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Why aphrodisiac foods don’t work, and why we keep trying them anyway

Two sexual health specialists explain the allure of the edible aphrodisiac.

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Not a Valentine’s Day goes by without news stories proliferating about the best aphrodisiac foods to make your Hallmark holiday a little more ... exciting. Restaurants design whole menus around these supposedly lust-inducing edibles, which include everything from prosaic bananas and coffee to delicacies like oysters, and even outlandish-sounding substances like ground rhinoceros horn and the Spanish fly beetle (which can actually be harmful to consume).

The concept may have some basis in history; per Salon, the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote of the “amorous properties” of skink flesh in his Natural History, published in AD 77-79; the Kama Sutra touted asparagus paste in milk as an effective booster of men’s performance. And in Plants With Benefits: An Uninhibited Guide to the Aphrodisiac Herbs, Fruits, Flowers & Veggies in Your Garden, author Helen Yoest quotes Virgil as claiming that arugula “excites the sexual desire of drowsy people.”

But for every article espousing avocado toast as the key to a Cosmo-bait sex life, there are others cautioning that the research on aphrodisiacs’ effectiveness is inconclusive at best. So to find out what the deal is, I spoke to two people who study sexuality for a living.

Megan Stubbs is a sexologist who holds degrees in biology and human sexuality; Dr. Michael Krychman is an OB-GYN and clinical sexual counselor at the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine, and co-authored a 2015 scientific review on the effectiveness of aphrodisiac products. They spoke to me by phone and email, respectively, about why the idea of desire-sparking foods holds such appeal and whether any supposed edible aphrodisiacs actually work. (Spoiler: They don’t.)

Their answers have been edited and condensed.

Kris Connor/Getty Images for NYCWFF

First things first: Are there any real aphrodisiac foods that actually work the way they claim to?

MS: I try not to rain on people’s parades, but there is technically, air quotes, “no such thing as true aphrodisiacs.” The definition would be a substance, or whatever, that elicits sexual desire; there’s no bean, no fruit, no drink that if I’m nervous on a plane, you could slide me this magical bean and all of a sudden I think, “Oh, my gosh, should we find a room?”

MK: None, really, have been scientifically proven in good medical research to be effective for treatment of sexual problems. While chocolate [in some studies showed] a trend toward improved sexual function, the results were not statistically significant. The Mediterranean diet has been studied and is linked to improved sexual function as it is primarily cardioprotective, so it helps with overall cardiovascular health.

How do certain foods get this reputation? It seems like they’re all over the map, from everyday things like bananas to delicacies like oysters to things like Spanish fly.

MS: Sometimes they look like something sexual, or they’re supposed to help with something sexual. Oysters resemble genitalia a bit, for instance, or someone suggestively eating a banana, which is pretty phallic-looking. But I’m not necessarily going to be sent over the edge by seeing someone eat a banana. I’ve seen all kinds of terrible things [that claim to be aphrodisiacs], like ground-up tiger bones or shark’s fin — that’s just someone trying to sell you some kind of snake oil.

Does alcohol fit into this category at all? Or is it a totally different consideration?

MK: Alcohol works to decrease anxiety and create a state of disinhibition. If someone were to say, “I drink and then can have sex,” you should ask more questions about anxiety or other mood issues, like Macbeth: “It increases the desire, but it takes away the performance.” Alcohol is a major cause of impotence, otherwise known as erectile dysfunction.

chocolate truffle flanked by outlines of hands in cocoa powder
Here is an oddly suggestive photo of a chocolate truffle.
Veronique Durruty/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

For those people who do report that aphrodisiac foods have an effect, is it the placebo effect? Or is something else going on?

MS: A lot of it is the placebo effect, which is totally valid if it works for you. I think some people are really keying into the Hallmark holiday association with these foods. Chocolate does contain PEA, or phenylethylamine, the “feel good” hormone, which is important for orgasm — but you’d have to eat a lot of chocolate to see the benefits from PEA.

What counts in your mind, if chocolate does it for you, is if, say, they feed it to you in bed and they don’t mess up the sheets — they have a towel ready, so you’re not anxious about making a mess. That’s a nice gesture, and you can kind of see where they’re going with it. But it’s not like, “Oh, he fed me one truffle and now I can’t stay off him.”

I read that part of why the science around aphrodisiacs is so dubious is that there really haven’t been any large, well-designed studies on it. How would you even go about designing a good study on aphrodisiac foods?

MS: I think people have ideas about studying all kinds of sexual things, but who wants to fund that? We’ve got so much funding for ED, so many different erection medications, but what do we have for women? Nothing; no one cares. At CES [the Consumer Electronics Show] in Vegas this year, they removed an award for a device that dealt with female sexuality; but on the other hand, you have sex robots, sex dolls, machines that simulate what you’re seeing on the video. … There’s really a war on female sexuality, but until we have people in power (meaning men) speak up about it, things won’t change.

Could you share any tips for people who do want to help themselves in this area that might be more effective than trying to rely on aphrodisiac foods?

MK: See your health care provider. Often, there are biological issues that are directly impacting your sexuality. Get an assessment and realize that there may not be a magic bullet solution. A dynamic, multifaceted treatment approach is often best. Recognize that sexual health is a part of general health and should not be ignored.

MS: I highly recommend going to FiveLoveLanguages.com and taking the test with your partner, to see how best you and your partner receive love and make sure you’re both speaking the same language. Your partner might think you love getting flowers and chocolate when all you want is quality time and acknowledgment — “Dinner was amazing,” or, “I noticed you paired all my socks.”

If you’ve already done that, option B is to talk about your fantasies with your partner. I know there’s comfort in having a partner for a long time — you get to know each other’s quirks and what works and what doesn’t — but sometimes that can lead to complacency and this feeling of “we’ve done everything.” But when people check in with their partner and ask them, “What would you like?” they find out they actually haven’t done everything.