlight, human bodies are actually synthesized to produce master-hormone DHEA from… pleasure, joy, gratitude and love. That is not pseudoscience, folks. We manufacture the precursors to testosterone, progesterone and estrogen when we are experiencing pleasurable experiences and emotions.
Is It For Real? Yes.
The Power Food of the Aztec Empire has been seen as an aphrodisiac for centuries and numerous studies have found that women statistically prefer eating it to having sex (personally I see no reason to see that as an either/or). Now, heavily sugared, chocolate-based desserts will weigh you down and there is nothing less sexy-feeling than being so full you can’t breathe. But Theobroma cacao itself is a little botanical treasure chest of phytochemicals, up there with coffee as one of the most antioxidant-rich foods known to science. Its sexual-stimulant credentials include PEA, a dopamine precursor (dopamine is the neurotransmitter that curates your pleasure response) and tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin, which runs your Elation Center. Also present in some quanity in chocolate is anandamide, a cannabinoid molecule that takes its name from the Sanskrit word for “bliss” with good reason.
Is It For Real? Probably!
3. Red Meat.
Vegans, I’d love to be able to tell you that there is nothing remotely good for you about eating meat—seriously, I would love to be able to say it. I can’t. While the human being is a biologically omnivorous species who can live healthily and happily (in most cases; there are exceptions!) without ever participating in the animal husbandry system, red meat (and I would advise judicious portions and occasional use) does offer us a very intense and highly bioavailable package of stuff you have to work hard to get elsewhere. Highest on the “hard to get elsewhere” list is vitamin B12, which is an essential nutrient we tend to run low on whether we are carnivores or not. The B vitamins are—among many other things—your body’s buffer against stress, and if you don’t have a steady supply, you are just plain not going to prefer sex to, say, sleep, or a rerun of Seinfeld. Additionally, red meat raises serotonin levels (happy) and norepinephrine (an adrenal hormone that helps regulate arousal and increases heart rate, which increases blood flow.
Is It For Real? Yes, with subtler effects than champagne or oysters for a lot of people, but a serious therapeutic intervention if your libido’s flagging due to anemia or B-complex deficiency. Organically raised, small-scale farmed and in petite quantities tend to be best for you and the ground you walk on.
This stuff has a sexually enlivening effect most consistently on women and at the time of writing this I am not sure why (ring in if you know!). The effervescence of champagne (and its cousins in the sparkling wine family) seems to “go to your head” in small quantities, creating a disinhibited, sexually switched-on, suggestible state. Alcohol of any kind is a libido killer at higher doses, so if you want to use it for friskiness purposes, limit your consumption. Too much and you’re in for a night of loud snoring and a “not today, dear”-level headache.
Is it for real? Yes, but be careful, it will turn you on and then it will turn on you.
Yes, it makes your pee smell funny. But asparagus has been vetted by Ancient Greek poets, the Kama Sutra, and centuries of French boudoir specialists for its love-enhancing characteristics. Why? Probably partially for its suggestive shape and also for its crazy high density of calcium, potassium and vitamin E, all essentials for keeping your junk in fighting trim. Aspartic acid in this vegetable also helps cleans the body of ammonia, which gives flagging energy a boost.
Is It For Real? Yeah, but probably more as a “generalist” than a “spot treatment”—folks who eat large quantities of asparagus likely have good sexual health and energy. A couple of spears with dinner won’t instantly rock your world.
One of the great sex symbols of the ancient world, the first pomegranate tree was reputedly planted but love-goddess Aphrodite herself. Many (your humble food-pornographer included) believe a pomegranate, not an apple, was actually the fruit that made Eve lose her religion in that nice garden, and everyone’s clear the irresistible pomegranate was what got Persephone an eternal timeshare in the Underworld. In some Greek temples (especially in and near Argos) Hera, goddess of marriage and childbirth, is also depicted wearing the calyx of a pomegranate as a crown. Poets have been associating it with romance since the Song of Solomon. Their interior, a blood-red geode of glistening seeds, is visually insanely enticing for some people, and it shares with figs and other seedy fruits an association with fertility, fecundity, and thus sex. But it’s probably not all about the visuals either: pomegranate eaters might be lowering their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Less cortisol means more testosterone. More testosterone means heightened arousal response.
Is it For Real? Likely, but bear in mind pomegranates are not in season in the northern hemisphere in February—so don’t count on it for V-Day fireworks. A pomegranate-juice champagne cocktail could be fun to play with, though.
This list is not exhaustive. Nuts and seeds, many fruits, and all kinds of other, er, substances that were once plants have reputations as aphrodisiacs. The bottom-line truth is this: yes, aphrodisiac foods are real, but they’re also subtler than you think. More importantly, they are personal. Obviously, your shellfish-allergic date is going to have going to bed on her mind in a totally different way if those oysters prompt a 911 call for anaphylactic shock. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and the disinhibitory effects are in a razor-thin band of moderation before you find yourself trading “sexy” for “exhausted” or “No, actually I do have a headache.” The phytochemical magic of certain foods is more likely to boost libido over a longer term than to put you into high-on-catnip mode on the spot—if you eat a diet that is generally high in zinc you are likely to have a body that is generally higher in testosterone and thus more sexually revved-up. So yes, eat the pumpkin seeds. But do it every day.
And of course, taste, memories, palate and all kinds of other stuff play into whether a food is sexy. Chocolate won’t do a thing for someone who remembers it as the last thing they ate before that nasty gastric virus took out the whole family for a week. Peppers are considered aphrodisiacs. I developed a violent aversion to them when I was pregnant and they still give me the shivers. Garlic lights some folks up but others will be grossed out by the cloying aftereffects on your breath (and your sweat).
As a final note, it is always sexy to notice what your partner is into, and offer it to him or her. I knew a guy who rhapsodized endlessly about getting Chinese takeout and eating it off his girlfriend’s naked stomach. Some people are really revved up by certain textures, or smells, or by physically feeding each other or eating with their fingers—look, there’s something for everyone. And a working knowledge of biochemistry doesn’t hurt, but a simple “Does this taste good to you?” works just fine.
Shakespeare said “If music be the food of love, play on.” Now, I love music, but sometimes, folks, food is the food of love.
So play on.
An award winning poet and longtime food and wine pornographer, Amy Glynn was first accused of being a “food snob” by her parents at age 8. Her book “A Modern Herbal” was released by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the SF Bay Area, Ground Zero of the “Delicious Revolution.” She thinks about apples a lot. Follow her on Twitter @AmyAlysaGlynn and on Facebook here.