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What is an Aphrodisiac?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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An aphrodisiac is a substance or activity that is supposed to heighten sexual interest and desire. Many substances throughout history have been used as aphrodisiacs, and some cultures have developed their own rituals, like dances that highlight the beauty of the female form with the goal of arousing the audience. The effectiveness of substances used in this way is a subject of debate, because little scientific study has been performed on them. Of greater concern is the issue that some, such as rhinoceros horn, are putting endangered animals at risk of extinction.

The term comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sensuality and love. The Greeks referred to sexual pleasure as aphrodisia, so it stands to reason that a substance that enhances this experience would be given this name. Many modern foods associated with sexual interest have been used this way since ancient times, illustrating a nearly universal human interest in enhancing sexual experiences.

Many foods are considered aphrodisiacs, including some surprising foods like arugula, garlic, mustard, and asparagus. In some cultures, the consumption of specific herbs is supposed to enhance sexual desire, and many societies also prescribe animal products for this purpose. In some cases, these foods are examples of so-called “sympathetic magic,” and they are chosen on the basis of their shape or the properties of the animals that they come from. Tiger penis and rhinoceros horn, for example, are used because these animals are virile and strong.

Some classic examples include chocolate, figs, anise, almonds, oysters, honey, vanilla, wine, and truffles. Some of these foods clearly have psychoactive effects, as is the case with wine, and others have suggestive shapes, like figs. Many of these foods were also exotic and were costly at one point in the cultures where they are used, suggesting that displays of wealth and power could be sexually stimulating for some people. Many also have intoxicating and compelling scents.

Fruits like pineapples, bananas, and many berries are also used as aphrodisiacs, perhaps because they can be fed by hand in a teasing game. Many spices like nutmeg and ginger are also used this way, as they spice up a meal and any proceedings that might follow. One surprising aphrodisiac is the avocado; the Nahuatl word for the avocado tree is ahuacuatl, which means “testicle tree,” a reference to the suggestive shape of avocados on the branch.

Many students of psychology believe that aphrodisiacs actually work on the principle of the placebo effect. Essentially, people expect them to work, so they do. This is obviously not the case with some psychoactive drugs, however, which appear to induce euphoric and aroused states even when the consumer isn't aware that he or she has taken a drug. There's no reason not to enjoy these foods on a date; most of them are delicious and also quite healthy, and finger foods can certainly set the mood.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By strawCake — On Dec 03, 2012

@Monika - That's funny. I don't eat avocado too often, so I've never really thought about the shape either.

I was also surprised by some of the stuff listed in the article. Garlic as an aphrodisiac? If I was going to buy an aphrodisiac, garlic definitely wouldn't be the first thing on my list. I would think the garlic breath that comes after eating it would be the opposite of an aphrodisiac.

By Monika — On Dec 03, 2012

I think it's very interesting that some of these foods are considered a male or female aphrodisiac simply because of their shape. I'm surprised foods like zucchini and bananas weren't listed in that case.

Also, I never thought of avocados as being testicle shaped and I eat avocados all the time. I'm afraid I'm never going to be able to look at an avocado the same way after reading this article.

By LoriCharlie — On Dec 02, 2012

@betterment - I'm with you. I drink coffee a lot, and I've eaten almost all of the foods that were listed in the article as aphrodisiacs, and I can't say I've ever felt the effects. I also have a hard time buying the idea of asparagus aphrodisiac. Asparagus is delicious and good for you, but I don't consider it a very romantic food.

By betterment — On Dec 01, 2012

I think most of these aphrodisiacs only work as aphrodisiacs because of the power of suggestion, with the exception of alcohol of course. Because seriously, if coffee was really an aphrodisiac, most of the country would be walking around in a constant state of arousal.

I drink coffee almost every morning, and the only thing it does for me is wake me up and get me ready to start my day. I have to say, I've never had any arousing thoughts directly after drinking a cup of coffee. It tastes and smells delicious but it doesn't exactly get me in the mood.

By minombre — On Sep 18, 2008

There are a number of herbs that have been considered aphrodisiacs throughout the ages. Herbs such as parsley, chives, basil, thyme, sage and others.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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