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Kim Carney / MSNBC.com
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 2/14/2006 8:30:11 AM ET 2006-02-14T13:30:11

Valentine's Day is nigh, and you're devising a meal to inspire a night of romance.

Oysters? Check. Chocolate? You betcha. Licorice?

Whoa, buster.

The list of alleged aphrodisiacs is ridiculously long. Possibly excepting rutabagas, almost every food has been claimed to help spark the flames of passion. Some suggestions are obvious, others a bit suspect.  When last we checked, garlic wasn't on our checklist of date essentials.

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Confusion reigns when it comes to the foods of love, in part because the very concept of the aphrodisiac is fuzzy.  Do aphrodisiacs work by triggering a biochemical response (nothing's as sexy as the phrase “biochemical response”) or are they the result of enduring cultural or psychological conditioning?

Consider one popular little blue pill. Despite its popular reputation as a love drug, “Viagra is actually about the hydraulics of sexual performance, not desire,” notes clinical psychologist Joy Davidson, a board member of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists.

Why do certain foods retain their reputation as an element in Casanova's toolbox? Some of it is enduring myth, doubly so for foods the legendary lover himself ate. (Oysters and chocolate, notably.) In other cases, we choose foods that taste luxurious or are part of a sensual dinner — with the meal setting a stage for what comes next. Call it the Truffle Effect.

Sometimes there are side effects that heighten the confusion. Spicy peppers' physical effects are obvious, but it's a big leap from heat in the mouth to heat between the sheets. And while alcohol has lowered plenty of inhibitions, it would be a stretch to call Champagne an aphrodisiac — much as it might improve your odds.

Leaving aside boldface claims and wives' tales, are there actually aphrodisiacs in the grocery aisle? Hard to say, in part because it's not a topic geared to rigorous research. “In the absence of proof and in the absence of an ability to define an aphrodisiac,” says Robert Shmerling, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who has spent time poking holes in food myths, “it becomes impossible to disprove.”

Let's consider five popular foods you might expect to find in Cupid's cupboard — and whether they deserve to be there.

5) Licorice and other aromatics
THE MYTH:
Many spices and scents get a reputation for turning on the love hose, but licorice seems to trace back farther than most — to ancient China and to India, where it can be found in Kama Sutra preparations.

Recently, studies have claimed men were aroused by the smell of licorice and women by a combination of cucumber and Good & Plenty, a licorice-like candy.

THE REALITY: Those reports stem from research by Alan Hirsch, M.D., director of the Chicago-based Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation.  Hirsch exposed Chicago-area men and women to various scents, and measured penile and vaginal blood flow as a signal of sexual arousal.

Among men, black licorice increased blood flow 13 percent; when combined with the smell of doughnuts, it jumped to 32 percent. A mix of lavender and pumpkin pie scored 40 percent, compared to just 3 percent for perfume.

While women were apparently aroused by the candy-cucumber mix, cherries actually decreased blood flow, as did the smells of barbecued meat and mens' cologne. (Sorry, guys.)

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings “The reason why they had this effect was unclear,” Hirsch says, but he has some theories. It might be a Pavlovian conditioned response. It might represent “olfactory nostalgia” from childhood, perhaps a sign of boys eating licorice while thinking manly thoughts. The aromas might help reduce anxieties. Or it could be due to some curious evolutionary anomaly.

While Hirsch dismisses many popular aphrodisiacs as the result of a placebo effect, he emphatically stands by his research, enough that his forthcoming book, “What's Your Food Sign,” attempts to pair couples based on eating preferences.

One small glitch: His research has caught skeptical glances from those in the research community, such as Rachel Herz, a visiting professor in the psychiatry department at Brown University Medical School who studies how scents and emotions are intertwined.

Rather than inherent scent triggers, she says, what's more likely is that many people have long-term associations — including sexual ones — with certain scents.  If you smell a perfume worn by an old girlfriend you're still fond of, it might inspire some warm, happy feelings. If she dumped you hard, the smell could be infuriating.

“Fragrances acquire their meaning through association,” Herz says. “There's no innate biochemical response.”

4) Chile Peppers
THE MYTH: Both the shape of most chile peppers and their mouth-scalding qualities have contributed to the belief that they'll make your evening muy caliente.

The shape belief isn’t unique to chiles.  Bananas, cucumbers, carrots and even asparagus have acquired reputations as love-inducing for a similar reason. (If you’re not sure what I mean, stop reading now and go pick up a copy of Freud.)

Most spicy foods seem to have a similar reputation, generally a link between the heat of the food and any ensuing passion. As chile expert Dave DeWitt of Fiery Foods Magazine notes, the Kama Sutra — written before chiles were introduced to India — advised that eating spicy foods could make people “fickle and restless.” Young Brahmans were barred from eating chiles.

