HISTORY AND CULTURE
Super Strong Spinach
27 Jul 2013 06.20 am by K. Daniel
Spinach has long been regarded as one of the vegetable powerhouses. I've personally enjoyed them immensely, no less due to the screening of Popeye the Sailor Man back in my younger days. Try as I might, I did not gain the superhuman powers shown in the television series by eating phenomenal amount of greens, although my parents were absolutely delighted to have a child who was not fussy with his vegetables.
Growing up I remember how one of my teachers used Popeye as an example and credited spinach with his strength. Of course this was in primary school, in science class no less, and she elaborated that the source of strength lies in the iron content of spinach.
Spinach is rich in iron. It and other dark leafy green vegetables are often advocated as such, in addition to providing valuable minerals. And as iron is an important resource in blood cell structure, and to that extent, circulation, it was reasonable to link iron levels and vigor.
But it was not as simple as that. Browse any vegan or vegetarian websites and you may notice that some of them suggest supplementing their diet with iron and vitamin B12. And why is that? Don't spinach and other dark leafy greens contain enough iron so that you won't need excessive supplements?
It is often claimed that the association between Popeye's legendary strength and his can of spinach by his creator, Elzie Crisler Segar, was due to a calculation error. In 1870, it was suggested that a scientist misplaced a decimal point when calculating the iron content of spinach, resulting in a tenfold value than it actually was. The fault was not noticed until the 1930s.
That in itself was proven to be a myth however, and i was said ha spinach was included into Popeye cartoons due to its vitamin A content rather than its iron content. An article written in the Internet Journal of Criminology disputes the claims on miscalculation as well, which was dubbed the Spinach Popeye Iron Decimal Error Story (SPIDES), because of the limited verifiable sources available although there was one unrelated article from the 1920s citing the tenfold value.
On top of that, although spinach does contain good amounts of iron, more than those found in meat in fact, absorption is limited in the human body. Vegetable sources of iron and animal sources of iron are different. Compared with animal sources which are more easily absorbed, vegetable sources of iron (also known as phytoferritin) is only effectively absorbed up to 50% of the amount consumed. This is because of the chemical structure between two iron complexes are different from one another, and thus breakdown is different as well.
Spinach also contains oxalic acid, a chemical compound found in several vegetables which effectively bind to Calcium and Iron resulting in a complex which cannot be absorbed in the gut. In short, this means that most of the nutrients simply pass through the gut and out the other way and only 2-5% remains which can be absorbed.
This should not discourage you from eating spinach however. Spinach it is still a rich source of a multitude of nutrients, all of which may contribute to good health. Just be mindful that it won't give you bulging arms or superhuman strength.
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