Popeye and his girlfriend olive resulted in a 30% increase in the sales of canned spinach during the late 1930s. This association between spinach, its iron content and superhuman deeds caused me deep psychological scarring in what was an otherwise unremarkable childhood. For hours I would sit at the dinner table moving my spinach from one side of the plate to the other. Even the dog under the table bolted when secretly I tried feeding the canned green limp wrinkly tasteless porridge. The lecture from my Mother. “Spinach has lots of iron which is why Popeye is so strong dear. You can leave the table when the spinach has gone and not before”. Well Mother dear it is about time someone blew the lid of this can of green gunk.
You see the whole thing was a fraud. For starters the original iron content of spinach had been overestimated due to a misplaced decimal point. Secondly the iron in spinach is of a form that cannot be absorbed by the gastrointestinal system. It just goes straight through!
But iron deficiency is the commonest nutritional concern in infants and children. Not enough iron leads to anaemia and in children iron is important for the developing nervous system. The best form of iron is found bound to a protein called heme found in red meat. Other sources of iron are found in cereals and some legumes, but these are not well absorbed. The most susceptible groups are exclusively breast fed infants. The current guidelines recommend iron containing cereals and pureed cooked meat as part of an infant’s first food.
The amazingly successful Popeye cartoons increased spinach consumption throughout the World but resulted in many stressful family meals. Now all I have to do is find some dirt on brussel sprouts. The dog didn’t eat those either.