THE REALITY: Capsaicin, chiles' heat-inducing compound, has significant physical effects on human bodies — most of them good.

It modulates pain signals, which led to its use as a topical medication for everything from headaches to arthritis. As a dietary aid, it acts as an antioxidant, thins mucus, aids digestion by increasing production of gastric juices and may lower cholesterol.

It is also thought to increase metabolism, including heart rate and blood flow, which is the most likely explanation for its reputed sexual properties.

While chiles obviously make people hot and bothered, it's a stretch to say they put us in the mood, though there's that fine line between pain and pleasure, which is why so many people enjoy chiles, even finding the heat addictive.

When it comes to hot peppers, says Linda DeVillers, who studies popular beliefs about aphrodisiacs and is working on an aphrodisiac cookbook, “the pain and pleasure connection really occurs.”

So no actual effects or secret compounds at work? “I don’t think chile peppers are aphrodisiacal in any way shape or form,” says DeWitt, author of “The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia.” “There’s no evidence.”

Oh, that shape thing: There is a slightly stumpy, medium-hot variety called the Peter pepper, DeWitt notes, known for being “anatomically correct.”

We’ll leave it at that.

3) Truffles
The myth:
The lore surrounding these precious, pungent underground fungi is nearly endless. Many accounts attribute their alleged aphrodisiac qualities to French gastronomer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who considered the topic in his legendary book, “The Physiology of Taste.”

Brillat-Savarin actually concluded that the truffle “is not a positive aphrodisiac, but it may under certain circumstances render women more affectionate, and men more amiable.” He further determined that even mentioning the word “awakens erotic and gourmand ideas” in men and women alike.

But New Zealand truffle grower Gareth Renowden, author of “The Truffle Book,” notes that truffles’ reputation as a progenitor of passion likely extends back even further, given their prominence in royal French cooking as early as 1651, when Louis XIV’s chef, La Varenne, published the first French cookbook.

Such lore was further enhanced by the practice of truffle hunting, usually conducted by specially trained pigs.  The truffle's musky scent has long been considered the apparent draw for sows who, as some tell it, detect in the truffle’s sultry aroma the very same smells that emanate from a male pig’s saliva — essentially an olfactory mating call.

No surprise truffle hunters struggle to keep their trusty helpers from devouring the rare fungi.

The reality: In the words of James Trappe, an Oregon State University researcher and perhaps the leading U.S. truffle expert: “The aphrodisiac effect of truffles has never been objectively demonstrated.”

Truffles contain the pheromone androstenol, and its precursor, the steroid androstenone. Both are responsible for the musky odor, and can have an amorous effect on pigs, which is why they’re also found in a spray called Boar Mate, used by farmers to help calm sows during artificial insemination.

Which is fine and good for pigs, but what about humans?  Both androstenone and androstenol, along with the related steroid androstadienone, are used in the sort of aphrodisiac sprays and colognes you find advertised in the back of magazines. But no clinical link exists between their effects on pigs and on people.

Work by University of Chicago researcher Martha McClintock found that androstadienone, produced by men’s bodies, could improve womens’ moods but didn’t impact sexual response.

Other research by Thierry Talou of the National Polytechnic Institute of Toulouse, France, identified dimethyl sulfide — also a crucial component in cabbage's smell — as the key pig-attracting element in a truffle’s scent. Talou created a synthetic truffle aroma from nine chemical components found in truffles, not including androstenol. He found pigs eager to chase down the fake scent, yet they ignored scattered samples of androstenol. And cabbage, thus far, hasn't hit the aphrodisiac list.

A more likely theory is that the smell of musk — a popular cologne ingredient — has become so frequently associated with romance that truffle love is simply an extension of a well-established behavioral link.

“We’ve generally connected musky scent to sexual experiences,” says Rachel Herz, a psychologist at Brown University who studies the interplay of scent and emotion. “The connection to truffles is a corollary, due to their musky scent and its connotation.”

Harvard Medical School’s Robert Shmerling has another notion, not only for truffles but for caviar, snails and other rare foods: It’s the rarity itself, and possibly the cost, that appeals. Rolls Royces don’t emit pheromones, but they signal wealth, which is its own sort of aphrodisiac.

Or as Trappe puts it: “If a swain thinks truffles are aphrodisiacs, maybe that's all that's needed.”

2) Chocolate
THE MYTH: Where to start? There’s the undying gem that chocolate induces the same biological reactions as love. Or its reputation after Spanish explorers saw Aztec emperor Montezuma quaff a goblet’s worth of chocolatl before entering his harem. Or the long-standing association with Valentine’s Day, started after Richard Cadbury invented the chocolate box in 1868; he later devised a heart-shaped version, and now 36 million heart-shaped boxes are sold annually in the United States.

And of course, Casanova is said to have chugged it, Montezuma-style, prior to his conquests.

