While the physical suggestion of sex may be enough for some, modern research shows that some classic aphrodisiacs can stimulate desire— and increase performance. Oysters, for example, contain high levels of zinc, which has been associated with increased sexual potency in men; the eighteenth-century womanizer Casanova was said to have eaten 50 oysters for breakfast with his mistress in a bathtub built for two. And the fibrous tissue of Asia's prized aphrodisiac, the rhino horn, contains both calcium and phosphorous— minerals that, when deficient (as they often were in ancient times), can lead to muscle weakness, fatigue—and therefore a preference for quickies rather than slow, sensual sex. (It also conveniently resembles an erect penis.)
The smell of food, too, can elicit sexual feelings, according to research by Alan Hirsch, the neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Having noticed that people who lost their sense of smell also had a diminished sexual appetite, he tested men and women to see what scents might increase blood flow to the genitals. Men responded sexually to all of the aromas. But the top spot went to a blend of pumpkin pie and lavender, which increased blood flow to the penis 40 percent of the time. Runners-up were doughnuts with black licorice (31.5 percent) and pumpkin pie with doughnuts (20 percent). Women, in contrast, responded most to the blend of cucumber and licorice—two traditional aphrodisiacs—and the scent of baby powder. But perhaps more revealing were the three scents that turned women off: cherries, barbecued meat, and men's cologne. So much for the thrill of the grill.
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In the end, Sean was right. Aphrodisiacs are personal. He loves bacon, while my friend James can't think of anything sexier than Nutella, that thick chocolate-hazelnut spread that is "perfect for feeding each other," he says. And for InterCourses author Hopkins, the sexiest food is grilled asparagus dipped in her French boyfriend's homemade mayonnaise. But, she adds, the greatest turn-on of all is when he cooks, and then does the dishes.
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"If you think it's an aphrodisiac, it always works," Hopkins says. So pour the champagne, grill asparagus, or feed your true love strawberries. At my house this Valentine's Day, we'll be eating heart-shaped waffles and a (hearty) side of bacon.