It appears that the poster boy for spinach is a fraud. Popeye would have been just as better off munching on a celery stalk, for spinach does not contain much of anything apart from Vitamin A, which is excellent for night vision but pretty useless as an aid for fisticuffs.
The reason for this is due to a mathematical error. Samuel Arbesman in his ‘The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date’ reveals that spinach’s iron content was miscalculated by a German chemist when he misplaced a decimal point. His mistake gave birth to Popeye’s obsession with the vegetable, which the cartoon character eats in vast quantities to boost his strength. Popeye’s testimony that he is “strong to the finish, ‘cos I eats my spinach” was born from a cock up made 50 years before he became popular.
Legendarily, Popeye’s spinach was famed for its iron content, the stuff that builds red blood and brawn. Due to the popularity of the cartoon , spinach was then touted as a cheap equivalent for the expensive but traditionally iron-rich T-bone steak.
In 1870, German chemist Erich von Wolf was researching the amount of iron in spinach and other green vegetables. When writing up his findings in a new notebook, he misplaced a decimal point, making the iron content in spinach ten times more generous than in reality.
In the course of his research von Wolf actually found out that there are just 3.5 milligrams of iron in a 100g serving of spinach, the accepted number became 35 milligrams thanks to his mistake. This then gave rise to the misconception that spinach is exceptionally high in iron, and eating a lot of it would make the body stronger.
While Mr von Wolf’s error was spotted and corrected in 1937 when someone re-checked his maths, spinach is still popularly thought to be one of the most iron-rich vegetables, perhaps helped by the cartoon character.
In 1981, those spoil sports over at the British Medical Journal published an article to once and for all debunk the spinach myth.