Aphrodisiacs Can Spark Sexual Imagination, But Probably Not Libido
ARUN RATH, HOST:
If you're going on a picnic with a special someone this summer, be sure to pack the watermelon and chili peppers - lore has it those foods are good for your love life. Taunya English of member station WHYY investigates the enduring allure of aphrodisiacs.
TAUNYA ENGLISH: So what do we know about the power of food to rev up sex drive? Not much. Researcher Dolores Lamb hasn't seen any compelling evidence that any particular food can intensify desire.
DOLORES LAMB: Science has not figured out what determines sexual attraction. If we knew the answer to that, we probably would be richer than Pfizer after they invented Viagra.
ENGLISH: Lamb leads the Center for Reproductive Medicine at Baylor University. She knows all about the intricacies of male plumbing. But sexual motivation is likely psychological, Lamb says. It's the brain that jumpstarts libido. Still, seems like there has to be something to that idea that ginger stirs up lust or that hot peppers make you hot.
LAMB: Probably for some folks they do, and it's certainly fun to try (laughter).
ENGLISH: Lamb says there's no single food that boosts male hormones. But some legendary aphrodisiacs do have an active chemical here or a trace nutrient there. Watermelon, for instance, it's juicy and red. And it contains the amino acids citrulline. The nutrient is healthy for erectile tissue in both men and women. But there's not enough of it to make any difference in the bedroom. Now, let's consider chili peppers.
LAMB: You get kind of a chill down the back of your neck and kind of a tingly, good sensation.
ENGLISH: The chemical capsaicin in a jalapeno raises your metabolism and releases feel-good endorphins. Susana Mayer, a clinical sexologist in Philadelphia, says she's felt that tingle.
SUSANA MAYER: Maybe while you are eating those hot peppers, your brain goes oh, I had a similar experience, except I was with my lover. And so you start making those associations.
ENGLISH: There's not a lot of research on aphrodisiacs, but Mayer conducted her own unscientific survey in her adult sex-ed class. It's called the Erotic Literary Salon.
MAYER: I asked them had anybody ever experienced the effects of food that was considered an aphrodisiac. Not one hand went up.
ENGLISH: People at the discussion group said they have gotten turned on while watching an intimate partner eat. And that suggests a whole different category of aphrodisiacs - foods that remind us of our anatomy. For example, avocados, they have a creamy center and they grow in pairs. Literally, two globes of ripe, low-hanging fruit. Nutritionist and food scientist Cathy Kapica says sexual innuendo may be the most important active ingredient in an aphrodisiac. The big thing that love foods have in common, she says, is that they were once considered rare or expensive. Think about champagne, dark chocolate, saffron and oysters.
CATHY KAPICA: When do you eat oysters? Usually when you go out. It's a special occasion. You're with that special someone. Maybe you order oysters to impress them.
ENGLISH: Oysters are also a good source of zinc. And zinc is important to sperm production, so it makes sense then that oysters have a body reputation. But Kapica says that doesn't make it science.
KAPICA: They don't have any superpower that's going to make you a super lover.
ENGLISH: But, you know, it's fun to try.
Hi, I'm Taunya English.
So sexologist Susana Mayer and I headed to the Oyster House. It's a swanky raw bar in Philadelphia.
MAYER: I'm just dipping this into this wonderful sauce here. Oh, this is delicious.
ENGLISH: So just like the scientist, the sexologist says the power of an aphrodisiac is mostly about anticipation. For NPR News, I'm Taunya English in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.