On Valentine’s Day, both the lovelorn and lovesick turn to oysters, chocolate, and chilli peppers — but why? We analyse the science behind these popular aphrodisiacs.
Zeus may wield thunder; Hades commands the dead; but the celestial being you should most fear is Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Her beauty? Irresistible. Her sensibilities? Easily offended. Her influence? Enough to start wars (Paris of Troy, anyone?). Aphrodite was the original femme fatale, and, for years past and even years to come, people have yearned for the qualities that she embodies: fertility, virility, sensuality, desirability.
And from this quest for love, the concept of an aphrodisiac was born. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as any “food, drink, or drug that arouses sexual desire,” involving everything from mandrake roots to casu marzu to oysters. The sheer scope of this culinary catalogue begs the important question: do aphrodisiacs actually work? To find out, we go on a deep dive into the most celebrated aphrodisiacs of past and present, worthy of the love goddess herself.
1. A BRIEF HISTORY
We suspect liberal use of hyperbole, but the Huang-Ti Nei-Ching, a Chinese medical text from 2600 BCE, lists the 22 ingredients of a potion an emperor should ingest to “mount 1,200 women and achieve immortality.” Indeed, one need not look far into the ancient books to find such lurid aphrodisiacs and their equally lurid backstories. The ancient Egyptians smeared crocodile heart mixtures on their genitals. The Romans consumed the semen of young men. And in more recent contexts, ground rhino horn was sold by African poachers throughout the 1900s as a supplement for potency. Thanks to the Silk Road, spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and anise seed were popularised in Europe and Asia alike. And, right here in the Lion City, the notorious odours of the durian are championed for their anti-aging and even desire-enhancing properties. It was Martha Hawkins, co-author of Intercourse, who so boldly asserted that every food has been, at some point, considered an aphrodisiac. And we are hard pressed to disagree.
If, by chance, you find yourself browsing through 17th century pornography, you will find an unexpected star: food. Jennifer Evans, senior history lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire claims this is only natural, as “it was there to help fuel a couple for the next round.” Jean-Christopher Billeter, associate professor of social and sexual behaviour at the University of Gronigen, explains, “Evolutionarily-speaking, humans have a desire to have sex in order to reproduce, and we need to be of a healthy weight and have a diet that provides the right nutrients in order to do this.” In an experiment with fruit flies, Billeter found that, in a food-filled environment, flies mated up to seven times per day. In a foodless one, they mated only once. Take it from the rakish 17th century folks and selectively fecund fruit flies: food plays an integral, perhaps even a fundamental, role in the way we think about sex. And this psychological link may just explain why humans are so quick to label food as aphrodisiacs – yes, even crocodile hearts.
3. THE SCIENCE
The different kinds of food listed above may be more urban myth than scientific cure, but not all aphrodisiacs are completely baseless. The staple dishes of Valentine’s Day, including oysters, chocolate, and peppers, like catnip for the romantically inclined, have been proven to induce a real, albeit marginal, effect on the mind and body
Italian playboy Giacomo Casanova, who titillated the people of Venice with his many exploits, reportedly ate 50 oysters every morning to jumpstart his libido. His words inspired a newfound fascination with oysters, and a slew of experiments testing their validity. In 2005, the American Chemical Society asserted that bivalve molluscs – which include oysters, as well as mussels and scallops – have aphrodisiacal properties due to their high levels of zinc. The element plays a key role in testosterone production and spermatogenesis, the production of sperm, and could very well heighten male arousal. Interestingly, many have also associated oysters with Aphrodite, whose birth is the result of a rather unusual violence: paternal castration. It is said that Uranus’ severed genitals fell to the sea, generating the white foam – and, in Botticelli’s case, scallop shell – from which golden Aphrodite was born. And so, the mythic narrative successfully linked notions of sex, semen, sea, shells, and foam – all present within the oyster’s tumescent folds. Whether you believe the European lothario or foam-born goddess, one thing is certain: we all deserve a good shucking this Valentine’s Day.
Throughout the years, chilli peppers have taken on many roles: anaesthetic, supplement for cardiovascular health, and, most importantly, catalyst for desire. Unfortunately, the symptoms sound more strenuous than sensual. The fruit contains a chemical irritant known as capsaicin, which causes a ‘rush’ marked by increasing heart rate, breathing, and blood flow, triggering the facial flushing and excessive sweating mirroring that of a person in lust. While there is no human equivalent, studies have tracked the impact of capsaicin on the sexual behaviour of rats, observing an uptick in ejaculation rate and a decrease in refractory period times – the duration between ejaculation and a following sexual encounter.
Long before the days of Hershey’s and Ferrero Rocher, cocoa was a rich man’s commodity. In many cultures, in fact, its exclusivity bordered on sacredness. The scientific name of the cocoa tree, Theobroma cocoa, combines the Greek words theo and broma, quite literally meaning ‘god drink’. The Aztecs likened it to ambrosia, nectar of the heavens, and were the first to link cocoa beans with sexual desire. Nowadays, scientists have ascribed chocolate’s desire-inducing powers to two chemicals. One, tryptophan, is a building block of serotonin; the other, phenylethylamine, is a stimulant related to amphetamine. Both are ‘feel-good’ chemicals occurring naturally in the body, released by the brain when sexually aroused or falling in love. Despite this, attempts to find a direct correlation between the two have largely failed, leading researchers to conclude that such chemicals, in their trace amounts, are too small to have any significant effect.
4. WHAT MAKES YOU TICK?
At the end of the day, affairs of the heart are deeply personal, and individual preference and situational context are paramount. Remember, the brain is a powerful organ – amongst others, ahem. When we believe certain foods to be an aphrodisiac, when we associate them with sex or intimacy, no matter their chemical composition or mythological connotation, our bodies react accordingly. So, do aphrodisiacs really work? Well, that is entirely up to you.