Spinach is a Myth!  But How Did It Start?

By Shlomo Maital  


   Don’t make your kids eat spinach.  There is no reason. Here is why.

    In 1929  a cartoon character called Popeye appeared.  It was the brainchild of a cartoonist named Elzie Crislar Segar. According to Wikipedia,  Segar  began drawing Thimble Theatre for the New York Journal on December 19, 1919, featuring the characters Olive Oyl, Castor Oyl and Horace Hamgravy, whose name was quickly shortened in the strip to simply “Ham Gravy”.  

    In January 1929, when Castor Oyl needed a mariner to navigate his ship to Dice Island, Castor picked up an old salt down by the docks named Popeye. Popeye’s first line in the strip, upon being asked if he was a sailor, was “‘Ja think I’m a cowboy?” The character stole the show and Popeye became the permanent star of the strip.

     Segar had Popeye eat spinach whenever he needed energy and strength.  He did this, because he learned that spinach has a lot of vitamin A that young people needed.   But over time, it came to be believed, based (apparently) on the finding of a German scientist named von Wolf,  that spinach has a huge amount of iron.  Turns out that Wolf’s ‘incinerated plant ash method’ contaminated the results and exaggerated the amount of iron in spinach.  Other fruits and vegetables have more iron, including Swiss chard and, yum, melon. Von Wolf overestimated spinach’s iron content by 10 times!

    So generations of parents tortured their children and made them eat yucky spinach, for nothing.  And Popeye became the chief propagandist.  It was all a fraud.

     In atonement, we should all make big donations to UNICEF,  or something. 

     I wonder if there is any area where people believe so many scientific ‘truths’ that change so rapidly, so quickly, that one cannot keep up with them, than food.  Did you know that scientists once recommended smoking as healthful (in the 1950’s)?  And red meat? 

   The story of Popeye and the great spinach fraud is recounted in a great magazine article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, by science historian Oren Harman.  He in turn bases his account on an article by Mike Sutton in a Best Science blog, “The Spinach, Popeye, Iron, Decimal Error Myth is Finally Busted”