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Mon 12 Nov 2018

By Roberta Hutchins
Popeye was right all along

 So, it turns out that Popeye was right all along, spinach really is good for you! I had a small handheld computer game when I was a child, and spent hours getting Popeye to find extra tins of spinach which made him stronger and stronger! There’s something special about spinach, that perhaps Popeye’s creator knew about! Popeye was created by an American cartoonist, Elzie Crisler Segar, born in 1894. Researching Segar’s history a bit, there’s no particular reason to think that as a son of a handyman in the late 1800s that he’d have a particular interest in nutrition, but with his other characters Olive Oyl and Castor Oyl, he was clearly way ahead of his time, even perhaps unwittingly! However, a little further research has revealed a potential reason as to why spinach was chosen to make Popeye stronger. Apparently, in 1870, a German chemist, Erich von Wolf, correctly ascertained the amount of iron in spinach but accidentally misplaced the decimal point when reporting it! It seems he recorded spinach as containing 35 g instead of 3.5 g of iron per 100 g! This ‘fact’ went out into the world and wasn’t corrected until 1937. So spinach sported a superb reputation for 70 years and it is even suggested that Popeye helped increase American consumption of spinach by a third!

 However, it’s not so much the iron content of spinach that brings its greatest benefits, but its nitrate content. Recent research has shown that eating nitrate containing foods has various beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system, including reducing blood pressure and excessive blood clotting, and relaxing blood vessels, as well as helping the efficiency of our mitochondria – which are essentially the batteries in each of our cells, managing energy levels. Beetroot is another food high in nitrate and so has the same effect. Athletes are often familiar with the benefits of nitrates due to their positive effects on exercise – nitrates seem to lower the amount of oxygen needed for muscles to work well, so improving stamina and exercise performance.  A small study at Exeter University in 2009 found that beetroot juice helped people cycle for longer before feeling exhausted! Other leafy green vegetables also contain nitrates, such as spinach, rocket, cabbage, lettuce and cress, as do some root vegetables like turnips and radishes. Fruit tends to have lower nitrate levels than vegetables, but strawberries apparently have the highest levels of the fruits, with apples barely any. Nitrate levels will also vary depending on the soil the plants are grown in.

 However, do watch out for foods such as bacon and other processed or cured meats, the nitrates, such as sodium or potassium nitrate, used to preserve these foods are not of the beneficial form and are quickly converted in your body into harmful nitrosamines which might be associated with cancer and should particularly be avoided by pregnant and breastfeeding women. The vitamin C also found in the fruit and vegetables that contain nitrates naturally inhibits their conversion to harmful nitrosamines.

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