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Throughout history certain foods have been associated with sexuality. In Renaissance Italy, for example, impotent men drank an elixir made from egg yolks, wine, butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar that they hoped would cure them. The Kama Sutra promised that eating pomegranates would enlarge the penis. As recently as fifty years ago, Chinese brides were advised to snack on peaches, figs, and other fruits associated with female fertility. Still other cultures have recommended dining on such exotic fare as tiger penises, kangaroo genitals, and white moss scraped from the skull of a corpse to fan the flame of sexual desire.

For centuries, and in almost every culture, fruits and vegetables that bear a physical likeness to either the male or female sex organs have been promoted as sexual aids. The Aztecs likened the avocado to the testicle (because of its shape) and refused to let maidens outside when the fruit was being harvested; Asians, Africans, and Philippinos endowed the phallic banana with mythical sexual properties; the Greeks did the same thing with carrots; Hindus saw the fig as representing both the vagina and the penis; and the Chinese saw peaches and apricots, with their provocative clefts and appearance, as sexual foods.

Not all foods considered aphrodisiacs come in the shape of sex organs, however. The ancient Greeks and Romans recommended eating large amounts of onions to improve sexual endurance, and Aristophanes prescribed garlic as a cure for impotence. Honey and eggs (to the ancient Egyptians as well as to many others); cacao (to the Aztecs); and later, chocolate (introduced by the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes), all have been praised for their aphrodisiac qualities.

You may be tempted to laugh at some of these ancient beliefs, but don't laugh too long. Scientists have examined the nutritional content of many of these foods and discovered a basis for these long-standing beliefs and traditions. Bananas are rich in the mineral potassium, which is essential for the proper functioning of nerves and muscles. Carrots are an excellent source of beta-carotene, a form of vitamin A that helps control the production of sex hormones and vaginal secretions. Garlic and onion contain chemicals that can lower elevated levels of cholesterol in the blood, a cause of impotence. Eggs contain choline and essential amino acids, which are used to make neurotransmitters that are involved in the sex drive. Cacao and chocolate both contain an amino acid that similarly makes neurotransmitters that affect sex drive and libido. Figs and avocados contain niacin (vitamin B3), which not only affects orgasmic pleasure, but lowers elevated blood cholesterol levels, a cause of impotence.

Obviously our forebears from around the world were on to more than they knew when they told us to eat avocados, chocolate, and onions. But what precisely are the nutrients in smart foods for sex, and how do they achieve their effects?