Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sex, Food and Pseudoscience

By Rob Brooks

Sexcereal is a his-and-hers line of breakfast cereals that claims to boost your love life.

What’s she doing with that snake? And what does that have to do with cereal?

“This,” as I believe it is now fashionable to say, “is actually a thing.”

Where by this I mean Sexcereal. A his and hers line of wholefood cereals that tout themselves as

the world’s first all-natural, GMO-free gender-based breakfast cereal, formulated by a team of nutrition and quality-control professionals. And as far as we know, it is also the first food product to go viral!

Tip of the hat to Dr Michael Kasumovic for bringing this to my attention. It’s us and our colleagues giggling and punning away for a few weeks now.

“Can a gender-based wholefood also be low in trans-fats?”

“Is it high in irony?”

This product represents so much of what is wrong about the world in general, and modern ideas about nutrition in particular. So much so that I can only gape, awestruck at the whole confection, assembled to part the gullible and desperate from their cash (online orders cost about $10 Canadian per 300g, before shipping costs).

First, it builds a foundation of expertise, talent and passion:

To create the two formulas I enlisted the help of a fantastic team of nutritional and quality control experts. Jane Durst Pulkys, Tim Lance, Ariel Chen and Joy McNamara were those experts and their talent and passion for the job comes through in every one of the 3-tablespoon serving [sic] you eat.

These experts throw in a handful of ingredients that sound like they could be potent aphrodisiacs:

Ingredients include maca, camu camu, black sesame seeds, ginger, cocoa beans and goji berries to create a powerhouse cereal with your sexual health in mind, an essential facet to our overall well-being.

Then the branding savants slap on a layer of 1970s style sexual politics:

His and hers wholefoods? Cerious?

Is there a better way to start your day?

Well yes, there is, actually. By getting on the job. The clear implication being that cereal consumers might soon enjoy that option a little more often.

I know, in drawing attention to this product, I’m contributing to the senseless memetics of its ‘viral’ marketing. Although not sure if calling one’s product “the first food product to go viral” is going to play well with all potential customers.

Him, her, sex, food

Should we entertain, even for a moment, Sexcereal’s hype about being designed precisely to deliver sexual health benefits? Or that it is tailored to the apparently self-evident ‘different needs’ of women and men? Unfortunately their website is long on narrative and short on real evidence.

One rolling graphic claims the “hers” cereal is a great source of iron and fibre, tastes great and “supports hormonal balance”. The “his” product also gets ticks for iron, fibre and taste. It’s only stated point of difference is that it “supports testosterone”. Can this be the big endocrine-nutritional breakthrough we’ve been waiting for? Men need help with their T, while women need to be supported so their hormones (presumably including T) don’t get imbalanced.

Translation: in this crazy modern world, men need a cereal that keeps them manly, and women need to eat something that prevents them from getting all topsy-turvy hormonal.

A look at the “nutritional information” on the his and hers cereals doesn’t give too much away about which nutrients are delivering the desperately-needed sex-specific benefits. I’m no nutritionist, but these tables look pretty close to indistinguishable.

The nutrition facts for the "His" (left) and "Hers" (right) versions of Sexcereal. Sexcereal website.

Which leaves me wondering about the point of the exercise. While we learn that women and men are different, with different nutritional needs, we never learn what these differences are. So I’m busting to learn what bee pollen, black sesame, camu camu, maca, chia seeds, goji berries and cacao nibs do for a man. And what women gain from cranberries, sunflower (petals? seeds?), almonds, flax seeds and ginger.

And most of all, if I mistakenly eat the wrong cereal, will I find myself suffering too much hormonal balance. Or would a woman who ate the “his” cereal have such good testosterone support that she’ll have to pee standing up?

I have no problem with the idea that people may benefit from tailoring their diets to suit their circumstances and genotype. And sex differences could be among the most dramatic sources of variation in nutritional needs. For example, pregnant women and women who plan on becoming pregnant need more folate than other adults.

I’m even open to the idea that women and men might need to eat different amounts of macronutrients. That is certainly the case in many animals, including the crickets we study in our lab. Males and females invest different kinds of resources in reproduction and so their needs may be quite different.

But the idea that libido and sexual health can be enhanced in sex-specific ways by tailored, expensive whole foods stretches credulity. It looks to me like cynical sex-sells with a veneer of pseudoscience. Almost as dodgy as the so-called MILF Diet (and if you want to ask what MILF stands for, try to suppress the urge).

Nutrition facts wielded by the people selling you the product should always be treated with extreme caution. Such “facts” can range from encouragement to go long on expensive rubbish, as much of the current fad for Superfoods appears to do, to the downright harmful, like this convoluted claim that Angelina Jolie could have averted breast cancer by diet alone.

We should apply double the usual dose of scepticism to claims that particular foods or nutrient supplements will improve our sex lives. I am reminded of the very reason we have breakfast cereal at all. Dr John Harvey Kellogg, the notorious prude and equally notorious quack, invented the cornflake in order to suppress the libido. An insipid vegetarian brekkie, taken with cold milk, was his prescription for a much-needed defusing of sexual shenanniganising and self-pollution.

Sales of cornflakes and other equally insipid cereals over the last century must number in the tens of billions. But they were nowhere near enough to prevent sex and masturbation from shedding a great many taboos. Even among avid cereal eaters.

Alan Parker’s wonderful movie about Dr Kellogg (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins) – The Road to Wellville

This article was originally published at The Conversation.