With Valentine's Day soon upon us once more, I thought it would be fitting to take a closer look at aphrodisiacs. Mainly, I wanted to explore the possibility that particular foods may do more than just satisfy hunger. Are the historic claims that certain foods arouse passion in the hearts of lovers really true? In order to determine if and how aphrodisiacs fan the flames of desire, let's examine both romantic and scientific history.
Since biblical times, many foods and drinks have been thought to be sexual stimulants. Their usage is often believed to enhance sexual cravings and make sex altogether more pleasurable. However romanticized these beliefs may be, medical science does not substantiate claims that particular foods increase sexual desire or performance. But despite the doubts of the scientific community, proponents of aphrodisiacs enthusiastically argue that the mind is the sex organ that they actually target. Often, the desired results obtained from aphrodisiacs occur because their users choose to believe that they had an effect on their libido.
Arguably, the most well known of aphrodisiacs are oysters. For centuries lovers have savoured these delectable appetizers in hopes of a night of heightened passion. Oysters, prized during both Roman times and the Middle Ages, are thought to have been enjoyed by the great lover Casanova at each breakfast. Nutritionally speaking, oysters are high in zinc, a fact that may lend credibility to their sensual reputation. Zinc is necessary for sperm production and also controls levels of progesterone, a hormone that has a positive effect on the libido. However, given their resemblance to female genitalia, it is more likely that oysters have a psychological effect on the libido, rather than physiological.
Another familiar aphrodisiac is chocolate. Thought by the Aztecs to invigorate men and make women less inhibited, chocolate has long been associated with an increased sexual desire. Chocolate does have a pronounced effect on human behaviour and, much like sex, it makes you feel good. Chocolate contains mood-lifting substances found naturally in the brain called phenylalanine and serotonin. These agents induce feelings of euphoria, similar to those associated with falling in love. But again, since no evidence exists to show that chocolate increases sexual desire, the age-old commonplace that chocolate is as good as or better than sex may be the reason behind people believing it to be an aphrodisiac.
Finally, no discussion about aphrodisiacs is complete without mention of the infamous Spanish fly. Actually a beetle that secretes an acid-like substance called cantharidin, Spanish fly is ground up into a powder that is alleged to cause lovers to burn with passion. During Roman times, Livia, the wife of Augustus Caesar, would often secretly slip Spanish fly into her guest's foods in hopes that they may engage in naughty behaviour - with which she could later blackmail them. While you will burn when you consume Spanish fly, it is not with passion. Cantharidin is actually a poison that, when excreted in urine, causes inflammation of the urethral passages that is often confused for sexual stimulation. Because the difference between the effective dose and the harmful dose is narrow, Spanish fly is illegal in Canada and the USA. No other aphrodisiac better bears out the adage that love hurts.
While the scientific evidence to support the validity of these and other aphrodisiacs such as avocados, strawberries, and cinnamon is virtually nonexistent, their history and fantastical reputations make their claims to be love potions quite believable. Whether or not they actually increase sexual desire is not as important as wanting to believe in their magic and mystical qualities. Happy Valentine's Day!
Brennan Robertson, Hon. B.Sc. (Nutrition)