‘Cause I Eats Me Spinach

As I sit here at the end of January it is stupid cold in my corner of the world. But the sun is shining and the days are starting to get ever so slightly noticeably longer. We’re now less than a week away from letting a rodent who can’t even chuck wood tell us whether winter will last another six weeks or if it will be closer to another month and a half.

All this means is that I am starting to realize that the extra weight I packed on through the holiday season (and the months of pandemic-induced inactivity), isn’t going to be covered by a bulky sweater forever. It has occurred to me that if I would rather not try to squish the extra bulge into a swimsuit when the weather actually does warm up, that I probably need to start eating less cake and more spinach now.

So much iron. Except maybe not that much. But there’s some. nad_dyagileva, via Pixabay.

I guess that’s ok. I do like spinach, at least the fresh kind, and I know that it’s good for me because Popeye once said it’s what “makes hoomans strong an’ helty,” and then his forearms ballooned to three times their normal size.

Rumor has long held that spinach is a great source of iron, though not probably as much as originally thought. The story, or at least a version of it, goes that while German researcher E. von Wolff was studying the iron content of spinach in 1870, he misplaced a decimal point, leading to the conclusion that spinach had ten times the amount of iron it really does possess. So, Popeye creator Elzie Sager chose spinach as the superfood to fuel his hero because of a then sixty-year-old math error.

I encountered this story on a daily calendar that features quirky historical tidbits that I got as a Christmas gift. The accidental overcalculation of spinach iron sure does make for a great story, complete with a lesson in the importance of peer review. But like so many great stories, it’s not really true.

We know that now because of the solid investigative work of Dr. Mike Sutton, who also liked the story a lot before he stopped and thought about it and realized it wasn’t exactly well researched. He explained this in great detail in a 2010 article published in the Internet Journal of Criminology. It’s a pretty good read if you have the time and inclination.

In case you don’t want to read Sutton’s thoughtful work, and you’d rather take the word of a blogger who regularly engages in the type of shoddy research that leads to 150 years’ worth of great stories without much truth to them, I’ll sum it up:

  1. Although there hasn’t been an entirely exhaustive study of the work of E. von Wolff in order to evaluate every decimal point placement, no obvious error of this kind has been found.
  2. There is procedural sloppiness present in the work of some American researchers studying spinach around 1930, which may have contributed to a misunderstanding, and later clarification, of the iron content of spinach.
  3. Popeye claimed to eat healthful spinach because it had so much vitamin A, and under the direction of his original creator, never mumbled a single somewhat incoherent word about iron.
  4. You shouldn’t believe every story you read, even if it comes from a generally reputable source, unless it is supported by a reliable primary source, because everyone loves a good story and sometimes researchers are lazy. Quirky calendar makers and bloggers, on the other hand, are almost always lazy.
  5. Forearm bulge measurement may not be the most useful way to evaluate good health.

Actually, Sutton didn’t make that last point, but I think you can trust me on that one. I’m a blogger and I know what I’m talking about.

I mean, it’s no cake, but that looks pretty tasty. kaboompics, via Pixabay.

So, I will tell you that in my quest for a better swimsuit body, I’ll be including spinach in my diet, because I like it. It makes a great salad and it has some good stuff in it like vitamin K and beta-carotene, which as Popeye almost explains, does provide your massive forearms with vitamin A. It’s also a good source of folate, is low in calories, and high in fiber. And yes, even though it will probably not give you super sailor arms as soon as you eat it, it has some iron, too.

Most importantly, if you replace some of your cake with spinach, you stand a chance of fitting into your swimsuit in a few months.

Super Foods of Future Past

In the fall of 1902, twelve healthy young men sat down together in a dining room set up in the basement of the former Bureau of Chemistry in Washington D.C. for the first of many meals they would share. The food they ate was whole and healthy, prepared with the finest ingredients, and calculated to meet the specific caloric needs of each individual. Oh, and it was laced with borax.

Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. Chief Chemist in the United States Department of Agriculture. Food and drug safety enthusiast. Poisoner of young men.
Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. Chief Chemist in the United States Department of Agriculture. Food and drug safety enthusiast. Poisoner of young men.

