Original thread here

Is there then no truth to the story that the alleged high iron content of spinach came from a misplaced decimal point when one researcher was listing a load of vegetables?

Yes, apparently. See SPINACH, IRON and POPEYE: Ironic lessons from biochemistry and history on the importance of healthy eating, healthy scepticism and adequate citation, by Dr Mike Sutton

There is one crucial omission in the column. Cecil correctly points out that overcooked spinach is vile and just barely above pond scum in palatability. But he neglects to mention that raw or lightly cooked spinach is delicious as well as being more nutritious.

Yes, I have learned as an adult that I can eat raw spinach in place of or along with lettuce in, say, sandwiches. It does not have that atrocious flavor that extra cooked spinach has.

Is Cecil suggesting that becoming an 88 year old,active, vibrant, philanthropic, millionaire father of a former two-term President of the United States is an outcome to be avoided?

Yeah, there was that whole lost election thing, but all in all things seemed to have worked out well for the man!

The column is from 1992.

I gave up on that paper about 60% of the way through but it appears that:

1.) Spinach doesn’t have any more iron than other leafy vegetables.

2.) The reason Popeye ate spinach was originally for its vitamin A content, not its iron.

3.) The belief that spinach was extra high in iron may have been due not to a stray decimal but because the iron content of dried spinach was reported in a way that suggested it was for fresh spinach (ie still containing its water).

I confess I haven’t checked any of the guy’s references. Now that’s irony!

“It’s a good thing I don’t like spinach, because if I did I’d have to eat it, and I can’t stand the stuff.” - Jean-Paul Belmondo/Pierrot le Fou

A revised version, with a few updates, is here,


Why the hatred for spinach, anyway? Nobody’s going to confuse it with steak or candy, but it’s the tastiest of the leafy greens, whether fresh or cooked. The classic New Yorker cartoon (“It’s broccoli, dear.” “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it!”) is enormously unfair to spinach (though I say this as a diehard broccoli-hater). And Wikipedia indicates that, regardless of the iron content, spinach is quite healthy.

You are wrong. It’s a disgusting slimy mess when cooked, which is the only way many of us of a certain age encountered it as children.

I discovered as an adult that raw spinach is actually good, and I have no idea why this information was withheld from me for so many years.

Canned spinach, I’ll grant you, is revolting. Frozen spinach was my favorite vegetable as a kid. The way my mother prepared it was delicious. She’d brown a roux of flour and butter (though, coming from a German family, she called it an “einbrenne”), then add a spoonful of dried onion flakes. She’d stir that into the spinach just before serving. It tasted great. Sometimes I’d have an extra helping for dessert.

Is this canon? It would make sense, since Vitamin A is known for helping eyesight and since Popeye only uses one eye he would need that. However, the frequency of anvils and other solid iron objects manifesting inside Popeye’s muscles immediately upon his injesting spinach seems to imply his body must have suddenly received an unusually high influx of iron from an outside source.

I think I made it all the way to the end of this horribly overwritten article. Conspicuously missing is research that goes before 1931 to see what various scientists listed as the iron content of spinach that would have appeared to the public.

Links go to the books, but not to the proper page.

The Medical fortnightly, Volumes 29-30 1906
p. 558 The value of spinach

Dietetics: or Food in health and disease" By William Tibbles 1914
p. 501. Spinach is given as 0.0450% iron. That’s the highest number on the list except for pig’s blood. It’s twice as high as beef, 10 times as high as cabbage.

The Journal of home economics, Volume 11 By American Home Economics Association July 1919
p. 316 The Child Health Alphabet by Mrs. Frederick Peterson.

Chemistry of food and nutrition By Henry Clapp Sherman, 1917
p.431. Table III gives spinach as having 0.1506 grams of iron in 100 calories of food value. Spinach is the only item on the entire list that has a 1 in the second decimal place. That’s 10 times as high as carrots.

IOW, there is a huge amount of evidence that the entire medical establishment thought spinach was a good and important source of a needed nutrient that would make children strong long before Popeye was ever thought of. The values, tables, and presentations are all different, indicating individual research sources, none of them relying on half century old German studies. All of them give spinach pride of place and about 10 times as much iron as other common vegetables no matter how the percentages are derived.

Sutton in his postscript makes the claim that “the truth about spinach and iron was known in 1892 and widely disseminated by US scientists as early as 1907.” I have no interest in doing more research on this, but I quickly found four major exceptions to this claim and not a single one to back it up. He seems to have some examples later on, but if Hollywood wanted some solid and widely disseminated claims about spinach and iron they wouldn’t have had far to look.

Speculation about whether Popeye ate spinach for its iron or vitamin A seems beside the point. Elsie Segar just thought it would be funny if a rough, tough sailorman got titanic energy by eagerly doing what moms across America were forcing their unhappy kids to do.

Also, in “Thimble Theatre”, not a lot of spinach was ever consumed. It took Max Fleischer’s screen cartoons to make the eating of it into a standard fix for any predicament.

All you people hating on spinach are just weird. I love it. Everything from fresh in a salad to cold out of the can. Spinach is the food of the Gods.

This is exactly my experience. I had heard bad things about spinach as a child before ever being served it, and when I was it was a nasty green mush that of course I hated and feared.

Then later I was served the frozen creamed spinach which basically just tastes like butter with green bits in it and I found it to be edible, possibly even enjoyable (though I know better now).

Then as an adult I was served raw spinach and discovered it was very good. Why the hell didn’t anyone tell me sooner?

Maybe they’re trying to suck it through a corn-cob pipe?

I never tried it, that way… Hmm… I think I saw some corn-cob pipes for sale at the convenience store the other day…