For anyone born before the mid-90s, Popeye was an integral part of growing up — the chirpy sailor who used spinach as his secret weapon. Every glug of spinach helped Popeye sprout muscles, beat the baddie and get the girl (it was the 90s). We delved into the truth behind this strange cartoon. Why did Popeye’s creator, choose this green, leafy veg as the source of his strength? And is there any real link between the two? Here’s the scoop.
In the late 1800s a German scientist, Erich von Wolf, investigated the iron content of a variety of vegetables. As he recorded the results for spinach, he carelessly misplaced the decimal point, writing down the iron content for 100g of spinach as 35 mg rather than 3.5 mg. Mad.
The mistake — whether actually due to recording inaccuracies or perhaps bad scientific practise — was rectified in 1937, but, apparently, not before Popeye’s marketers decided to include spinach in his narrative. As an aside, E. C. Segar himself didn’t actually choose spinach for its iron content anyway: for him, it was always about vitamin A (and the original Popeye comic strip did not contain spinach at all).
Eating lots of spinach is thought to decrease our risk of muscle degeneration as well as other degenerative diseases. This is because like carrots, spinach is full of carotenoids (the pigments that give veggies their colour) that are converted into vitamin A. Vitamin A, also known as retinol, is great for maintaining vision in low light and plays a big part in keeping our skin and immune systems healthy.
Spinach is also an excellent source of vitamin K, manganese, folate, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, vitamin B2, calcium, potassium, and vitamin B6. It gives us lots of dietary fibre, copper, phosphorus, and zinc as well. Essentially: eat more spinach - it’s very good for you.
And although our bad scientist made some dubious errors on decimal places, spinach is a good source of iron and iron is absolutely necessary for energy. A deficiency can result in anemia, which leads to exhaustion and can affect your body’s ability to function properly in a variety of serious ways. Some other sources of plant-based iron include: lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, raisins, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereals.
So, while spinach won’t make you sprout muscles, it will help to keep your muscles healthy over time and is also thought to prevent cancer.
Spinach contains a slightly different nutritional profile when raw or cooked so we recommend a mixture of both. Cooked, you will absorb more vitamins A and E, protein, fiber, zinc, thiamin, calcium, iron and some important carotenoids. On the other hand folate, vitamin C, niacin, riboflavin, and potassium are more available in raw spinach.