What exactly is spinach?
It’s a flowering plant, whose leaves are eaten as a vegetable. Originating in Central and Western Asia, it’s part of the Goosefoot family.
Maybe Popeye was right: spinach could be a good source of plant-based strength. You’d only have to eat 180g to get the same amount of iron as there is in 100g of beef liver – a substance long praised for its iron content [source].
The problem with non-heme (plant-based) iron is that it’s not as easily absorbed by the body as that found in animal products. But with a little help it can easily be made more bioavailable. Foods rich in vitamin C – such as broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts, citrus fruits, tomatoes and peppers – help the absorption of non-heme iron. So it’s worth bearing this in mind when planning your meals. Spinach itself has a fair amount of vitamin C, which will naturally help the process anyway.
The irony of Popeye?
“Dr Hamblin wrote that spinach was so low in iron, that Popeye would have been better off eating the can if he wanted some iron. Dr Hamblin went on to explain that the problem began in the 1890s, when some German scientists analysed the iron content of spinach correctly. Unfortunately, when they wrote the result in their paper, they put the decimal point in the wrong place and accidentally published a result that was 10-times too large.”
Spinach has quite high levels of calcium, but unfortunately most of it is not bioavailable. Research has shown that as little as 5% of its calcium can be absorbed by the human body [source]. Here the problem is that spinach contains antinutrients called oxalates. These inhibit both iron and calcium absorption. A simple way to reduce oxalates is cooking. Those who suffer from gout, kidney stones or other kidney problems need to be especially careful to reduce oxalates.
All this said, spinach is a great source of minerals and other nutrients. Per calorie, it’s considered one of the most nutrient-rich foods on the planet.
Chlorophyll & Vitamin K
Spinach is high in vitamin K, due to its high chlorophyll content. Chlorophyll can be thought of as ‘plant blood’ – it converts sunlight into energy through photosynthesis. It’s what gives plants their green colour, so other leafy greens such as chard, watercress and parsley have especially high levels too.
Chlorophyll is similar in composition to the haemoglobin in our blood, and has been shown to boost red blood cells in cases of anaemia or significant blood loss.
Chlorophyll is believed to help fight cancer, partly as it binds with carcinogens. It’s also an antioxidant, helps detoxify the liver, and aids the healing of wounds. The complication is that it’s degraded by cooking 🙂 So in order to reduce oxalates but keep the chlorophyll intact, consider just cooking spinach very lightly. A good gauge is that it’s wilted, but keeps its bright green colour.
- Spinach is a good source of manganese and magnesium.
- It’s high in beta-carotene – along with other leafy greens such as kale, and orange vegetables such as carrots. Beta-carotene converts to vitamin A. It’s a powerful antioxidant, which helps against the effects of ageing and reduces inflammation, as well as supporting the neurological and immune systems in the body.
- It’s also high in flavonoids – another type of antioxidant, supporting the cardiovascular system and helping to maximise the effects of vitamin C.
China’s production of spinach has risen massively since the turn of the millennium, especially for frozen and other packaged exports. China produces over 90% of the world’s stock [source]. We’ve discussed the ins and outs of organic produce from China here.
It’s fairly easy to grow in the UK over spring and summer, so local organic produce is usually available then. Much of the UK’s spinach is imported from Spain in winter months. Greece and Italy also produce a lot in cooler seasons.
Most supermarkets offer organic varieties all year round. Even better, it’s pretty straightforward to grow your own at home (more tips on that soon).
- It’s thought to have originated in Persia, and was cultivated as far back as 2000 years ago.
- Its use spread to India, then to ancient China around the 7th Century BC, where it was known as ‘Persian vegetable’.
- In the 9th Century it was introduced to Sicily by the Saracens.
- It became popular in the Arab Mediterranean, and arrived in Spain during the 12th Century, where it was known as ‘the chieftain of leafy greens’.
- It came to Britain and France in the 14th Century, and was prized for its early crops – particularly useful during Lent.
- It’s said to have been a favourite of Catherine de’ Medici. As she was born in Florence, dishes served on spinach are often named ‘Florentine’.
- During the First World War, French soldiers who’d lost a lot of blood were given wine fortified with spinach juice [more].
Got any tips or questions of your own about spinach as an ingredient? Leave us a comment below, we’d love to hear from you.