Around this time of year, we're thrown into the deluge of "Valentine's Day Menus" with purported aphrodisiac foods, wines and chocolate-dipped desserts, but is there any real science behind these love drugs? "There are foods that have both a folkloric history as well as some sort of scientific reason to contribute to their aphrodisiac status," says Amy Reiley, author of the new saucy cookbook, "Romancing the Stove: The Unabridged Guide to Aphrodisiac Foods." We talked to the experts to find out which foods are helpful and which are just hype.
If you're anticipating a long night, skip the decaf and indulge in some espresso. "Maybe it's the pleasingly bitter scent wafting through the air, or the jolt of caffeine it pumps through our blood," says Martha Hopkins, author of the aphrodisiac cookbook, InterCourses. "Or maybe it's alkaloids that help maintain sexual performance and delay the inevitable for a few sweet, luscious seconds." Regardless the reason, consider ending your evening with a cup of Joe instead of that last glass of wine.
These long stalks are an aphrodisiac win-win. "These stalks first received their aphrodisiac status from the [16th century] Doctrine of Signatures, also known as the Law of Similarities," Hopkins says. "This theory says that if one thing is reminiscent of another, it will improve or aid that which it looks like. So if food looks sexual, then the Doctrine of Signatures says it is meant to improve, or aid sex." While it started out just as a theory, we now know that asparagus is full of potassium, phosphorus, calcium and vitamin E. "For those love-hungry couples, it offers extra energy, a well-working urinary tract and kidneys, and a natural dose of the 'sex vitamin' necessary for increased hormone production."
"Chocolate is the cliche aphrodisiac, because it works," Hopkins says. "It works on numerous levels. Number one, it tastes good. Number two, it melts on your tongue." Cocoa fat, a key ingredient in chocolate, is one of the few fats that melt at our body temperature. "Chocolate also thins the blood a bit. When the blood is slightly thinner, it can flow better," Hopkins says. Here's to getting your blood pumping.
"If you turn to your lover and says, 'I’m going to feed you an aphrodisiac,' that food becomes an aphrodisiac right there," Hopkins says. "You’ve triggered the thought." Take strawberries: all they have going for the in terms of "aphrodisiac powers" is their reputation and physical form, which might be enough. "The strawberry has a green button top that fits easily betwixt fingers, and, more importantly, fits even more easily between parted lips," Hopkins says. "You don’t even have to believe in aphrodisiacs, but if you believe that you’re eating an aphrodisiac, it becomes one."
Oysters don't seem particularly romantic on first glance, but they've long been romanced as one of the leading aphrodisiacs. Why? "They are low in fat and high in complex sugars and proteins," Reliey says. "More importantly, though, oysters are loaded with zinc, a key ingredient to testosterone production and sexual performance for both genders." So, it's not just folklore. Oysters genuinely help in the bedroom.
Ginger can help sooth your stomach, cure your sea legs, calm a migraine and thin your blood. "The last of these issues plays the strongest role in ginger’s aphrodisiac qualities by allowing circulation to flow easily throughout all parts of our system, engorging the body’s most sensitive areas with oxygen-rich blood," Hopkins says. "And we all know what that means."
Do you know why couples go on "honeymoons" after getting married? It all started in ancient Persia, when young couples drank honey mead every day during their first month of marriage. The mead was rumored to promote sexual desire, and the month-long tradition was to help the newlywed couple get into the right "frame of mind" for a successful marriage. What the Persians might not have known, though, is that honey has a host of physical benefits that help when you're in the moment. "Physiologically, honey provides the body with a very usable form of sugar that converts easily into energy," Hopkins says.
Chile peppers contain capsaicin, which is responsible for the "heat" we taste when eating spicy Mexican food. Because capsaicin elicits physiological responses similar to those we experience while getting busy -- sweating, increased circulation, faster heart rate -- our minds can misread this as, "getting turned on," as opposed to the reality, "eating something hot." Now that's hot.
Rosemary is an herb known to increase blood circulation, which can make skin more sensitive -- never a bad thing. Like so many other aphrodisiacs, it's also associated with the love goddess Aphrodite (she was often portrayed holding a sprig). So pile on the fragrant herb during dinner, or draw a bath for two with a few drops of rosemary essential oil.
Because the avocado tree produces fruit in dangling pairs, the Aztecs fondly named it, "the testicle tree." Years later, the pairs still dangle, the name lives on and avocados have solidified their place in the aphrodisiac lineup because of this ballsy resemblance.
Like the avocado, bananas (and their flowers) bear a striking resemblance to a key part of the male anatomy. In addition to the shared phallic form, bananas, with their cache of potassium and B vitamins, aid in the production of sex hormones. What does this all mean? That when you serve your honey a nice breakfast in bed, include a banana.
Before the days of Chanel no.5 and sweet, scented perfumes, women used to dust powdered basil across their chests. The scent of the herb was rumored to drive men wild. Whether you whip up a caprese salad, or fresh pesto sauce, get his blood pumping with a basil-infused dinner.
