Friday, February 8, 2008

What would Casanova cook?

Do aphrodisiac foods really work?

Express Staff Writer

As the nation prepares for its collective day of romance, vendors of fine Champagne, chocolate, oysters and truffles are opening up their tills, assured that another mountain of money will be spent anew on the "foods of love."

Those who can cook (and who don't have kids) are planning candlelit dinners with a mélange of gourmet aphrodisiacs. If they're not stocking up on the heavy-hitters noted above, they might be shopping for chili peppers, caviar, bananas, licorice, ginseng or asparagus.

Those who can't cook are more likely planning a dinner out, and the ones with high hopes for love are unquestionably bolstering their chances with a bottle of bubbly or a box of chocolates.

The idea that food can get one in the mood for love goes back for centuries. In the 1700s, the legendary lover Casanova is said to have served oysters and Champagne—among other fine delicacies of the day—to woo women and get his own engine revved up. Cultures across the globe have singled out particular plants, herbs, fruits, vegetables and aromatics to inspire love or heighten sexual desire.

At times, the practice of consuming aphrodisiacs becomes controversial. In the Far East, it has been documented that restaurants and shops offer for consumption assorted body parts of endangered species—rhinoceros horn and tiger penis, to name two—as sure-fire aphrodisiacs. In Thailand, self-assured salesmen once told me that if I drank the fresh blood of a cobra I would achieve new heights of romance. What they didn't realize was their product was only half of the equation—I was traveling alone.

I digress.

So, if you're not into sending the planet into greater ruin but you do want to heat up your Valentine's Day, will the tried-and-true foods of love do the trick?

Well, the truth is that the verdict is not entirely clear. Chances are, one researcher might tell you that a $50 box of Godiva chocolates can yield $1,000 worth of romance, while another might say that such thought is a myth older than Casanova himself.

What many in the scientific community seem to agree on is this:

· Chocolate, and more specifically the cacao beans from which it is derived, contains phenylethylamine, a compound that has been linked to feelings of desire. Yet, nay-sayers maintain that chocolate yields such small quantities of the drug that any perceived change of mood is the result of mental self-deception.

· Oysters, while highly nutritious and low in calories, are not necessarily a ticket to love. They might very well get you and your mate in the mood—it has been established that mollusks yield amino acids that can stimulate certain sex-related hormones. However, whether this happens on a decipherable level in humans has yet to be proven.

· Champagne will almost certainly lower one's inhibitions and thus might foster a night of romance. However, if the veritable "drink of love" is consumed in large quantities, it might get you nothing more than a long nap and a big headache.

The list goes on, of course. More important, perhaps, is what numerous doctors and researchers are saying today: Eating foods that promote good health in general—fruits, vegetables, seafood and lean meats in limited quantity—often also serve to promote a healthy sex life.

Indeed, it makes sense. Eating a bucket of deep-fried chicken with fries on the side probably won't make one feel very sexy.

And, to those who don't want to give up on the idea that maybe—in whatever small way—those "aphrodisiac" foods really do set the tone for an unforgettable Valentine's Day, one might say this: "Champagne and oysters—go for it. Bananas dipped in chocolate—of course. Truffles? If you can afford them, why not?"

It's fun to believe that food can have such power over our bodies. Personally, though, I draw the line at drinking cobra's blood.

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