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.