Food of Love: The Truth Behind Aphrodisiacs

12 Feb

As I was wandering around London the other day, I couldn’t help but notice (who could miss?) the pink balloons, red roses and cuddly little teddies clutching cartoon hearts that have invaded the shops, which can only mean one thing – Valentine’s Day is soon upon us!

Sure enough, the adverts and deals have started to drop into my inbox from the countless foodie websites I’m signed up to (what can I say, I love food!) and they’re all along the same lines; oysters, Champagne and chocolate………all popular ‘aphrodisiacs’. So I started to wonder; why do certain foods put us in a more…..ahem…..amorous mood? Is there any physical evidence or is it all in our imaginations? And, if they really do exist, what is it exactly that makes them work?

Let’s start with a quick bit of history to see just how far back the idea of aphrodisiac foods goes….

The actual word ‘aphrodisiac’ comes from……. Yep – you guessed it – Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, desire and beauty. Aphrodite is said to have risen out of the sea foam and been borne to shore on a seashell – providing an early link between sea food and romance that endures to this day. The goddess is also said to have held sparrows sacred and this lead to another historical aphrodisiac – sparrows’ brains (Personally, I think there’s a reason this one’s not so popular anymore…….I can’t imagine many of us would be thrilled these days to be taken out for a romantic dinner of bird brains!).

Despite the word’s origins in ancient Greece, the first recorded mention of aphrodisiacs was made in Egyptian medical papyri thought to date from 2200 – 1700 BC and the foods thought to act on our libidos have changed frequently throughout their history, from lettuce in ancient Egypt, through honey (suggested by Hippocrates), asparagus in the 17th century to spices, carrots and nettles championed up to the 18th Century in Europe (although based on the writings of Roman physician Galen who was born circa 130 BC!).

It does seem, though, that some aphrodisiacs have remained pretty much a constant since their first appearance – the trio from earlier:  Oysters, Champagne and chocolate. So why these three? Is there a possibility that they might actually work?! Well, just for you, dear readers, I’ve been doing a bit of research……..


Bivalve molluscs (that includes oysters) are known to have rich reserves of some quite rare amino acids and studies have shown that these amino acids increase progesterone in women and testosterone in men (both important for libido).

The Telegraph reported on the study by American and Italian scientists, where Dr Antimo D’Aniello is quoted as saying:

“Yes, I do think these molluscs are aphrodisiacs. If the male is having difficulties, they have to eat a lot of mussels or oysters.”

Apparently it is important that the oysters are eaten raw, as cooking them will reduce the molecules that act as aphrodisiacs rendering them less effective! Try Jamie Oliver’s traditional method of serving them with lemon juice and a drop of Tabasco



Alcohol has long been regarded as an aphrodisiac that really does have an effect on us. This is probably because, as we all know, alcohol lowers our inhibitions and, when enjoyed in moderation, tends to put us in a more relaxed, happier mood – the bubbles in Champagne are said to cause the alcohol to be absorbed into our systems faster than say, wine for example. “But, other alcoholic drinks have bubbles too!” I hear you cry…. Well yes, they do – gin & tonic, vodka soda, anything mixed with coke….but my guess would be that Champagne’s reputation as an aphrodisiac above all of these comes from its air of exclusivity and luxury – at one point even potatoes were considered an aphrodisiac in Europe because they were so rare! We’re programmed to drink Champagne on special occasions, with people we love, accompanied by fine food and candlelight……making it pretty hard to separate out what’s affecting our mood.

Apparently pink fizz has even more of an effect with the rosy colour adding a visual enhancement to the romantic atmosphere!





Aztec emperor Montezuma apparently drank 50 cups of cocoa per day! Allegedly this was, in part, to fuel his many romantic trysts and women were actually banned from enjoying the drink owing to its stimulating properties – I don’t think that would go down well today…….

As for the science bit: chocolate contains a trio of mood boosters and aphrodisiacs: Tryptophan – a precursor to serotonin, which regulates mood and desire, phenylethylamine – known as the ‘love molecule’ because it produces a feeling of love and infatuation, and Anandamide which is named after the Sanskrit word for bliss because of the feeling it creates. Wow – it’s not difficult to see why chocolate would be an aphrodisiac!

Unfortunately, most scientists think that the levels of these molecules are too low to have any real effect on us and any aphrodisiac effects we do feel are only psychological, a placebo effect produced by our brains because we believe that chocolate will have these aphrodisiac qualities.


So, what’s the conclusion?

Science has largely argued with the idea that aphrodisiacs work in any way other than psychologically – through suggestion and placebo (with the possible exception of oysters!)

That being said – psychological effect is still an effect and, maybe, just maybe, there are still things that we just don’t know?

Either way, if someone wants to buy me oysters, Champagne and chocolate, well………..who am I to argue with that?