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Claim Check

Aphrodisiac Foods: For Real or a Placebo Effect?

by Gina Shaw  

The claim: Certain foods (and herbal supplements) can arouse sexual desire.

The facts: There’s limited or no good research to indicate that any food (or supplement) acts as an aphrodisiac.

Chocolate, oysters, and honey often top the list of so-called aphrodisiacs. Chocolate contains various compounds, including cannabinoid-like fatty acids, that may boost levels of serotonin, a brain chemical involved in the pleasure response. Oysters may also increase serotonin levels in the body, and they contain zinc, which is needed for production of testosterone and sperm.

And the idea of a “honeymoon” dates back centuries—newly married couples used to drink a concoction of fermented honey and water, known as mead or honey wine, during the first month of their marriage. (Due to its alcohol content—about 8 to more than 20 percent—the beverage may at least have had a disinhibiting effect when it came to sex.)

But according to a review of the scientific literature published in 2015, none of these sexy-sounding foods (or other substances such as rhino horn, chasteberry, horny goat weed, saw palmetto, or wild yam) have been proven to do much to enhance sexual drive—either because studies have not found them to have such effects or have been too small to know for sure, or because there are no randomized controlled trials at all. Honey, oysters, and chocolate won’t hurt you, as long as you don’t gorge on them (all those extra chocolate calories could leave you feeling distinctly un-sexy if they lead to weight gain). You should, however, avoid a product called “mad honey,” the review warns; marketed as a sexual stimulant, it contains a toxin that can cause a laundry list of side effects, including heart problems. And many dietary supplements, such as yohimbine, carry serious health risks and should never be taken, while some research suggests that saw palmetto may decrease libido.

The review notes that a few substances may hold some promise as sexual enhancers, but more research is needed to prove their efficacy and safety before they can be recommended. For instance, a handful of preliminary studies—all with some problems including in reporting of data—suggest that maca, a turnip-like root vegetable native to the Peruvian Andes, may improve sexual function in women and help with erectile dysfunction in men, though other research has not shown benefit. And one specific type, Korean red ginseng, has been shown to boost sexual arousal in menopausal women. It also causes minimal side effects, but since it has estrogen-like effects, women who have had breast cancer should not consume it. Another herb with some preliminary data behind it is ginkgo, which may increase blood flow, thus helping with erections.

Keep this in mind, too: the placebo effect. Even if research hasn’t made a connection between sexual appetite and your favorite “erotic” food, if you think that chocolate, oysters, or some other delicacies can get you in the right mood, then maybe they can!

Also see Do Contraceptives Curb Women’s Sexual Desire?