Foods That Act as Aphrodisiacs

For millennia, humans have sought out aphrodisiac foods, revering their power to increase virility or fertility, enhance sexual pleasure, or inspire fidelity. Scientists may question the existence of aphrodisiacs, but as anyone who's shared a romantic meal can attest, biting into a perfectly ripe berry can spark as much ardor as a kiss.

Consider cinnamon: Studies have documented that its warm aroma is incredibly arousing. We don't yet know why. But if breakfast in bed involves cinnamon rolls with dulce de leche, does it really matter?

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    Vanilla Bean

    Headily aromatic, the vanilla bean's complex flavor isn't easy to come by—vanilla orchids flower just one day a year, and cultivation depends on careful hand-pollination. Vanilla beans take weeks to mature, and months to ripen and cure. Talk about a study in heightened anticipation. Vanilla consumption increases catecholamine levels, including epinephrine (aka adrenaline), a neurotransmitter and fight-or-flight hormone that's elevated when we're excited.

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    Lush, fragrant strawberries have quite a creation myth—they're said to have originated as heart-shaped tears shed by the goddess Aphrodite upon the death of her lover, Adonis. Freya, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, was also associated with strawberries. Studded as they are with tiny seeds, shapely, juicy strawberries are fitting symbols of fertility. The fact that the sweetest berries grow seasonally and wild only adds to their allure.

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    Avocados have been ascribed aphrodisiac qualities—down to their etymology—since ancient times. The Aztecs, struck by the evocative way the fruits hang in pairs, dubbed avocado trees "ahuacuatl," or "testicle tree," and forbade maidens to go outside during their harvest. Avocados are an all-around sensual fruit: their sumptuous flesh is silky-smooth on the tongue, and because the fruit is rich in emollient oils, it is equally prized for use on the skin.

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    Caviar's aphrodisiac status derives from its luxury status, and from its undeniable association with fertility. Enjoying fine caviar is also an unabashedly sensual experience. The tiny eggs roll and burst on the tongue, yielding an almost buttery, elemental taste of the ocean.

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    Honey is so evocative of love, that it's the standard by which we measure its sweetness. And when the sensation of falling in love proves as delectable as the sticky stuff, we even dub our sweethearts "Honey." Newlyweds were once supplied a month's worth of mead, a honey wine, hence the term "honeymoon." Of course, when you get down to it, honey is literally one sexy substance — it's created from the nectar bees collect as they flit from flower to flower, fertilizing blooms.

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    Rosemary's strong pine-like aroma is captivating and instantly recognizable. A whiff of its foresty earthiness can conjure vivid sense memories, so the herb has long been valued as a powerful symbol of fidelity.

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    Oysters may be the quintessential aphrodisiac food. Casanova purportedly ate 50 each day. They're incredibly rich in zinc, a nutrient key to testosterone production. They're downright sexy looking. Eating them is a thoroughly tactile experience; lifting the shell to lips, feeling the oyster's firm slip, its hint of crispness, a wash of flavors from saline, mineral, sweet, fruity, and buttery, to the elusive umami. Ultimately, each individual oyster is as mysterious as a new lover, and we learn its textural landscape and flavor only as we savor it. 

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    Perfumers capitalize on ginger's warm, woodsy aroma when they want to create particularly seductive blends. And there's something incredibly captivating about the way ginger's heat blooms in the mouth, with spicy notes that nip the tongue gently. Ginger plays nice, heightening other flavors, and stimulating our perception of them. And it gets the blood flowing, quite literally, which may be why it garnered an aphrodisiac mention in the Kama Sutra, among other ancient tracts.

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    Chiles not only get our blood pumping in a very perceptible way, their heat actually triggers a flood of endorphins, natural opiate-like neurotransmitters that promote feelings of euphoria and excitement. (It's no coincidence that our bodies also release endorphins when we're in love). Eating chiles makes the skin flush the lips plump, so we look as amorous as they can make us feel. 

