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Food as an aphrodisiac?

Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist and “Today” show contributor Phil Lempert tells us whether ignited passion is in the food or in the mind.
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Hundreds of years ago, Egyptian priests were forbidden to eat onions in case the temptation for sex became too great! For years, romantics around the world have believed this and other folklore about certain foods igniting feelings of desire. On NBC’s “Today” show, Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist and “Today” show contributor Phil Lempert tells us whether ignited passion is in the food or in the mind.

FOOD IS AN aphrodisiac, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica:

“The psychophysiological reaction that a well-prepared meal can have upon the human organism. The combination of the various sensuous reactions — the visual satisfaction of the sight of appetizing food, the olfactory stimulation of their pleasing smells and the tactile gratification afforded the oral mechanism by rich, savory dishes — tend to bring on a state of general euphoria conducive to sexual expression.”

The truth is that some foods do actually stimulate blood flow and combined with the look, mouth feel and aroma of the food have been used as aphrodisiacs throughout time. It’s the combination of the senses that create these aphrodisiac qualities. Setting the proper mood on Valentine’s is just as important as the foods.

So what foods are the ones to make this Valentine’s extra special?


Thought to be the apple that Eve gave Adam, the quince pear is very rich in pectin, and has a high concentration of mucilage. Due to its color, fragrance and high concentration of seeds the Greeks dedicated it to Aphrodite and by the Romans to Venus [the goddess of love]. Many marriage ceremonies include the eating of a quince to secure the sweet and delightful days to come for the newlyweds.


The Greek god Dionysus was the god of wine and the god of fertility and procreation — even unfermented grapes have stimulating properties. Many of the most romantic settings throughout history include feeding a lover individual grapes — and for the most intense relationships, peeling the skin off a grape was done not to enhance the grapes’ stimulating properties — but to show how much care and concern one partner had for the other.


Pine seeds have the reputation throughout the Mediterranean as one of the most effective ways to stimulate the libido.


Used by the Romans in fertility rites, walnuts have typically been used to “increase” the desire for romance. In fact, walnuts are also used at some wedding ceremonies instead of rice.


One of the Romans’ most favorite aphrodisiacs, the sexual lure of truffles lies in the musky aroma and mouth feel.


One of the most celebrated aphrodisiacs, onions have been served to French newlyweds on the morning after their wedding night to restore their libidos and during the reign of the Pharaohs, Egyptian priests were prohibited from eating them.

Arab folklore promises that an aphrodisiac drink of onion juice when mixed with honey is the original Viagra. Onions contain the amino acid alliin, which when the onion is crushed and the plant tissue reacts, transforms it into allicin [which creates the onion aroma]. Onions also stimulate blood flow.


Celery stimulates digestion and for some, stimulates the sexual organs. Celery seeds have the highest concentration and are used to garnish and enhance fresh oysters and dressings.


According to Indian herbal medicine, powdered cardamom seeds boiled with milk and honey are an excellent remedy against impotence.


Chinese literature dating back to the 3rd century B.C. promoted cloves as an aphrodisiac. While many folklore stories focus on cloves having the power to make the man desire the woman, the truth is it is an excellent digestive.


Used for centuries in Europe and among the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Japanese, garlic was one of the most widespread ancient aphrodisiac remedies. It stimulates the secretion of gastric juices, adding digestion and increases the blood flow.


Ginger helps soothe the stomach and for centuries in England, before modern day medicines, was used to help relieve menstrual cramping. Ginger wine was widely thought to be an aphrodisiac as it had the effect of relaxing the smooth muscles of the uterus and intestines. Ginger ale and candied ginger are also good folk cures for morning sickness.


The fennel seeds, with a sweet and licoricelike flavor and aroma, are one of the oldest spices and when brewed in tea is a remedy for bloating, flatulence and other intestinal problems… soothing the way for a romantic evening.


Saffron contains cocin and crocetin, both of which have been shown to play an important part in the reproduction of some algae.


It’s aphrodisiac properties act as much through its aroma as its flavor. Vanilla is the cured, full-grown, unripe fruit of an orchid. Its name is derived from the Spanish word for pod.


While lobster and oysters are typically thought of as aphrodisiacs, many believe that all seafood — due to being light and therefore not overstuffing the stomach and digestive tract — have the same properties. Truth is that being romantic on a full stomach can be difficult.


Always thought of as the aphrodisiac, gets a lot of its reputation from the ritual of opening them and the mouth feel of swallowing them whole. The truth is that oysters are rich in zinc and iron. Iron is known for its transport of oxygen through our systems and zinc is an essential element for stimulating our metabolism. Oysters also contain on average 18 micrograms of Vitamin B12 (word of caution: shellfish spoils quickly, so be sure to buy oysters only if the shells are tightly closed. Oysters will show their freshness by “flinching” when you squeeze lemon juice on them). Also, the folklore of only eating oysters in the months that contain the letter R is a good rule to follow — non R months mean warmer water temperature which may promote bacterial growth. Always buy fresh oysters from reputable retailers, and have them pack them in a plastic bag with ice for you to bring home.


Caviar is from the Persian word khav-yar meaning cake of strength, because it was thought that caviar had restorative powers and the power to give one long life. Caviar is from the salted roe (eggs) of several species of sturgeon (it was originally prepared in China from carp eggs).

A lot of the mystique of caviar’s aphrodisiac qualities might have more to do with its being an egg, and the way it’s served than anything else. Caviar, by the way, should be always refrigerated (never frozen) and always use pearl, glass or even plastic utensils. Silver, stainless steel or any other metal that easily oxidizes will impart a metallic taste. Caviar contains vitamins A, C, PP, B2, B6 and B12 and is low in fat and high in minerals, including zinc.


Ever wonder why Valentine’s has become synonymous with chocolate? It’s more than just a marketing gimmick. Chocolate is a flavorful source of quick energy and can even elevate some people’s moods. Chocolate contains two related alkaloid stimulants — theobromine and caffeine. It is also rich in PEA, or phenylethylamine, a naturally occurring compound that has the effects similar to amphetamine.

While research hasn’t proven that chocolate is a true aphrodisiac, many would suggest being happier and in a better mood leads to better romance.

Before you run to the store to make tonight’s Valentine’s the most romantic ever, remember that most researchers who have looked into the aphrodisiac qualities of these and other foods all agree on one thing: that the mind is the most powerful aphrodisiac.

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: