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Is chocolate REALLY an aphrodisiac?

aphrodisiac? valentine's heart

“Over 90% of Americans are planning to give chocolate or confectionery this Valentine’s Day”

FoodNavigator, USA

Great idea! But we wish that more of this gift-giving could involve craft chocolate. So, please do your part! Treat yourself, your partner and any other loved ones to some of the treats we’ve assembled for Valentine’s Day.

Society seems hell-bent on instilling chocolate with magical properties so as to justify our consumption of it. There is a long-standing connection between chocolate and sex, and countless health claims are in circulation.

Please see the below for a (brief) history of chocolate and sex, starting with some definitions before moving on to some debunking. But fear not. Whilst chocolate technically isn’t a proven “biochemical aphrodisiac”, it’s still a great way to show and share your affection. Especially on Valentine’s day.

Aphrodisiac: definitions and history

It’s the (pseudo)scientific term for “love potion”. An aphrodisiac is defined as “a food, drink, or other thing that stimulates sexual desire”, or “a substance that increases sexual desire, sexual attraction, sexual pleasure, or sexual behaviour”.

We first find the term describing food in the seventeenth century. During this period, aphrodisiacs allegedly fought against infertility, rather than being a foodstuff that aroused desire. The list of foods that qualified as aphrodisiacs were extensive, including stinging nettles and root vegetables like parsnips (surely this has little to do with their nutritional content). Chocolate was believed to have the power to increase potency.

Chocolate makers, pundits, medical ‘experts’ and many others would have us believe that chocolate is a physical aphrodisiac. This linking of sex and chocolate isn’t new. Ever since the conquistadors saw chocolate, the two have been intimate. To quote Bernal Díaz Castillo (chronicler of Hernan Cortéz’s conquest of Mexico), Montezuma would regularly consume “50 great jars of prepared cacao and foam … which they said was for success with woman”.

Read more about pre-conquest Aztec chocolate habits HERE. Alternatively, we talk more about the history of chocolate in our virtual tastings.

Though much of chocolate’s initial uptake in Europe was driven by the Catholic Church, chocolate’s association with sex continued to be consummated. For Casanova, chocolate was the “very elixir of love” and the notorious Marquis de Sade celebrated its potency, begging for it to be brought to his boudoir.

In Britain, Henry Stubbe, a 17th-century physician, was a passionate supporter, writing 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 actually converted Charles II to his way of thinking, with Charles II spending a staggering £229 10s 8d on chocolate and cocoa in 1669 alone; considerably more even than he paid as a stipend to his various mistresses.

Charles II

The party king, Charles II, spent more on chocolate than his mistresses. In 1669, he spent £229 10s 8d on chocolate. He spent just £6 on tea in comparison.

Current Claims

Today, we still claim chocolate as an aphrodisiac, capable of working all sorts of miracles. In part, these claims are based off of this history. Increasingly, they are also based on claims associated with the myriad of chemicals contained in chocolate.

Most of these claims are concentrated on four chemicals, described briefly below: 

  1. Theobromine: Theobromine is to chocolate what caffeine is to coffee; that is to say: the main stimulant. But whilst theobromine INCREASES the heart rate, it DECREASES blood pressure. It’s the “stimulant that relaxes”. (Note: dogs can’t metabolize chocolate, and it can lead to really unpleasant reactions in them … so don’t ruin Valentine’s Day by treating your dog).
  2. Phenethylamine (PEA): Phenethylamine works by stimulating the release of endorphins and dopamine. It works the same way as an exercise makes you feel good (and sometimes high). The first flush of love produces PEA, alongside oxytocin. Ultimately, we digest it so quickly that it is near impossible to track its physiological effects and, by extension, whether or not it acts as an aphrodisiac.
  3. Tryptophan: Tryptophan is a chemical that the brain uses to make serotonin, which, in high, levels can produce feelings of elation, even ecstasy. It can also make you sleepy. And in addition to chocolate, turkey, milk, oats, and various nuts are also very high in tryptophan.
  4. Quercetin: Quercetin is a flavonoid that has anti-inflammatory properties and is claimed to work similarly to Viagra by relaxing blood vessels and increasing blood flow to genitalia. Again, chocolate contains lots of quercetin (as do many other fruits).

The Bad News

Unfortunately, the biochemical claims for any of these chemicals as a physical aphrodisiac seem… stretched. 

  • Even though chocolate does contain PEA, and as people fall in love their brains produce PEA, the human digestive system breaks down this PEA very quickly. So no matter how much (or how fast) you (or your partner) eat chocolate, the PEA in chocolate won’t pass through to your brain to recreate the feeling of being in love.
  • Quercetin has so far only been shown to work for people with really poor circulation, and even then, there is a dearth of studies showing quercetin working on human genitalia.
  • At best, theobromine and tryptophan may make your heart beat faster and make you ‘happier’. But it’s a stretch to describe this as an aphrodisiac.

