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The Idea of Chocolate as an Aphrodisiac

Chocolate has always been considered an A-Team aphrodisiac. But when you look at the history and science, things start to get a little less loveable. There are a few scientific suggestions as to why chocolate could be considered a food of love, rather than something we love. It’s safe to say that its romantic properties have been talked about for as long as it’s been consumed.

Despite this, the validity of such claims and chocolate’s strong association with Valentine’s Day is far from conclusive. In fact, it’s probably worth questioning why a Roman festival full of naked men chasing women with whips has turned into an occasion for gifting chocolate.

Has chocolate always been considered an aphrodisiac?

Well, yes. From the first time the conquistadors witnessed the Aztec drinking chocolate, they wrote about its powers as an aphrodisiac.  Bernal Díaz Castillo, who chronicled Hernan Cortéz’s conquest of Mexico, wrote of Montezuma drinking “50 great jars of prepared cacao and foam … which they said was for success with women.” 

And after chocolate took off in Europe (once the Pope allowed it to be consumed on fasting days, of which there were over 100 a year), chocolate again rapidly acquired a reputation as an aphrodisiac. 

After the first chocolate shop was opened in Gracechurch in London in 1657, writers were making elaborate claims about chocolate. The learned physician Henry Stubbe wrote in The Natural History of Chocolate (1662) of the “great use of Chocolate in Venery [sexual indulgence], and for supplying the Testicles with a Balsam, or a Sap.”

Stubbe also prepared it for King Charles II, who spent a literal fortune on chocolate — £229 10s 8d, in 1669 alone, compared with the £6 he spent on tea and the £200 stipend he paid to his mistress.

Outside of England, Casanova and the Marquis De Sade were convinced of chocolate’s aphrodisiac properties and infatuated with it. Casanova pined for it while imprisoned in Venice, for example.

But what really kickstarted chocolate was the 19th-century move from drinking chocolate to eating chocolate. This went hand in hand with the marketing genius of Richard Cadbury, who was able to seize on another trend. The Victorian fascination with Valentine’s Day.

The History of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day has a complicated and murky history.  

One intriguing theory argues that the lovers’ holiday is a takeover of the annual Roman festival of Lupercalia, held each year on February 15th, where young men removed their clothes, grabbed a whip, and then ran around after their girlfriends to spank them in the hope of increasing their fertility. 

Indeed a variant of this tradition lives on in the Czech Republic and Hungary. On Easter Sunday (another fertility festival), men arm themselves with a whip called a pomlázka, and go from door to door, spanking women on the bottom. The women then soak the men with buckets of cold water.

The Catholic Church has at least two St Valentines.  One of these Valentines was martyred on February 14th by Claudius II after he flouted the imperial order forbidding young men to marry.

Thereafter the history becomes even murkier, only reappearing in England with Chaucer’s poem of 1382, the “Parlement of Foules”, where Chaucer writes of love when every bird cometh to choose his mate on “seynt Voantynes day”.

But it wasn’t until the Victorian era that Valentine’s Day really took off, with the appearance of cupid-themed gifts, cards, and boxes.

So where does chocolate come in?

In 1868, Richard Cadbury brought chocolate and Valentine’s Day together with the inspired idea of creating a love heart-shaped “Fancy Box” full of bonbons, chocolate flavoured ganaches, and chocolate enrobed fruits.  And the rest is history. The US alone now gifts and consumes more than 40 million boxes of chocolates on Valentine’s Day.

Cadbury's love heart shaped box, bringing chocolate and Valentine's Day together

But is there any evidence that chocolate is an aphrodisiac?

There are plenty of reasons for thinking that chocolate can help lovers on the hunt for a romantic evening. Chocolate contains over three hundred chemical compounds. If you’re interested in the ones that attribute chocolate as an aphrodisiac, you can find them here.

Be Our Valentine?

So, to summarise: chocolate and Valentine’s Day has a rich, albeit slightly patchy, history.  Chocolate contains some of the chemicals produced by the brain when we fall in love. And psychologically it sends all the right messages.

So please do consider some craft chocolate gifts this Valentine’s Day.

Further Reading:

The History of Valentine’s Day 

Smithsonian: How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life

History: How Chocolate Became a Valentine’s Day Staple

NPR: How Chocolate Became a Sweet (but not so innocent) Consort to Valentine’s Day

National Geographic: Valentine’s Day: A History of Naked Romans, Paganism, and Whips!

Vice: Strange Valentine’s Day Traditions

The Chemistry of Chocolate as an Aphrodisiac

Healthy Eating: Chocolate and Dopamine

NCBI: The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance

Science of Cooking: Does Chocolate contain Drugs?

Clinical Education: PEA – A Natural Antidepressant

Nature’s Poisons: Chocolate and the Chemistry of Love

McGill: The “Chemical of Love”

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