The untold truth about aphrodisiacs

We’ve all heard that some foods can increase our desire and even performance when it comes to sex—chocolate, strawberries, and oysters are among them. But do the claims have any merit?

Aphrodisiacs, named for the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, are believed to boost libido, potency, and enjoyment from sexual encounters.

Who hasn’t heard about the potent effects of chocolates, strawberries, and oysters? Historically, even more bizarre delicacies have been used as aphrodisiacs, such as ground rhinoceros, deadly Spanish flies, and unusual plant extracts.

In fact, co-author Martha Hopkins discovered that practically every meal had been used as an aphrodisiac at some point when conducting research for her book Intercourses.

“Historically, foods considered to be aphrodisiacs were hard to find, rare or expensive, like truffles, foie gras and caviar, or shaped like a sex organ, like asparagus or artichokes, and even animal testicles,” Hopkins says.

While we tend to think of aphrodisiacs in terms of lust, romance and libido, in the 17th Century – when everything from pigeons to almonds to parsnips were considered aphrodisiacs – they were associated with reproduction and fertility and given to married couples as more of a medical substance, says Jennifer Evans, senior lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire who researches the history of food and fertility.

The untold truth about aphrodisiacs

But can any food really affect sexual desire and performance? And why is the idea so persistent?

Certain foods can help in a similar way to Viagra medication – by relaxing blood vessels and improving blood flow to the genitals.

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Aphrodisiac foods: fact or fiction?

For those who have problems with their circulation, it’s true that certain foods can help in a similar way to Viagra medication – by relaxing blood vessels and improving blood flow to the genitals.

The amino acid L-arginine, found in foods such as pumpkins, walnuts and beef, is converted to nitric oxide in the body, which increases blood flow. So do foods high in omega 3 fatty acids, including salmon and avocado. Another helper is quercetin.

Found in apples, berries, grapes, red wine, garlic and dark chocolate, quercetin has anti-inflammatory properties that can improve blood flow.

However, only people with compromised blood flow will see any improvements to sexual function by eating these foods, says Lauri Wright, spokesperson for the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Someone with good circulation isn’t likely to see any changes.

When most of us think of aphrodisiacs, though, we don’t think about sexual function, but desire.

One food that’s long been believed to heighten sexual desire is chocolate. Studies have shown that cocoa can increase blood flow in parts of our body beyond our torso. But when its direct relationship with sexual desire was studied, there was no evidence found to support its use as an aphrodisiac.

In fact, one observational study from 2021 found the opposite. Researchers asked 700 people about their interest in sex and their chocolate consumption. It found that women who ate chocolate more often also reported having less interest in sex. They controlled for other possible reasons for low sex drive or high chocolate consumption, including low mood, blood pressure and calorie intake. The results, they suggest, indicate that eating chocolate might act as a substitute for sex by stimulating the production of neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which both also play a role in our sexual responses.

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In fact, no evidence has been found proving that any one food heightens sexual arousal or desire.

There is one exception: alcohol. A number of small studies have shown alcohol consumption is linked to arousal. But it can also impede sexual performance.

Red wine in particular may be indirectly linked to sexual function because of its potential benefits to heart health, says Michael Krychman, obstetrician, gynaecologist and a clinical sexual counsellor at the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine.

A 2022 review of more than 50 population-based studies concluded that up to four servings of red wine per week was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular death compared to beer and spirits.

However, as the researchers explained, there are many other confounding factors that might explain this relationship. Overall, the link between red wine and cardiovascular health remains inconclusive.

How lifestyle and diet can boost your sex life

Wine’s reputation as an aphrodisiac also may come from the fact that it’s part of the Mediterranean diet, defined as consisting primarily of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and nuts, fish and olive oil and being relatively low in sugar, cheese and meat.

More of a lifestyle than a single food, the Mediterranean diet may have aphrodisiac qualities.

“Research has found that red wine affects sexual function, but we don’t know if it’s the diet, or a combination of diet, lifestyle and genetics,” Krychman says. “What we do know is that, for people who exercise, have a healthy diet and lower stress, all these elements work together and they have better sex lives.”

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Our overall diet can work as an aphrodisiac through benefits like improved blood flow, increased hormones or elevated mood, says Wright.

One study involving 600 women with type two diabetes found that the Mediterranean diet was linked to lower levels of sexual dysfunction, while another study concluded the diet may also be associated with an improvement of erectile dysfunction.

“The bottom line is that a healthy diet of seafood, lean meats, nuts, fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, which is basically the Mediterranean diet, helps support nerve function and supports blood flow and hormones,” Wright says.

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