Aphrodisiacs: Fact or Fabricated-by-my-partner?

You’re reclining on a plush, velvet chaise-longue, taking in the establishment’s crimson walls and chatoyant chandeliers. A house band slinks its way through a seventies funk tune. A waiter, with a knowing wink, hands over a delicately embossed menu of the night’s three courses. “Saffron risotto with pistachio crumb for starters,” they purr. Then, it’s grilled champagne oysters for the main and chili-chocolate fondant for dessert. “Welcome,” they whisper, to “L'Aphrodisiaque”.



A food, drink, or other thing that stimulates sexual desire.


If music be the food of love, play on…

…so goes the first line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, uttered by a smitten Orsino. While he may be harping on about the similarity of music and love, food is just as richly associated with love throughout history, literature and culture. Since ancient times, aphrodisiacs - substances that promise to induce and excite sexual pleasure - have enchanted entire civilizations, providing natural ways to heighten your libido. But do they really work? We’ll get to the science behind them shortly; but first, a quick history lesson…

An orgasmic smorgasbord

Aphrodisiacs first came about thousands of years ago in Ancient Greece, and it was all down to one thing: not being able to get it up. When men were faced with issues of impotence, communities across the world turned to natural substances for a quick fix, looking to rectify the evolutionary disadvantage of not being able to reproduce. Fortunately, there was an entire smorgasbord of orgasmic snacks on offer, made popular via myths, poetry and ancient erotic texts. These are still engrained in legend: Mexican ruler Montezuma, for example, was rumored to gulp down fifty cups of hot chocolate before an orgy, while troublesome lothario Casanova seduced his lovers with oysters, sucking them from their shells and spilling them down the tops of his female guests.

Nowadays, they’re less about erectile dysfunction and more sexual arousal, and while there’s an outrageously eclectic range of medicines cited - including impossibly unsexy lotions and potions like mouse dung and nettle oil - four main categories persist:

Food that looks naughty

Phallic foods like asparagus, ginseng, celery, leeks, carrots, cucumbers and - err - manroot have all been purported in the past to help turn you on, mainly because of the laws of similarity: since we associate these objects with sex, a relationship between the two is forged in our heads. Equally, foods that are moist, soft and slippery - like oysters, figs, honey and pomegranate - have been touted as being able to get you hard, wet and ready to go.

Bringing out the animal side

Other aphrodisiacs try to unlock an animal passion within us. Animal testicles of all shapes and sizes were a common cure in the hope that you’d absorb some of the creatures’ virility, while other tonics included human bone marrow, tiger penises, Spanish flies and rhino horns. Horns, horniness, what’s not to get?

Plant power

The plant world, too, has had its own appetite for aphrodisiacs. Many people consider coffee to be one, for example, due to its stimulating effects, while remedies like maca root (an Andes plant), yohimbine (bark from an evergreen African tree) and nasturtium flowers all lay claim to having properties that’ll help you get laid. Cannabis has been advocated as a sexual aid thanks to CBD increasingly blood flow, though it’s use is only felt if you haven’t already passed-out face-first in your bag of Quavers.

Spicing up your sex life

Well-seasoned lovers will know that spices have also been used for centuries to get us hot and heavy. Continuing the connection between aphrodisiacs and wealth, saffron has been championed as upping libido and increasing stamina. Other herbs and flavorings cited include cardamon, fenugreek, pepper, ginger and - ironically - vanilla.

Rock-solid evidence?

Is guzzling fifty cups of Bournville cocoa, though, going to put your sex drive into hyperspeed, or just leave you with a raging headache and ruined teeth? With natural aphrodisiacs being so varied, it’s hard to come to a one-size-fits-all conclusion on how effective they are. It’s only recently that science has taken the topic seriously, trying to provide an accurate response to whether they’re fact or fabrication.

In 2011, Massimo Marcone and John Melnyk's seminal paper Aphrodisiacs from Plant and Animal Sources peer-reviewed hundreds of experiments, trying to make sense of it all. According to their findings, saffron did indeed improves sexual function, as did yohimbine, chocolate and ginseng. Nutmeg, cloves, ginger and garlic also proved successful. Before you go raiding the spice cupboard, though, it came with a caveat: "Currently, there is not enough evidence to support the widespread use of these substances as effective aphrodisiacs,” Marcone said alongside the paper. “More clinical studies are needed.”

Chemical analyses of each of these substances can help explain the results. Chocolate, for example, contains tryptophan, which helps form serotonin, and phenylethylamine, a feel-good stimulant. Saffron, meanwhile, boasts crocin, a carotenoid which can ease pain and increase sexual desire. Oysters, on the other hand, boost your zinc. While zinc boosts sperm production, tapping into oysters is unlikely to actually get you into the zone.

Other foods like pumpkins, walnuts, grapes and garlic can increase blood flow, either through promoting the release of nitric oxide or quercetin, an anti-inflammatory. Again, though, studies suggest that you’d only see the benefits if you had pre-existing problems with your circulation, and you’d have to eat a heck of a lot of them to feel any difference, indulge in them regularly to allow any effects to accumulate, and probably preempt any fun time a few days in advance.

A hard pill to swallow

Realistically, then, natural aphrodisiacs might contribute to us feeling healthy, active and energetic, but any tangible increase in sexual arousal is at best miniscule, at worst, it’s all in our heads. The placebo effect, of course, is rock solid when it comes to remedies, treatments and cure-alls, and even the thought of an oyster sliding down our throats might be enough to get our hearts racing.

If you’re looking to get harder or wetter, then, we suggest sticking to the soft stuff. While it’s questionable if nutmeg can help you nut, it’s harmless trying these ideas out, and you might get off on the placebo effect and the natural enjoyment of eating great food. If music truly is the food of love, then, scoff on - as long as it’s not human bone marrow, please…

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