The twelve young men at the table were the first volunteer subjects of a study designed by the Bureau of Chemistry’s Chief Chemist Dr. Harvey Wiley to determine the human health effects of various common additive food preservatives.

Each young hero agreed that for the duration of his participation he would ingest nothing but the food provided him through the study, the only exception being water, which was carefully measured. He also agreed to regular medical examinations, and, of course, he agreed to clean his plate.

Wait, there isn't any radiated spider venom in this, right? I have the weirdest reaction to that stuff.
Wait, there isn’t any radiated spider venom in this, right? I have the weirdest reaction to that stuff.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Americans were as concerned about the chemicals in their foods as we are in 2014. And with no real regulation, it was nearly as difficult to make good family food decisions as it is today amidst confusing regulation and an overwhelming amount of ever evolving and sometimes conflicting health information.

Then along came Dr. Wiley and his “Poison Squad” as they were soon called by the press. They operated under the motto, “Only the Brave dare eat the fare,” rotating through and testing at various times throughout the five year duration of the study: borax, benzoic acid, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, copper sulfate, salicylic acid, and saltpeter.

As soon as a man developed symptoms that inhibited the performance of his daily routine, he was given a minimum of forty days rest during which he ate nutritious food that contained none of the test chemical. But as Dr. Wiley later explained during a hearing before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, the study was necessarily limited because unlike with animal testing, he couldn’t cut open his test subjects and examine their organs. Apparently, they wouldn’t agree to that.

So, I don't know what's in that turkey leg, but I don't think it agrees with him.
So, I don’t know what’s in that turkey leg, but I don’t think it agrees with him.

Still, the study and the publicity that accompanied it, helped pave the way for the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and for the agency that would emerge officially in 1930 as the Food and Drug Administration. The act addressed fairness in labeling more than the elimination of food dangerous food preservatives, but four of Wiley’s test additives are long since gone from American foods, including borax, salicylic acid, formaldehyde, and copper sulfate.

Thanks to the heroic sacrifices of the poison squad, the food we eat is a little bit safer, which doesn’t seem to do much to ease our minds as we are still at war with all things perceived as unnatural in our foods. Regardless of what diet you subscribe to, be it the Mediterranean, Paleo, Flexitarian, or whatever, the one thing they all pretty much agree on is that you should eat as much real, single-ingredient, “whole” food as you can.

And even the most practical of nutritionists, who caution against adopting a diet so rigid that it’s not workable, agree that this is probably a pretty good idea. But as a mom who does the vast majority of the grocery shopping and as much of the cooking as I can’t get out of, I wanted to know, just what are those whole superfoods my family should be eating?

Turns out Prevention magazine has some suggestions. Actually, there are quite a few lists of the super-est foods of 2014, but I liked this particular list because most of the foods on it were included elsewhere, too, and there were several I’d never heard of before. You just can’t get any more super than that.

Holy Whole Foods, Batman!
Holy Whole Foods, Batman!

A few of my favorite are:

1. Avocado oil – just the oil, not the avocado because it was super a couple of years ago
2. Coffee – some years it’s good; some years it’s bad; this year the price is going up so it’s super
3. Shichimi togarashi – a Japanese spice that is apparently really hot and rich in antioxidants, but way more Hipster-friendly than say, blueberries
4. Salsify – a root vegetable that is low calorie and high in fiber because, you know, it’s a vegetable
5. Za’Atar – a Middle Eastern spice that decreases the instances of foodborne illnesses, kind of like cooking does
6. Teff – a gluten free grain whose biggest claim to healthfulness seems to be that you can’t digest it
7. Canary seed – yep, that’s right, bird seed is a gluten free grain option for people, too, so that in 2014, you have permission to finally eat the way you’ve always wanted to, like a bird. Super.

Um, just no.
Um, just no.

I don’t know what was on the list of super foods in 1906, but I guess I know what wasn’t. Don’t worry, though. No formal follow-up study was ever done on the participants of the poison squad, but anecdotally their health didn’t suffer in the long term. One participant, William O. Robinson of Falls Church, Virginia, passed away in 1979 at the age of 94. I think we have to conclude that his longevity stemmed from the fact that he was so well preserved.