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    Montezuma consumed copious amounts of hot chocolate, the better to serve his harem of 600. Casanova employed it in his seductions. Countless others followed suit, until chocolate became an obvious, if ever-welcome, a token of affection. As for its aphrodisiac status, chocolate contains several chemicals—including phenylethylamine, theobromine, and tryptophan—that exert powerful effects on the pleasure centers of the brain.

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    Alluringly aromatic, basil was offered as a love token in parts of Italy. Basil has even been ascribed magical properties related to love and fidelity.

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    Both Aphrodite and Persephone (who, incidentally, shared the lover Adonis), were associated with the pomegranate. The fruit is sacred in many cultures as a symbol of fertility, thanks to an abundance of gemlike seeds that burst with sweet-tart juice.

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    Asparagus may have initially earned its aphrodisiac status from its phallic shape. But as a diuretic, the verdant veggie stimulates the genitourinary tract, which may have something to do with the amorous feelings it can inspire. Its fresh and grassy flavor calls spring—and its attendant birds and bees—to mind. And asparagus spears are great fun to eat with the hands, a sensual pursuit if ever there was one.

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    Oh, those Greek goddesses and their double standards. Never mind that Persephone's boy toy, Adonis, spent part of the year in the underworld just to be with her. When her husband, Hades, took up with the water nymph, Minthe, Persephone turned her into a plant, the better to stomp on her rival. The best Hades could do for Minthe was to turn her into an aromatic plant. He did a good job on that count—mint's fresh, sweet, aroma is uplifting and energizing. And thanks to menthol in mint, the herb creates an intriguing cooling sensation on the palate.

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    Almonds have had aphrodisiac appeal since biblical times. The gorgeous fragrance of their blossoms is said to arouse passion, which is why Samson employed almond branches in his ill-fated seduction of Delilah. Things may not have worked out so well for Samson, but that hasn't tainted the almond's reputation as a fertility symbol or love token. Sugared almonds' romantic associations make them a popular wedding favor. And we now know that almonds are rich in heart-protective, fertility-enhancing Vitamin E.

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    Like caviar, truffles derive their aphrodisiac status in part from their rarity, expense, and connotations of luxury. But the real story is about simple animal attraction. Truffles emit a pheromone shared by boars, which is why truffle hunters employ the aid of amorous sows to eagerly nose out and dig up the tubers. The same pheromone that's such a turn-on to sows is found in the sweat of human males, which may explain why we're so drawn to truffles' musky, earthy aroma and flavor. They really easy to make on your own.

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    Since antiquity, saffron has been one of the most prized—and expensive—spices in the world. Actually, the pistils of Crocus sativas flowers, saffron is hand-harvested, a labor-intensive process that boosts its worth. Cleopatra infused her baths with the spice, both for its perfume and purported ability heighten sensations of pleasure. It takes only a small amount of the spice to color a dish and lends it relaxing, mood-boosting properties. Excessive saffron intake, on the other hand, can exert deadly narcotic effects; the air of danger associated with large doses of the saffron may have heightened its mystique.

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    Curvy-contoured and velvet-skinned, figs open to reveal soft, luscious flesh that drips with honeyed floral nectar. Some commentators claim the fruit that tempted Eve was, in fact, a fig, and when Adam and Eve caught wise to their naked state, they covered up with fig leaves. Outside of Mediterranean climes, the delicate fruits have a short season, which only heightens anticipation of their enjoyment.

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    Champagne's delicate effervescence tickles the nose with volatile aromatics, and the play of its tiny bubbles on the tongue can inspire an almost instantaneous sense of giddy wellbeing. Champagne is inherently festive, at once elegant and fun. Champagne also has a slightly lower alcohol content than many other libations, so to paraphrase the Porter in Shakespeare's Macbeth, it's less likely to "provoke the desire, but take away the performance..."