The Good News

Psychologically, the news is a lot better! 

  • Gifting chocolate, and the thought of savouring chocolate, creates ANTICIPATION.
  • Gifting is also a great SIGNAL. For example, it can show you’ve been thoughtful, appreciate your partner’s likes (and dislikes) etc., and explain why and what you’ve chosen.
  • The aromas, tastes and textures of chocolate are EVOCATIVE and STIMULATING.
  • SAVOURING craft chocolate is also a wonderfully sensual and sensory pleasure. It’s MOOD ENHANCING

So we can’t promise “the Lynx effect”. Chocolate isn’t a proven pheromone or biochemical aphrodisiac. It is unlikely that the few squares of craft chocolate a couple consumes will contain enough chemicals to rip each other’s clothes off, contrary to what advertising might suggest. Whilst it has been affectionately termed a “food of love”, the evidence seems to suggest that it’s simply a food we love.

But craft chocolate is a great way to start treating your Valentine. It shows you care and want to share. And it kicks off the right mood and signals your desire to savour and stimulate! For inspiration, see HERE.

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Sex & Chocolate

For as long as chocolate has been consumed, it has been attributed with libido-lifting, sex-enhancing properties. The mythology surrounding chocolate’s physiological effects is extensive and – we hate to break it to you – much of it is more fiction than fact.

The History of Sex and Chocolate

Montezuma, a renowned fan of drinking chocolate, regularly drank liquid cocoa to excess in order to increase his “success with women”. Whether his chocolate habits truly enhanced Montezuma’s sexual prowess is pretty dubious – sure, it may have granted him the energy to face his harem, but it’s unlikely to have directly effected his libido.

Montezuma wasn’t the only historical figure who claimed chocolate had aphrodisiacal properties; other significant leaders similarly endowed chocolate with such wishful thinking. Read more here.

Valentine’s Day

Few people know that the true origins of Valentine’s Day are not rooted in cutesy cards and Cupid’s arrows, but in a violent Roman festival called Lupercalia. So how and when did chocolate become part of the centrepiece for this annual holiday?

The Victorian era first saw the iconic heart-shaped box of chocolates which would be eventually become a tokenistic – and almost cliché – feature of Valentine’s Day.

Richard Cadbury, with his revolutionary method of making solid bars, fathered this idea of the box of chocolates. People even held onto the ornate boxes as keepsakes.

For a more detailed account of Valentine’s Day, see our article on it here.

Is Chocolate an Aphrodisiac?

Whilst chocolate has historically been considered an aphrodisiac, the truth of the matter is that chocolate does little to directly enhance libido or increase one couple’s attraction towards one another.

That said, because it tastes good and it does contain a small amount of dopamine-releasing hormone theobromine, chocolate can act as a mood enhancer. So, it won’t not make you want to rip each other’s clothes off. 

But for the complete lowdown on the (mostly fraught) connection between chocolate and sex, please see our article on the science behind this cocoa-claim.

Sex Sells: the marketing of chocolate as “sexy”

Sex sells – an advertising mantra which absolutely can (and has, liberally) been applied to chocolate.

Those of you who remember watching tv in the 1980s and 90s might remember the notorious flake ads – one of which went heavy on the innuendo with a woman reclined in a bath which begins to overflow as she sinks her teeth into a Cadbury’s flake bar.

These ads established a trend in the chocolate-advertising industry whereby ad-campaigns really pushed the limits of sexual innuendo to the max. And who can blame them? Chocolate and sex is pleasure squared – and who isn’t going to be tempted to buy into that?

For some more examples of when ad-campaigns made chocolate synonymous with sex, see our full article on the history of sexy chocolate advertising.

The Truth?

Much as sex does sell, here at Cocoa Runners we’re committed to delivering the truth on all things chocolate.

We strip away many of the invented properties of chocolate which have often functioned as a selling point or “good excuse” to indulge in chocolate. However, craft chocolate isn’t a hard sell, nor does anyone need an excuse to consume it, because we know it’s doing good in the world already!

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Sex Sells: A Brief History of Advertising Chocolate

lion bar

If there’s anything we’ve learned from years of Mad Men, saucy perfume ads, and the notorious Flake ads, it’s that sex sells. A brief history of advertising chocolate. Isn’t it sexy?

And the Cadbury flake ads are a prime example of the advertising mantra “sex sells”. If the subject of saucy adverts arises at the dinner table, the flake ads will usually be the first to come up. This campaign spanned the 1980s and 90s, with each advertisement having one common denominator: a very attractive woman who suggestively locks eyes with viewers as she takes a bite out of a Flake bar. 

