Sunday, February 15, 2009
An aphrodisiac is a substance which is used in the belief that it increases sexual desire. The name comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sensuality. Throughout history, many foods, drinks, and behaviors have had a reputation for making sex more attainable and/or pleasurable. However, from a historical and scientific standpoint, the alleged results may have been mainly due to mere belief by their users that they would be effective (i.e., the placebo effect). In particular, medical science has not substantiated claims that any particular food increases sexual desire or performance.
Throughout the centuries, emperors and everyday folk alike have ingested, imbibed, sprinkled, or applied almost every conceivable substance—from almond paste to zebra tongues—in the hope of arousing sexual desire. Whether to woo a reluctant lover, revive a flagging libido, or pique carnal pleasure and performance, lovers the world over have relied on aphrodisiacs to do the trick. But which ones have the greatest reputations for potency (and why?) and do any of them really work?
Aphrodisiacs Through the Ages
The association between food and eroticism is primal, but some foods have more aphrodisiacal qualities than others. Biblical heroines, ancient Egyptians, and Homeric sorceresses all swore by the root and fruit of the mandrake plant. The grape figured prominently in the sensual rites of Greek Dionysian cults, and well-trained geishas have been known to peel plump grapes for their pampered customers. Fermented, of course, grape juice yields wine, renowned for loosening inhibitions and enhancing attraction (though as Shakespeare's porter wryly notes in Macbeth, alcohol "provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance"). Honey sweetens the nectarlike philters prescribed in the Kama Sutra to promote sexual vigor, and the modern "honeymoon" harks back to the old custom for newlyweds to drink honeyed mead in their first month of marriage. Grains like rice and wheat have long been associated with fertility if not with love, and Avena sativa (green oats), an ingredient in many over-thecounter sexual stimulants, may explain why young people are advised to "sow their wild oats." Numerous herbs and spices—basil, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, fenugreek, ginger, pepper, saffron, and vanilla, to name a few—appear in ancient and medieval recipes for love potions, as well as in lists of foodstuffs forbidden in convents because of their aphrodisiac properties.
Among other delicacies banned by the Church in centuries past were black beans, avocados, and chocolate, presumably all threats to chastity. And truffles—both earthy black and ethereal white—caused religious consternation in the days of the Arab empire. One story has it that the muhtasib of Seville tried to prohibit their sale anywhere near a mosque, for fear they would corrupt the morals of good Muslims. For those who held debauchery in higher esteem, the list of favored aphrodisiacs was bound only by the imagination. The herb valerian, noted for its stimulant properties at lower doses, was long a brothel favorite, and yu-jo, professional women of pleasure in feudal Japan, supplemented their charms with the aphrodisiacal powers of eels, lotus root, and charred newts.
From Symbol to Science
How did certain foods come to be regarded as aphrodisiacs in the first place? In some cases, legendary associations play a likely role: Cleopatra is rumored to have rubbed her private parts with a honey-almond mixture that drove Mark Antony mad. Some believe that the Aztec ruler Montezuma fortified himself with upwards of fifty cups of chocolate before visiting his harem (though more scholarly reports contend it was the conquistadors who sought such reinforcement). Casanova famously boasted of seducing a virgin by slipping a raw oyster into her mouth. Madame du Barry is said to have used ginger in a custardy concoction that stirred Louis XV to passion. And because Aphrodite, Greek goddess of sexual love, was said in myth to be born from the sea, a beguiling array of seafoods have been deemed aphrodisiacs (her very name is the source of the word).
Symbolism, too, plays an obvious part. During the Middle Ages, the Law of Similarities, or Doctrine of Signatures, held that in God's universe "like causes like," so suggestively shaped and textured substances were believed to enhance virility and fertility by virtue of their resemblance to sexual organs. Firm, elongated asparagus, sea cucumbers, and ginseng (literally, "manroot") and moist, fleshy figs, peaches, and oysters are prime examples. Other symbolic aphrodisiacs are rhinoceros horn and deer antler and the sex organs of animals known for their virility or procreative fervor, such as the tiger or rabbit.
