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Investigating Three Aphrodisiacs: Chocolate, Oysters, Spanish Fly

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For a lot of couples, pizza and the second-cheapest bottle of wine at the restaurant are the only stimulating ingredients needed on a date. But can certain foods or compounds really fan the flames of desire?

Chocolate: How Sweet It Is

Italian scientists put the stimulating abilities of sweets to the test in a paper published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2006. The researchers recruited 163 women and asked them about their daily chocolate intake, sexual history, and habits. They found no difference in reported sexual satisfaction, distress, or arousal between the group of women who ate zero, one or three servings of chocolate per day. The result aligns with the general findings in scientific literature: No clear evidence for an invigorating, sexy boost from chocolate.

But before we put aside that box of chocolates, there are some related items to consider about the dark, sweet stuff. First, there are two neurotransmitters, serotonin and anandamide, that are both found in chocolate and reportedly “contribute to feelings of happiness and euphoria during sex.” Then there’s phenylethylamine (aka PEA) that is contained in many a cocoa product. Phenylethylamine, for the uninitiated, is a neurotransmitter released by the body “when you’re in love, which helps to account for that feeling of good all over.”

And finally, there is some scientific evidence that the antioxidant flavonoid, which can be found in various amounts in some chocolates, is good for the heart. And whether it’s Valentine’s Day or any other day, a healthy heart in your lover is a good thing.

So, however you want to cut it, while chocolate might not quite live up to its reputation as an aphrodisiac, there just may be some benefits to it, and to many, it’s quite delicious, so you probably won’t offend your sweetheart by offering him or her a bite.

Oysters: Love on the Half Shell or Half-Baked Evidence?

The suggestive shape of oysters may play a role in their reputation as an aphrodisiac. That and the story that famed womanizer Giacomo Casanova breakfasted on 50 oysters every morning.

While evidence to support Casanova’s story is lacking, one 2005 study presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society did find high levels of two amino acids linked to the release of sex hormones in certain kinds of shellfish including oysters, muscles, and clams: D-aspartic acid and N-methyl-D-aspartate.

However, whether these substances have a measurable effect in people is not known. And the FDA has some pretty strong warnings about the whole oyster thing.

Spanish Fly: Love Potion or Love Poison?

Spoiler alert: this “aphrodisiac” does sort of do something—primarily for men—but not in a way that is particularly enjoyable. And, it might kill you. Seriously.

First, meet the beetles. The Spanish fly backstory starts with some bugs. Male blister beetles—including Lytta vesicatoria, the species infamously known as Spanish fly—bear curious little presents when they go a-courting. First, they secrete a compound called cantharidin from their knees. They then roll this sticky substance up into a little ball, put it on their heads and approach a female. If she accepts his gift, they mate. After the female lays her eggs, she’ll rub the nuptial gift of cantharidin over her eggs to protect them from predators.

So how do we get from the beetles to a putative love concoction or inducement for humans?

The cantharidin. And this is where the real bad news starts. Cantharidin is poisonous and capable of causing severe chemical burns. (Even so, for millennia it’s been used in folk medicine. It’s still used today in the West as a wart treatment.)

And what about its reputation as an aphrodisiac? As explained in the Encyclopedia of Entomology, Volume 4:

“Because cantharidin irritates the urogenital tract, tingling and burning sensations are felt in the genitalia, and due to blood vessel dilation, the penis and labia engorge with blood. Because it made people more aware of their genitals, it was thought to build erotic passion and cause sexual excitement.”

Every now and then, the encyclopedia goes on, Spanish fly leads to priapism (the technical term for persistent, usually nonsexual erections), something that “can require surgical correction” and even “damage the organ’s vascular tissues.”

So what can consuming Spanish fly get you besides a keener awareness of your genitals? Gastrointestinal tract inflammation. Urinary tract irritation. A long-lasting erection, which may be less enjoyable since you might be too busy worried about your deteriorating stomach lining. Death.

Food for Thought

So maybe there’s no magic food to hot-wire the body’s sexual engine. But even if a substance doesn’t actually have a solid metabolic link to desire, you could always rely on the placebo effect to do the job. “If you tell someone that something is an aphrodisiac, a lot of times they’ll get aroused just thinking about it,” New York University nutritionist Samantha Heller told the New York Times. After all, the most important sexual organ is found in the head, not the stomach.

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