Notably, Lady Godiva — she of the naked horseback-riding through the streets of Coventry — lived in 10th century England, 500 years before chocolate was introduced to Europe. It wasn’t until 1926 that a Belgian chocolatier named his company for her.

THE REALITY: Certainly, the myth is well established. It was a top response when respondents in a study by psychologist and sex therapist Linda DeVillers were asked to list the most likely aphrodisiac foods.

Since there’s nothing like a medicine that tastes good, a tidal wave of research has attempted to demonstrate chocolate’s beneficial effects. Among the claims: that cocoa contains high levels of antioxidants, and that it can reduce blood pressure. Researcher Adam Drewnowski determined that chocolate could even trigger painkilling compounds in the brain.

Chocolate contains the amino acid tryptophan, which we use to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, a key component in maintaining consciousness and in feelings of well-being.  But the effect from tryptophan is usually one of sleepiness (as “Seinfeld” fans may recall), not stimulation.  And antidepressants that function by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain are also frequently thought to reduce desire, not increase it.

“Chocolate has been linked to sex drive even before we knew what serotonin was,” says Harvard's Robert Shmerling, who also debunks food claims for Intellihealth.com.

As for chocolate imitating that lovin' feeling? The most frequently named culprit is phenylethylamine, the presence of which in the brain has been linked to feelings of attraction and desire. But chocolate contains it in trace amounts, and no one yet knows how it might get from a bonbon to the nervous system. Ditto that for another trace compound, anandamide, which approximates the psychoactive compounds in marijuana.

Even if chocolate does go to your head, so to speak, you’d need to eat so much that the result would be a stomach ache, not a night full of passion. (And by “chocolate,” we generally mean cocoa solids, not all the milk, sugar and butterfat in most candies.)

More likely is that chocolate’s beneficial properties, plus its reputation as a mood brightener, have gained credence over centuries such that the power of belief outweighs any actual effects. And of course there's the glossy packaging.

“I really do think it’s the environment in which it’s eaten, and maybe the flavor and the mouthfeel and the cultural history that goes with it,” says Fergus Clydesdale, head of the food science department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “A lot of that is placebo.”

1) Oysters
THE MYTH:
Love them or hate them, but no other food is more frequently linked with desire than this humble bivalve. The birth of the legend, literally, can be found in Greek mythology: The goddess Aphrodite emerged from the sea on an oyster shell to give birth to Eros, along with a few thousand years of winking innuendo, some lovely Renaissance paintings and the word “aphrodisiac.”

To know a mollusk by reputation wasn’t quite enough for Casanova, who reputedly consumed several oysters dozen each morning — just how many depends on your source — in his bathtub. (Hopefully not while chugging chocolate.)

What’s good for Casanova is good for your average schlub, no?

THE REALITY: Oysters have great nutritional value. They’re low in fat and calories (around 10 calories per raw oyster) and packed with healthy minerals. Each oyster contains nearly a day’s worth of zinc, which helps boost immune response.

But the romance part?  Mostly myth, bolstered by centuries of reinforcement.

“The idea that it works like a drug ... is medically unlikely,” says psychologist Joy Davidson, author of “Fearless Sex.” “You can’t mainline oysters.”

Oyster fans were heartened about a March 2005 research paper that revealed in mollusks the presence of two amino acids, D-aspartic acid and NMDA, which have been linked to the release of testosterone and estrogen.

An ocean's worth of media coverage ensued, but some concerns were overlooked. First, the research merely confirmed the presence of the two chemicals, not what they might do; it remains unclear how much of either would be needed to raise hormonal levels in humans. In part, that's because most research tying the two compounds to arousal was based on lab rats.

“We did not make any proof or correlation with the libido,” says George Fisher, a chemistry professor at Florida’s Barry University who published the paper.

Oh, did we mention that the study was conducted on three types of Mediterranean mussels? “We did not evaluate any oysters,” Fisher adds.

Another big problem with oyster research: They’re difficult to place into a scientifically rigorous study.  As Robert Shmerling of Harvard Medical School notes, it’s nearly impossible to create an oyster placebo.

What about those psychological triggers, or the oyster’s frequent comparison to certain body parts, or their wet, slippery appearance? They are better explanations, though psychologist Linda DeVillers found oysters far down on her respondents’ list of reputed aphrodisiacs, with just 25 percent naming them as a libido-booster.

If nothing else, perhaps oysters’ silky, slightly unsettling texture taps into the attraction-repulsion dynamic that is a component of most so-called aphrodisiacs.

“I think there may be something to mouthfeel,” says Fergus Clydesdale of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, before quickly catching himself.

“Look, I’m just guessing,” he says. “There’s no data.”

Though he adores asparagus, MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné wants to know how anyone ever thought it was an aphrodisiac.

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