What basil is rumored to do to men, almonds are rumored to do to women. Historically, the nut is a symbol of fertility (as most nuts are) but supposedly the smell of almonds makes women passionate. Marzipan, anyone?
"Valentine red in color, slightly exotic looking, pomegranate is one of my favorite aphrodisiac fruits," Reiley says. "It was a culinary symbol of Aphrodite in ancient Greece and modern science is investigating the use of pomegranate juice to treat erectile dysfunction."
"I think figs are among the world’s sexiest foods," Reiley says. "Many historians believe that fig was the original forbidden fruit and I can definitely see why -- they’re plump and soft with that pretty pink interior and a taste so subtle you need to really concentrate to appreciate it." Additionally, figs have a little bit of iron, which supports sexual health.
Uni (sea urchin)
It's sexy because it's exotic, it's pleasurable because it taps into your neurotransmitters and releases dopamine. "Because sea urchins eat kelp, they’re loaded with umami, that 5th taste sensation," Reiley says. "In addition, they’re loaded with anandamide, a cannabinoid neurotransmitter, and it's believed that uni activates dopamine production in the brain."
"Bring on the brie!" Reiley says. "Surprisingly, cheese may be able to deliver what chocolate can’t." Cheese contains 10 times as much PEA -- the ingredient in chocolate said to give that euphoric rush -- as its cocoa competitor. "Certain cheeses are also said to replicate human pheromones," Reiley says.
Pound for pound, truffles are more valuable than gold, but that's not the only reason you should treat your date to truffles on Valentine's Day. "Truffle is one for the ladies," Reiley says. Not only are truffles loaded with amino acids, "the scent of truffles replicates that of a male pheromone," Reiley says.
We have a feeling you've already had first hand experience with this one, but just to reiterate, in small quantities, all alcohol can be an aphrodisiac. "Alcohol pushes aside the doubts, fears and mores that typically restrain people from pursuing what might have been," Hopkins says. But if you have to choose one, Reiley recommends champagne and sparkling wine. "They enter your blood stream quickly so you get that lovely giddy, warm effect from just a few sips," Reiley says. "In addition, sparkling wines have many more health benefits than most types of alcohol and the aromas of some Champagnes replicate human pheromones." According to "Pleasuring: The Secrets of Sexual Satisfaction," yeasty champagnes, dry Rieslings and some chardonnays are said to replicate women's pheromones, while earthy pinots, cabernet sauvignon, and Bordeaux blends are said to replicate male pheromones.
We've all had the perfect grape. Firm on the outside, juicy sweet on the inside, it's just waiting to explode in your mouth. If the act of eating them isn't sensual enough, remember that grapes have always been associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of ecstasy and intoxication. And what is sexier than feeding a bunch of grapes to your lover, one by one?
Galen of Pergamon, the second century philosopher and doctor, used to instruct his patients to eat 100 pine nuts every night before bed. The little nuts were rumored to have special "powers." We're still not sure exactly what these "powers" are (we do know they have a lot of zinc, which aids in testosterone production), but history is full of pine nut fueled love potions and medicinal cures. If you're wanting a libido-filled Valentine's Day, take some from history and sprinkle some on a salad or appetizer. If you're feeling especially frisky, you can always attempt Galen's "prescription" and eat 100 pine nuts before going to sleep on February 13.
Watch out, Viagra. Watermelon could be the new, au natural performance enhancer. “We’ve always known that watermelon is good for you, but the list of its very important healthful benefits grows longer with each study," says Dr. Bhimu Patil, director of Texas A&M’s Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Center in College Station. Among those new found benefits are a healthier heart, immune system, and circulatory system, including the ability to relax blood vesicles. Just like Viagra.
It's not hard to imagine why black beans are a symbol of fertility. "It all starts with the fresh bean pod," Hopkins says. "Nestled in its protective casing, the black bean rests like a child in its mother." Apparently, black beans were so racy that St. Jerome forbade nuns to eat them in 400 A.D., for fear that the beans would lure them into breaking their vows of chastity. Even if the beans don't spurn your inner chastity-belt-breaker, eat them for their protein. Unlike meat protein, beans digest quickly, so your body can get what it needs and you can get on with your evening.
The steroids of ancient Greece. Yes, garlic was believed to increase both energy and stamina -- but before delving into that history, take a minute to consider the act of eating garlic. If eaten alone, your breath will smell for miles, but when eaten with a lover, you're both wonderfully immune to the smell and fully exposed to all of garlic's aphrodisiac powers. Isn't that romantic? We think so. But now, back to the Greeks. According to Eat Something Sexy, "The ancient Greeks fed garlic to top athletes prior to Olympic competitions to encourage peak performance." So you want to perform like an Olympian on Valentine's Day? Eat garlic. Lots of garlic (just be sure to share it).