What spinach and Popeye taught us

In this season of Lent, I have decided to give up eating all kinds of meat (from warm-blooded animals).  This change in diet caused me to feel dizzy on many occasions.  It took me quite a while to realise this could be due to my low-iron diet.

I was researching on food with high iron content, and I vaguely remembered spinach is one of them.  If you do a little search on ‘spinach’ and ‘iron’ on Google, some very interesting things turn up.

Many people will associate spinach with… Popeye the Sailorman!

Image from Comic Book Resources

And the story goes something like this: Popeye was given his first spinach in 1932.  Rumour has it that the creator of Popeye chose spinach for its high iron content, which makes Popeye strong.  Some 60 years before Popeye was born, in 1871 a German scientist Emil Theodor von Wolff published his work claiming that spinach has 10 times more iron than other leafy vegetables.  In was not until 1937 before other scientists realised von Wolff mis-placed the decimal point.  Spinach does not have that much iron after all.

Some people pointed out this story is untrue.  While the article written by von Wolff does exist, we cannot be too sure if the inflated iron content was really due to the error in decimal point placement, or was it purely due to the experimental setup back then.  As Dr Mike Sutton pointed out, spinach was given to Popeye for its high vitamin A content.  Dr Sutton is a criminologist and he wrote an article debunking the story of Spinach, Iron and Popeye (click to read the article).

Image from Developing Diplomat

Spinach does have high iron content.  Unfortunately, it also contains some substances that inhibits the uptake of iron in the body.  Tofu, cereals, potatoes are good sources of iron, so are oysters and mussels.

Whether or not the story of Popeye is true, Popeye had brought many positive influences to society.  And the most important impact is children don’t shun spinach as much.  Recent study showed that children eat more vegetables after watching Popeye cartoon.

From scientific point of view, I think Popeye’s story taught us to be more critical in the quality of research.  Many research publications out there are terrible; mostly they don’t conduct enough experiments to support their theory.  It taught us to be critical of our work, so that we can be confident that our results are real.  Because your findings can very well be world changing.

To end this post, I bring you…


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