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Posted June 24, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Food for the mood: Aphrodisiacs have varied history in myth and science

Foods long considered to be aphrodisiacs include bananas, strawberries, asparagus and chocolate. Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Elizabeth Wilkerson -- ewilkerson@nvdaily.com

Strawberries and bananas have more in common with chocolate and licorice than you might think. Along with a tendency to appear in shopping baskets around the globe, they share a reputation.

Along with countless other foods, the four are often included in lists of snacks that double as aphrodisiacs, which are foods or drugs that excite sexual desire.

Over time, almonds, arugula, asparagus, avocados, carrots, coffee, fennel, figs, garlic, honey, mustard, oysters, pineapple, raspberries, vanilla and wine, along with various spices, have also made their way onto various lists of stimulating foods.

Different foods earned their reputations in different ways. Some stimulating foods were documented by ancient Greek historians and others were derived from mythology, according to information available at GourmetSleuth.com. Some foods were considered aphrodisiacs because of their physical resemblance to genitalia, it says.

Though the idea that certain foods can increase sexual interest or improve performance has been around for centuries, credible proof of the benefit of those foods is hard to come by, writes Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

"Looking at the medical literature, there is virtually nothing published that resembles a scientific study linking specific foods with improved sexual function," Shmerling says in a 2004 article. The myth's endurance can likely be explained in many ways, he says, such as the power of suggestion, the inability to disprove it and the intuitive appeal.

"There is a simple and appealing logic in assuming that an essential human behavior such as eating could have an important impact on another basic behavior such as sexual activity," he says.

In certain situations where nutrition is poor, it may be at least partly true that certain foods may supply key nutrients that improve overall health, leading to improved sexual desire and functioning, he says. But, for those with good diets, the nutritional components of a particular food are unlikely to act as aphrodisiacs, Shmerling says.

"When it comes to food, a balanced diet and moderation of alcohol intake are almost certainly more important than choosing a single food over another," he says.

Certain nutrients, such as vitamins A, B, C and E, as well as zinc, selenium, manganese and linoleic acid, have the power to regulate the body's levels of sex hormones, according to information from WomenFitness.net.

Vitamin A maintains the health of the epithelial tissues, which line all the external and internal surfaces of the body, including the vagina and uterus, it says. Deficiencies in vitamin B2 and folic acid have been linked with infertility, and increasing vitamin C intake may be helpful in boosting fertility, particularly in men, it says.

Zinc is one of the key nutrients involved in enhancing libido and sperm production, it says, and low zinc levels have been linked with both poor libido in women and low sperm count in men.

Perhaps not coincidentally, oysters, which are the richest food source of zinc, have long been thought of as an aphrodisiac. According to GourmetSleuth.com, oysters were documented as an aphrodisiac food by the Romans in the second century A.D.

Asparagus, which is rich in vitamins A, B6 and C, as well as folic acid, is a "classic in the aphrodisiac world," according to the Vegetarian Society, an educational charity.

Alcohol is one of the few supposed aphrodisiacs that has any real effect on sexual desire, according to a webbed article. A little alcohol can reduce inhibitions and put people in the mood, but overindulgence can backfire, it says.

Some supposed aphrodisiacs, such as "Spanish fly," can be deadly.

According to information from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Spanish fly" is made from dried beetle remains, and its reported effects come from the irritation to the urogenital tract and a resultant rush of blood to the sex organs. It's actually "a poison that burns the mouth and throat and can lead to genitourinary infections, scarring of the urethra, and even death," it says.

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