“The crumbliest, flakiest, milk chocolate in the world” (Flake advert, 1992)

This year, Cadbury launched a very suggestive advert for crème eggs, oozing with innuendo on licking, sucking, and lip-smacking. The sexual metaphors were just overt enough to appear self-aware. Here it was tongue-in-cheek, Cadbury knew they were playing on a long-standing history of using sex to sell chocolate. 

But why is sex such an effective way to sell chocolate? Can we really believe that chocolate really will have women swooning and men drooling over us?  

It’s important to note that the connection between sex and chocolate was made long before the advertisements we know and love today existed. Ever since chocolate was first consumed – by Aztec heavyweights like Montezuma – it has been attributed with libido-lifting, virility-boosting properties. In short, it’s always been considered an aphrodisiac.  

And before Cadbury’s crème egg “golden goobilee” campaign, countless chocolate advertisements graced our screen. Some were more subtle, but many were equally suggestive. Remember the 1992 Galaxy ad? A woman sinks into her sofa, parting her painted red lips, sensuously eating a square of chocolate whilst closing her eyes in a moment of satisfaction that borders on euphoric.  

Sex sells: Women’s sexually charged relationship with chocolate

And it often is women we see being susceptible to the allegedly aphrodisiacal qualities of confectionary in chocolate advertising. Conversely, the thought of a man in a silk robe on the “hunt” for a cocoa hit seems almost ludicrous. There are far fewer intimate close-ups, parted lips, and satisfied sighs from men than there are from women.

This seems especially interesting. Historically, it was powerful men who indulged in chocolate as a means to increase virility. Traditionally, women were not thought to be so susceptible to the influence of aphrodisiacs. That these advertisements present women as the primary consumer – and lover – of chocolate signifies a recent cultural shift in our understanding of chocolate in relation to gender.   

Back to Reality…

Much as we would love to tell you otherwise, it’s sadly untrue that chocolate functions as an aphrodisiac. It won’t have you ripping each other’s clothes off like that hot couple you saw in the ads. If you’re wanting to be like the women you see on Ferrero Rocher, Galaxy, or Flake adverts, then order some of our favourite bars, close your eyes and indulge.

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Valentine’s Day: More than a Box of Chocolates?

Valentine's Day chocolates

The history of Valentine’s Day is darker than you might expect. It hasn’t always been boxes of chocolates and cutesy cards.

Lupercalia

The Roman festival, Lupercalia, which took place annually on February 15th, was bloody and sexually charged – with animal sacrifices and violent spankings standing in for the dinner dates and lingerie we now know today.

The pagan festival was dedicated to Faunus, the Roman God of agriculture. It was believed that running around spanking women would ward off evil spirits of infertility. Lupercalia actually had less to do with love (as we know it) and more to do with reproductive health. Romantic, right?

Although Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity, it was later outlawed at the end of the 5th century by Pope Gelasius. Instead, he declared the 14th of February to be “Valentine’s Day”. However, whipping continues to play an important role during festivals around fertility in countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia!

St. Valentine(s)

The patron saint of Valentine’s Day is shrouded in mystery, it is even thought to be three separate people. The Catholic Church recognises three different saints called Valentine, all of whom were martyred.

One legend suggests that Valentine was a Roman Priest who, when Claudius III outlawed marriage for young men on the basis that single men make better soldiers, defied this rule by continuing to marry young men anyway. He was subsequently executed – so died in the name of love, quite literally.

Another – similarly tragic – Valentine was said to have sent the first ever Valentine’s Day card. After falling in love with his jailor’s daughter, he wrote her a letter signed ‘from your Valentine’. A sign-off which later became the cliched mantra for the ultimate cliché holiday. Who knew that its origins lay behind the bars of a Roman prison?

Although the truth of these stories is murky, the popularity of these figures endured in medieval France and England.

Ye Olde Valentine’s Day: Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules

Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record Valentine’s Day in English. He refers to the occasion in his dream-vision poem, The Parlement of Foules, written in the 1370s. He wrote: ‘For this was Seynt Valentyne’s day / When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.’

So, even by the 14th century, Valentine’s Day had more to do with fertility and animals than with love.

The Victorian Era: Cadbury’s Box of Chocolates

The prudish Victorians certainly wouldn’t have dedicated a holiday to spanking  – nor would they have necessarily entertained the idea of dying in the name of love (a notion far too impractical for the industrial age). Instead, with Richard Cadbury’s revolutionary way of making solid bars, boxes of chocolate and greetings cards became the new way to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

The boxes Cadbury designed were so beautiful that they were often kept as places to store other love mementoes, once the chocolate had been consumed.

Victorian-Era Chocolate Box

Be Our Valentine!

For Valentine’s Day, whether you’re looking to treat a partner or yourself, be sure to check out our range of Valentine’s Day gifts! Nothing says “I love you” (or “I love me”) more than a chocolatey sweet treat in pretty packaging.