Some foods are exalted as aphrodisiacs by virtue of their rarity or luxury. Bird's nest soup, foie gras, caviar, truffles, and champagne are all, even if no longer necessarily difficult to obtain, still suggestive of wealth and largesse, playing into the age-old association among food, sex, and the provision of resources. Certain foods also lend themselves to particularly sensual dining rituals and modes of eating. Preparing food tableside with competence and élan, consuming whole ripe fruits or succulent birds or crustaceans, eating with the hands, licking fingers coated in delectable juices, feeding one's partner, sharing food from a common platter, sucking and slurping seductively—such acts and rituals constitute true foreplay for culinarily inclined lovers.
"No one has ever succeeded at seduction by means of food alone," wrote Manuel Vázquez Montalbán in his Immoral Recipes, "but there's a long list of those who have seduced by talking about that which was about to be eaten." Certainly, stimulating the mind helps stoke the sexual appetite, and it is our social and cultural associations that imbue certain foods with erotic meanings. But is there solid scientific evidence to support the claims made for aphrodisiacs beyond their placebo effect?
Proponents of chocolate point out that it contains phenylethylamine, or PEA, the brain chemical believed to underlie the euphoric sensation of being "in love." But eating chocolate has not been found to actually increase PEA levels in the body. The chili pepper may have a stronger claim to its fiery reputation: it quickens the pulse and induces sweating, mimicking the state of sexual arousal, and has also been shown to stimulate the release of endorphins, naturally occurring opiates that play a role in sexual pleasure. Ginkgo biloba, said to boost both mental and sexual performance, may restore or enhance physical function by increasing blood flow to the genitals, but the safety and efficacy of this herbal enhancer are still unclear (heart patients and those on aspirin need to be especially cautious). Garlic may promote potency through a similar mechanism, with its high content of arginine, an amino acid that enhances blood flow and could thereby augment erections. The lure of the elusive truffle may derive in part from a pheromonelike chemical it contains, similar to one secreted in the saliva of male pigs to attract sows. And the oyster, that consummate aphrodisiac, is noted not only for its fleshy, briny sensuality but also for its rich supply of zinc, which may aid normal sperm production and libido (though it is unlikely that oysters make a difference in any but the most zinc-deficient diets).
The Ultimate Aphrodisiac
Overall, aphrodisiacs seem to be more the stuff of folklore than of science. But in the realm of food and love, the power of the imagination is not to be ignored—believing something's an aphrodisiac may well make it so. Yet all the oysters in the world cannot take the place of the ultimate aphrodisiac. As the Roman philosopher Seneca once promised, "I will show you a philter without potions, without herbs, without any witch's incantation—if you wish to be loved, love."
Fortunately, safer drugs are now available to aid impotence, and people experiencing sexual dysfunction are well advised to seek medical advice.
Some natural items purported to be aphrodisiacs when ingested or applied to the body.
*Borojo (Borojoa patinoi)
*Chocolate contains theobromine, a stimulating alkaloid, and helps the brain produce feel-good serotonin
*Damiana (Turnera diffusa)
*Epimedium grandiflorum (Horny Goat Weed)
*Lettuce, considered an aphrodisiac in Ancient Egypt. Eaten by the sexually potent *God of Chaos, Seth.
*Oysters Raw oysters are very high in zinc which raises sperm and testosterone production
*Spanish fly (cantharidin)
*Asparagus In 19th-century France, bridegrooms were served three courses of the *vegetable at their prenuptial dinner.
*Avocado The Aztecs called the avocado tree "Ahuacuatl," or "testicle tree." 
*Bananas The sap of the red banana is considered an aphrodisiac in Central America
*Tomatoes (allegedly to the French term pomme d'amour as a misrendering of pomme de *Maure)
*Mamey sapote