Aphrodisiacs: Trick, or Treat?

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As the holidays approach, seasonal flavors pop up everywhere to help us keep warm in the winter months, but could pumpkin spice up more than just your latte?

You’ve probably seen every Sexy Witch/Librarian/Fire Hydrant costume out there, but have you ever considered that the ubiquitous Halloween gourd might give you an amorous edge? Pumpkin is said to have aphrodisiac qualities, so as we start sipping on our first PSLs of the season, we’re wondering if there’s any truth to this. If we are what we eat (and drink!), can we feast our way to a better sex life?

For starters, what is an aphrodisiac?

Named after Aphrodite, the Greek god of love and beauty, an aphrodisiac is a substance, such as a food or drug, which when consumed increases sexual desire or intensifies arousal.

How do scientists measure sexual arousal?

Information on aphrodisiacs still tends to focus, quite clinically, on sexual function of genitalia (i.e. physiological reactions, such as getting an erection or ejaculation) rather than pleasure or arousal. But is that actually how scientists measure arousal? Well, in many cases, yes. Alongside brain scans and asking participants to report their arousal levels, a common way of measuring human arousal is to use a device called a plethysmograph to measure changes in blood flow to the genitals.

It should be noted that the field of research often has a male-skewed bias, and this holds true for research into sexual function and reproductive systems. Last year, science publication site ResearchGate found that studies into erectile dysfunction outnumbered studies into PMS five to one. Human arousal is, in itself, a niche area of research, and while there have been studies that have included both men and women, the findings have been largely inconclusive when it comes to understanding female sexuality. Alice Dreger, sex researcher and historian of medicine and science, says that when it comes to arousal, “the vagina is not the homologue to the penis”, and insists research should instead focus on the clitoris. Unfortunately, there is currently no device to measure clitoral responses, making this type of research impossible. More on this in an upcoming article. Stay tuned!

Sooo is my PSL extra …spicy…? ?

Allan Hirsch conducted one of the most famous studies on aphrodisiac foods, using a plethysmograph to test the effects of several food smells on men’s arousal. The smell that produced the greatest increase in blood flow to the penis was the combination of lavender and pumpkin pie. This study is arguably responsible for the belief that pumpkin has some kind of magic boner-inducing powers, and although companies have been making pumpkin spice everything for a few years now — with rumors of even a pumpkin spice condom making waves in 2014 — the idea that pumpkin is some kind of carnal catalyst is far from having been proven. Dr. Hirsch’s work has been met with much skepticism and controversy in the scientific community; his studies have generally been based on small sample sizes and unconventional methodology, and few have been published in peer-reviewed publications.

Got a sweet tooth? There’s an aph’ for that.

Another Halloween staple often considered to be an aphrodisiac is, of course, chocolate, but research into its effects lend no credence to this myth. Some research claims phenylethylamine, a chemical related to amphetamines which occurs in chocolate in small quantities, activates endorphins and gives us a rush of feel-good vibes. However, it is commonly argued that phenylethylamine all but disappears during metabolism, making it unlikely to play a significant role in arousal. Many sources suggest that serotonin — found in chocolate and often dubbed the ‘happiness hormone’ — regulates vasocongestion (the swelling of sexual organs in both men and women, and a precursor to vaginal lubrication), thus increasing genital function. Several studies in 2006 and 2010 examining the effect of chocolate on women reported higher sexual function in women who ate chocolate daily compared with those who did not. However, once adjusted for age and other factors, this difference was lost.

What about other aphrodisiacs?

Mention aphrodisiacs and most people will think of oysters. This association goes back centuries to when virility and fertility were the markers of a good sex life, which might explain why claims surrounding this supposedly-sexy seafood have stuck around for so long. While much of the nutritional content found in oysters is said to be essential for a healthy reproductive system — zinc and vitamin B6 both help increase sperm count and testosterone production — there is little evidence to suggest that they affect sex drive.

A quick Google of “aphrodisiacs” will turn up Cosmo articles or alternative health blogs listing foods known to improve circulation — such as pomegranate, watermelon, and honey — as being good for the libido, suggesting that increased blood flow to sex organs is the key to getting off.

So, what does all this tell us about the legitimacy of aphrodisiacs?

If science can’t prove they’re real, why are we so attached to the idea that certain foods can turn us on? A common explanation is simply that certain foods just look sexual, which — when you think about the suggestive shape of oysters, figs, asparagus, watermelons, and bananas — kind of makes sense. Another possible explanation is that the association of smells like vanilla or cinnamon with childhood or other comforting memories make us feel more relaxed, thus lowering inhibitions.

So, the jury’s still out on this one, but for anyone enticed to do their own research, Fork Me Spoon Me is a cookbook entirely devoted to the subject of aphrodisiac foods, with titillating recipes full of ostensibly erotic concoctions such as chocolate-covered brie, mango meatloaf, and ginger mojitos. Or, if you’re not convinced, you could do as one GoodReads reviewer suggests, “save yourself some money: take out your old Joy of Cooking and buy a copy of the Kama Sutra.”

Whatever your thoughts on this mysterious phenomenon, one thing is certain: food and sex are two of the most pleasurable things we experience as humans, so whether you enjoy them together, or separately, you’re bound to have a good time!

Header image illustrated by Marcy Gooberman

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