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February 2005

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Food for Love: Aphrodisiacs

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Food for Love

by Jan Gjestvang-Lucky

Have you ever heard the phrase: “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach?” Well, it probably applies regardless of gender, especially if you know just the right ingredients to add to your recipes. In honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s check out the truth of that statement by looking at some of the folklore, history and science of the use of foods as aphrodisiacs. I’ll even provide a list of those ingredients.

Anaphro-what?
All giggling and blushing aside, a strict definition of an aphrodisiac is a substance that increases sexual desire. In reality, things are usually called aphrodisiacs if they are thought to promote either physical or psychological arousal, or in the best cases, both. Here’s a word to impress your Scrabble playing friends with: an anaphrodisiac is something that reduces sexual desire, or the opposite of an aphrodisiac. You might use it to replace “disappointment” or “let-down” or even “bummer” in casual conversation (“That concert was a real anaphrodisiac, man.”) Both words have their root in the name of the Greek goddess of love and desire, Aphrodite.

Folk and herbal lore
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims there are no effective over-the-counter (OTC) aphrodisiacs, but thousands of years of folk and herbal folklore beg to differ. For as long as people have been using plants to help and heal, they have also been using them, and non-plant foods, as aphrodisiacs. There are many different ways that foods could come to be known as aphrodisiacs. There are those that are reputed to have their powers because of their resemblance to sexual organs: rhinoceros horn, ginseng, and oysters, for example. Spicy foods, like chilies and curries, may be considered aphrodisiacs because the sweating and flushed skin caused by eating them resembles a state of arousal. Then there are other foods that are included because they are rare and exotic, or provide a sensual experience, like caviar and chocolate. That may be why potatoes, no longer so exotic, were once on the list of aphrodisiac foods shortly after they were introduced to Europe from South America.

Your kiss is on my list...
I compiled this list of aphrodisiac foods, which is by no means complete, from different on-line sources. One of the websites (link to it at: http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/recipes_aphro.asp) gives brief descriptions of each of the foods’ aphrodisiac qualities, and I’ve included some of them here:

1. Anise seed
2. Asparagus
3. Almond
4. Artichokes
5. Arugula
6. Avocado
7. Bananas
8. Basil, sweet
9. Celery
10. Chili Peppers
11. Chocolate
12. Carrots
13. Coffee
14. Coriander (Cilantro seed): The book of The Arabian nights tells a tale of a merchant who had been childless for 40 years and but was cured by a concoction that included coriander. That book is over 1000 years old so the history of coriander as an aphrodisiac dates back far into history. Cilantro was also known to be used as an “appetite” stimulant.
15. Figs
16. Garlic
17. Ginger
18. Honey: Many medicines in Egyptian times were based on honey, including cures for sterility and impotence. Medieval seducers plied their partners with
mead, a fermented drink made from honey. Lovers on their “Honeymoon” drank mead and it was thought to “sweeten” the marriage.
19. Licorice
20. Mustard
21. Nutmeg
22. Oysters
23. Pine Nuts
24. Pineapple
25. Pomegranate
26. Raspberries and Strawberries
27. Truffles: The Greeks and the Romans considered the rare Truffle to be an aphrodisiac. The musky scent is said to stimulate and sensitize the skin to touch.
28. Vanilla
29. Wine

Disclaimer
The Willy Street Co-op can not be held responsible for any activities resulting from the consumption of these foods. (I modified this disclaimer from one of the sites.)

A popular field (you’d think)
Because of our societal taboos around sex and sexual function, there has not been much scientific research in these areas compared to other aspects of human health. There have still been some promising studies done since the FDA’s claim about over-the-counter aphrodisiacs was made in 1989. Many of them seem to validate the folklore about the effectiveness of certain aphrodisiacs. Oysters, for example, have been shown to be high in zinc, which is an important element in the production of testosterone. And testosterone, although usually thought of as a male hormone, is connected to sexual arousal for men and women. With more research in the area likely (thanks in no small part to Viagra and its competitors), we may soon know even more about the science of aphrodisiacs.

I think the FDA’s main reason for making their statement about aphrodisiacs was to make sure nobody was harmed, either physically or financially, by purchasing products claiming to be aphrodisiacs. There are definitely some dangerous products on the market. Spanish Fly, the infamous love tonic, is actually quite toxic, and can even be lethal. It is made from the South American blister beetle, and creates physical, but not psychological, arousal by irritating the urethral passages. Doesn’t sound very sexy to me (“That Spanish Fly was a real anaphrodisiac, man!”). On the other hand, when a British supermarket chain starts marketing “Pizzagra,” their aphrodisiac pizza with toppings like strawberries and asparagus, all I can say is draw your own conclusions, and “caveat emptor,” or “buyer beware.”

I have the power
What the FDA actually said about aphrodisiacs is not that they don’t work, but “that there is no scientific proof that any over-the-counter aphrodisiacs work to treat sexual dysfunction.” Despite the research that has since been done, that “scientific proof” is still a sticking point. It is hard to quantitatively study and measure something as subjective as sexual desire. That has led some to say that the real effect of an aphrodisiac may be the placebo effect; if you think it works, it does. I’m not saying I doubt the powers of certain foods and herbs as medicine or aphrodisiacs, but I think that just as important as what you eat, are the attitudes and people you eat with. To paraphrase one of the last century’s most eminent sexual psychologists (no not Freud, you silly, Dr. Ruth!): “The most powerful aphrodisiac is the one between your ears.” I wish you all much luck in love, and eating, and... thinking!