Do aphrodisiacs work? The truth about foods like oysters and chocolate that "turn you on"

Do aphrodisiacs work? The truth about foods like oysters and chocolate that "turn you on"

Can certain food really put you in the mood?

Edible aphrodisiacs have been used since ancient times, believed to help amp up libido, lust and even fertility. Well-known supposed aphrodisiacs like oysters, champagne, chili peppers and chocolate are offered year after year on celebratory Valentine's Day menus across the world. 

But do they really work? The answer is complicated. 

"To be a true aphrodisiac, the substance has to elicit sexual desire," sexologist Megan Stubbs explained via email. Many foods believed to be aphrodisiacs indeed have anecdotal or subjective evidence attached to them, which makes the effects of consuming known aphrodisiacs difficult to prove scientifically. "It is all subjective," Stubbs said. "The power of suggestion is a strong motivator for sexual desire and the placebo effect can come into play as well."

However, many foods can "benefit your sexual wellness," and many foods thought to be aphrodisiacs "come with their own health benefits that can help support a healthy sex drive," Stubbs explained. 

For example, oysters are high in zinc (which has been proven to up "sexual competence" in male rats and has also been dubbed the "ultimate sex mineral") and have a reputation for boosting fertility. They also, as Stubbs pointed out, can be suggestive of vaginas. Other foods, like strawberries, may look like little hearts and be romantic to eat, and Stubbs threw in that bananas, cucumbers and avocados may also be aphrodisiacs to some due to the way they look. Insert eggplant emoji here. 

Steve McGough, who holds a doctorate in human sexuality and works as an associate professor at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, isn't convinced that aphrodisiacs are real. He notes that there's no clinical evidence from the Food and Drug Administration to prove that aphrodisiacs work, but there's also no clinical evidence to prove they don't. While there's no cold hard proof that foods like strawberries and oysters actually increase the libido, McGough noted in an email that the thought of these types of sexy foods can increase libido, thanks to the placebo effect.

Chocolate chocolate chocolate

Chocolate, however, may be the one food with a major exception. "Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, which is a naturally occurring substance and mood booster," Stubbs said. "Ancient Aztecs strongly believed in its aphrodisiac power."

And a boosted mood may just help you fall in love. 

"While there's no evidence that chocolate increases [sex] drive, studies have indicated it can improve mood," McGough said. "It's still debated exactly how this happens and some studies suggest it's due to the taste more than the effect of the compounds in chocolate." That said, chocolate's compounds like PEA, tryptophan and theobromine are associated with feeling good and can possibly also work for feeling attracted to someone or something. Not to mention, chocolate is delicious, makes you happy, and makes a great gift, so it's easy to see how chocolate may work solely as a psychological aphrodisiac. 

Again, there's no science backing up aphrodisiacs as a scientifically proven thing (if you see an aphrodisiac aisle at your local Trader Joe's, be suspicious), but some say they can work as a catalyst for getting in the mood — think the placebo effect combined with the not-so-subtle hint of a romantic, candlelit dinner. 

So, wait, aphrodisiacs are kind of real?

Amy Reiley, author of Fork Me, Spoon Me and Romancing the Stove and Cordon Bleu master of gastronomy, has a different take on aphrodisiacs. "Yes, they work, depending on what your goal is with them," Reiley said. She explained that to her, an aphrodisiac is more than a food that just raises your sexual hormone levels, but rather a more complex category of foods that can be used effectively and romantically. "You can use them to boost or maintain a healthy libido, to seduce someone, to have a romantic weekend or reconnect with someone who is important to you... you can use them in many different ways." 

Some of this effectiveness Reiley believes to be attributed to psychology, though there is no conclusive research to verify this. "We have to assume this knowing what we know about the power of persuasion and the sensuality of a food helps," she said, noting that something with a creamy mouthfeel or other texturally appeasing foods may "spark your senses in the right way."

If you're wooing a spicy food lover, Reiley recommends chili peppers, which have an immediate effect. "They're a great food of seduction because they will make our tongue tingle and if you eat enough of them they'll release endorphins." Chili peppers also can cause your cheeks to blush, your lips to plump up and may increase the level of heat at the table, quite literally spicing up your date. 

One other great lesser-known aphrodisiac: Coffee. If you're hoping to move your romantic dinner from the dinner table to the bedroom, Reiley recommends ending a meal with a cup of coffee or espresso. "It not only gives you a little bit of energy after your meal, but coffee also elevates mood," she said. If you're tempted to order dessert, Reiley encourages going for an affogato, which is sweet, caffeinated and not too filling.

When in doubt, consider setting up an aphrodisiac feast for the person you want to woo — they might get the hint. "Even though there is no definitive proof these aphrodisiacs work, if you set up a romantic evening filled with these foods, it will be pretty obvious about the mood your are trying to evoke," Stubbs said. So much for subtlety!