Let’s Talk Spinach: Popeye’s secret weapon, working for your body

spinach in a wooded bowl

Anyone who has grown up with the cartoon Popeye has an image seared into their brain of Popeye defending Olive Oyl’s honor, his superhuman strength fueled by a can of spinach. While the cartoon’s nutritional depiction is, well, cartoonish, spinach is still a food your body desperately needs.

I Yam What I Yam …

Spinach is an edible flowering plant in the Amaranthaceae family. This is the same family that beets and Swiss chard are a part of, greens also known for being full of nutrients. This botanical bloodline is one of the many reasons it is also considered a superfood.

The leaves are alternate, simple, ovate to triangular-based, and come in a variety of sizes. It does flower, but the flowers are inconspicuous and typically a yellow-green color. When the flowers have matured, they are small, hard, lumpy, and dry.

There are three basic types of spinach: savoy, semi-savoy, and flat. Savoy has dark green leaves that are crinkly and curly. This is the type typically found in fresh bunches in supermarkets across the US. One heirloom variety, Bloomsdale, is somewhat resistant to bolting (bolting is when a plant flowers or seeds prematurely, changing the flavor of the plant).

The second main variety is semisavoy. This type has the same texture as savoy and also has crinkled leaves, but it is easier to clean. Semisavoy is grown for both fresh market and processing.

Flat spinach is also known as smooth-leaf spinach. This type has broad, smooth leaves, making it easier to clean. This variety is grown mostly for canned or frozen and is great when making soups and baby food.

Spinach History

Said to be native to central and southwestern Asia, spinach made its way to China in the seventh century when the king of Nepal sent it as a gift to the country. Since then, it has spread through much of the world. The US and the Netherlands are the largest commercial producers of this leafy goodness.

Back in the 16th century, Catherine de Medici—wife to Henry II of France—had quite the obsession with spinach. She was from Florence and brought Italian chefs with her. When the French chefs prepared it for Catherine the way the Italians taught them, the indignant French called it “a la Florentine.”

Spinach was immortalized in the New Yorker in 1928 by a single-square comic in which a mother said to a child at the dinner table, “It’s broccoli, dear,” to which the little girl replied, “I say its spinach, and I say to hell with it.”

“I’m strong to the finich … ‘cause I eats me spinach.” Popeye the Sailor Man probably made the biggest contribution to spinach’s media rise when, in both comic strips and animated cartoons, he grew fantastically strong by eating it from a can.

The most common myth relating to Popeye and his beloved spinach is that the comic was based on faulty calculations of its iron content. It is said that the German scientist Emil von Wolff misplaced a decimal point in an 1870 measurement of spinach’s iron content, leading to a value 10 times higher than it should have been. This mistake is supposed to have gone unnoticed until 1930 and lead to the notion that spinach made you stronger. According to Popeye creator Elzie Crisler Segar, however, Popeye ate spinach for its vitamin A, not the iron content.

Whatever the reason for Popeye’s strength, the series got kids in the mood to eat. A study in 2010 revealed that children increased their vegetable consumption after watching Popeye, which also increased the sales of spinach.

Spinach: The Nutritional Powerhouse

The benefits of spinach seem to be endless. Why? Well, it’s rich in antioxidants, containing vitamins A, B6, B12, C, E, and K. Just one cup of spinach leaves holds 200 percent of your daily vitamin K—even when boiled, spinach still holds 100 percent of the daily value.

The phytonutrients found in spinach, including flavonoids and carotenoids, provide antioxidant benefits, help lower the risk of health problems related to oxidative stress, and function as anti-inflammatory agents. It also has magnesium, manganese, folate, betaine, iron, calcium, potassium, folic acid, copper, protein, phosphorus, zinc, niacin, selenium, and omega-3.

Recently the peptoid rubiscolin was also found in spinach. The researchers in the study found that rubiscolins bind to opioid receptors, meaning that it may have antidepressant and mood-enhancing properties.

Glycoglycerolipids have also been found in spinach. They are health-supporting, fat-related molecules found in the membranes of light-sensitive organs in most plants that can protect the lining of the digestive tract from damage.

Finally, out of nine green veggies, spinach was shown in a study to give significant protection against aggressive prostate cancer. Not too bad for a little green plant—but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised since, calorie for calorie, leafy green vegetables like spinach provide more nutrients than any other food.

Know When to Grow

This annual plant is sturdy yet sensitive went it comes to planting and growing. Spinach can survive winter, but only in temperate regions. If exposed to higher temperatures, spinach will begin to bolt rather quickly—it is thus considered a spring and a fall crop. Even though spinach is picky when it comes to temperature, it is easy to grow and maintain, and extremely affordable.

When selecting, choose spinach with vibrant green leaves and stems with no sign of yellowing. Make sure to avoid leaves with slimy coating; this is a sign of decay. Do not wash spinach before storing, because this will make it spoil quicker.

To store, place in a plastic bag and wrap the bag tightly around it, squeezing out as much air as possible. It should continue to be fresh for about five days. Also remember not to store cooked spinach.

Unfortunately a lot of the nutritional value is lost within a few days, including folate and carotenoids, so it’s best to use it sooner than later.

Eating Options

Spinach is probably one of the only vegetables that is recommended to be boiled when eaten. Boiling the leaves frees up acids and leaches them into the water, giving the spinach a sweeter taste.

Not sure how to use spinach? Well, spinach is tremendously versatile: it tastes great raw, cooked, or in smoothies. Green smoothies have been a craze for the past few years, and this would be a good time to hop on the bandwagon. They make great snacks, breakfasts, or even meal replacements, and drinking them will ensure you are receiving more vegetables in your diet. Adding fruit will take away the bitter taste and will help ease you into this new trend.

For other simple ways to use spinach, try it in your salads, lasagna, soups, omelets, or even a stir fry. Spinach is hearty enough to be great in any form you can buy it in, whether it is loose, packaged, canned, or frozen.

A Final Thought

Spinach is one of the “dirty dozen” identified by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The dirty dozen is a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide exposure. Because of this, the EWG suggests that spinach be purchased organically—so make sure to find out where your spinach is coming from.

With that said, eat up and let spinach do your body wonders … even if it won’t make you Popeye strong.

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