"A number of foods have been ascribed aphrodisiac qualities, and they tend to have a strong placebo effect."
There are many ways to a woman’s heart. But is a box of chocolates really one of them?
What makes chocolate romantic is entirely contextual. Valentine’s Day is traditionally the time for couples to profess their love for one another, usually by giving chocolate or flowers and sending greeting cards or, now, e-valentines. Chocolate Easter eggs hold no such allure.
But if it’s role in romance is just symbolism, why should chocolate take the cake?
One reason may be that cocoa products have historically been considered an exclusive item; the Aztecs thought it was their gods' drink of choice. The scientific name of the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, actually comes from the Greek words theo (god) and broma (drink).
So, if you worship your lover and think her a goddess, isn’t chocolate a fitting tribute?
Cocoa products contain many biologically active components (including methylxanthines, biogenic amines, flavanols and cannabinoid-like fatty acids) that could, in theory, impact on human health. Some studies suggest regular chocolate intake is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mood disorders.
But in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, what we really want to know is whether chocolate is an aphrodisiac.
It’s tempting to hypothesise that chocolate has a direct impact on female sexuality – it’s almost believable. Some studies have even suggested women who eat chocolate have bigger libidos than those who don’t. But this is not the same as cause and effect.
There’s no biological evidence to show that chocolate – or any other food or beverage – works as an aphrodisiac. A number of foods have been ascribed aphrodisiac qualities, and they tend to have a strong placebo effect. In other words, they get you thinking about sex, and this puts sex on your mind.
Many products have acquired aphrodisiac reputation simply because they were once exotic or unfamiliar foods. Before Hershey, globalisation and mass production, chocolate was the inaccessible luxury of the rich and famous. Who wouldn’t want a bite of that?
Another part of chocolate’s aura is sympathetic magic. This idea posits that if two things are alike, then it might be possible to garner the same effects from them. This is also known as the law of similarity and explains the fallacious appeal of rhino horn!
But sex and chocolate have much in common. Both cause blood vessels to dilate (known as vasodilatation) and accentuate flushing, especially as chocolate was traditionally a hot beverage.
Finally, when it comes to hedonistic appeal, the taste, texture, aroma and packaging of chocolate are hard to beat. The sensory qualities of creamy chocolate melting in your mouth may be far more stimulating to the brain than the same chocolate in your stomach.
In mammals, taste and odour are among the most important determinants of sexual attractiveness. The existence of an equivalent human pheromone remains to be established. But if there was one, it would probably smell and taste like chocolate on Valentine’s Day.