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Fact or Myth: Is Chocolate an Aphrodisiac?

Mere moments spent searching with the words “chocolate” and “sex” on the internet generates numerous references to the aphrodisiac power of chocolate or women’s preference for chocolate over sex. The latter might be seen as an aphrodisiacal canard. Does it prove that chocolate is sexy if women prefer it to actually having sex? At least five studies sponsored by companies in 2006/07 asked women if they preferred eating chocolate to having sex[1]. Three of these found chocolate the winner, with between 40% and 70% of women preferring chocolate to sex. Of the other two, one (sponsored by a condom company) found that women prefer sex, while the other found that women would rather have some toast. As you might expect, the exact questions used varied.

Several components in chocolate have been linked to mood and potential “aphrodisiac” effects. First on the list of “love drugs” is phenyl-ethylamine (PEA), which also occurs naturally in the brain. PEA naturally reaches peak levels during orgasm, and administering PEA increases dopamine levels, stimulating the pleasure centers. PEA is chemically similar to amphetamine (leading to its nickname “chocolate amphetamine”), and has been shown to have similar effects: feelings of attraction, excitement, and giddiness. As a possible aphrodisiac, PEA is seen as a strong candidate by neurologists and dieticians.Second on the list of love-drugs in chocolate is tryptophan. You may be familiar with tryptophan as the reason you fall asleep after Thanksgiving dinner. Your brain uses tryptophan to make serotonin. In addition to sleepiness, serotonin can produce feelings of elation. The street drug Ecstasy works by increasing serotonin levels. Tryptophan in chocolate may induce similar feelings, albeit at a lower intensity.

Third on the list is anandamide (which means “internal bliss”). Anandamide binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, mimicking the effects of cannabinoid drugs, such as heightened sensitivity, euphoria and a sense of well-being. Cacao also contains two N-acyl-ethanolamines (NAEs) which slow the breakdown of anandamide, prolonging it’s effect. Some researchers have decried the small amounts of Andandamine in chocolate as insufficient to cause any effect. However, PEA and Andandamine may interact with each other, and the stimulants caffeine and theobromine found in chocolate. The overall effect may be romantic or sexually stimulating.

A team of Italian urologists recently reported that women who eat chocolate feel significantly more sexually fulfilled than those who don’t, while the director of Nigeria’s Federal Agency for Food and Medicine recently advised Nigerians to forego Viagra in favor of eating chocolate. However, in terms of research from the behavioral sciences, the evidence for chocolate acting as an aphrodisiac is basically nonexistent. The only psychologist conducting research on the mood effects of eating chocolate in the past 10 years reported that eating chocolate makes people feel more joyful than eating an apple[2]. Bad news for moms trying to get their kids to eat more fruit, but hardly a bombshell for the chocolate industry.

For now, it appears the jury is still out on whether chocolate is really an aphrodisiac.