Popeye and the Great Spinach Myth

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

Everyone knows Popeye the sailor. And everyone knows his secret. Whenever the cartoon sailor is on the verge of a fight, he squeezes open a can of spinach, pours the greens down his throat, and uses his muscles to pummel his opponent (almost inevitably fellow sailor Bluto, his arch-enemy.)

As an interesting sidebar, in the classic Popeye animated cartoons, it wasn't always Popeye who eats the spinach. In one Popeye cartoon, he actually forces the spinach down Bluto's throat, so Bluto will work him over and he'll get sympathy from his dream girl, Olive Oyl.

Even Olive Oyl eats her spinach in one rare Popeye cartoon. A Mae West-like competitor is flirting a little too intimately with Popeye in a gym and Olive gets fed up, downs some spinach, and proceeds to beat the crap out of her competition.

Few people know that the U.S. government is directly responsible for Popeye's dependence on the canned green vegetable.

In the 1930's, America was mired in the Great Depression. The U.S. government was looking for a way to promote iron-rich spinach as a meat substitute. To help spread the word, they decided to hire one of America's favorite celebrities, Popeye the Sailor Man.

It was a smart plan. And it worked like a charm.

In all the Popeye comic strips up to that point, Popeye's superhuman strength was never explained. But with the government's campaign in place, Popeye was suddenly more than willing to share the secret of his strength. Sure enough, soon after Popeye took up spinach, American sales of the mighty vegetable increased.

Spinach sales skyrocketed by a full one-third. Even more amazingly, children actually rated spinach as their third favorite food, right after turkey and ice cream.

(In those years, I wonder if spinach consumption was skewed toward male children, as opposed to little girls? I mean, okay, boys would be encouraged to eat their spinach to be strong and tough like Popeye, but what would have been the incentive for a young girl to eat her spinach?)

But it wasn't just spinach the government was endorsing. They were also pushing the merits of canned foods. U.S. officials wanted Americans to know that cans were the perfect way to stock up on emergency rations.

While the one-eyed sailor should be applauded for persuading America to eat its leafy green veggies, he did mislead people a bit.

The government's enthusiasm for spinach was almost entirely based on the calculations of a German scientist named Emil von Wolf (sometimes spelled “Wolff"). Wolf had discovered, in 1870, that spinach contains iron. But when calculating his results, wolf misplaced a decimal point. This mistake thereby made it "official" that spinach contains 10 times more iron than it actually does.

Wolf's error in calculating was not to be discovered for several decades. But by then, everyone was downing their spinach to be as tough and strong as Popeye. In the meantime, the "spinach is richer in iron" myth had firmly taken hold, taking on the status of an urban legend. The myth persists to this day.

One last point: although spinach's iron content has been mistakenly inflated, the vegetable is still something good to consume, being rich in both vitamins and minerals.

(YouTube link)

[Ed note: Spinach gives you not only super strength, but apparently musical ability, too!]     


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