Why was spinach once considered the ultimate vegetable?

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Dear Cecil: Was spinach once considered the ultimate vegetable? Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time reading my daughter the classic children’s story “The Little Engine That Could,” which lists all the good things the circus train is carrying for the girls and boys on the other side of the mountain. In the food category, in addition to big golden oranges, red-cheeked apples, etc., we find “fresh spinach for their dinners.” When called upon to read this line, needless to say, I gag and substitute something more palatable and nutritious, such as Fritos. But the mention of spinach has gotten me to thinking about the old Popeye the Sailor comic, where a timely can of spinach unfailingly endows Popeye with super strength, sort of like reverse kryptonite. What magical qualities did people think spinach had that warranted such a shameless campaign of propaganda to get kids to eat it? As a child I regarded spinach as inedible mush and nothing I have learned about it since has made me change my mind. Frank C., Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Come on, spinach isn’t so bad. If it were a choice between spinach and, say, radioactive pond slime, I’d definitely take spinach. But among things you’re likely actually to be made to eat, I agree spinach rates pretty high on the yukky scale. Along with castor oil and mustard plasters, the stuff exemplifies the in-suffering-lieth-virtue school of child rearing: if it’s bad, it must be good for you.

In the early part of the century, when the study of micronutrients was in its infancy, spinach was regarded with something approaching awe. “When well cooked, it is about as health-giving an article as can be imagined,” said Artemas Ward in the 1923 Encyclopedia of Food. Spinach was prized, at least by nutritionists, for its high concentration of iron and vitamins A and C. (Actually it contains a vitamin A precursor called carotene.) It was also considered a good source of roughage.

But its fans recognized that spinach was a tough sell and did what they could to hype it. “It is rendered sweeter and more delicate (and thus almost universally liked) by cooking with a fair proportion of lettuce,” wrote Ward–but one suspects he had his fingers crossed when he did.

Writers aiming at the younger crowd felt compelled to do their bit, too. By far the champ in this line was Elzie Segar, the creator of Popeye, who first appeared in Segar’s comic strip “Thimble Theatre” in January 1929. (The main attraction previously, believe it or not, had been Olive Oyl.) The oddly-built sailor was an immediate hit, and apparently so was his favorite vegetable. Whether Segar was in the pay of the spinach interests we do not know, but it seems significant that six years later a statue of Popeye was erected in the town square of Crystal City, Texas, the center of a major spinach-growing region.

Spinach’s star dimmed once more research was done. It turned out the iron in it couldn’t be readily absorbed by the body. Spinach also contained a substantial amount of oxalic acid, which inhibited the uptake of calcium from foods taken at the same meal. It wasn’t an especially good source of fiber, and if you boiled the daylights out of the stuff, as was common for many years, most of the vitamin C leached away.

Spinach’s reputation has recovered somewhat in recent years because some researchers think carotene will prevent cancer. Carotene can also be found in dark green, yellow, and orange foods such as broccoli, turnip greens, and kale. Like spinach, none of these is a vegetable to stir your columnist’s soul. Still, you cross the carotene crowd at your peril. George Bush wouldn’t eat broccoli, and you see what happened to him.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.