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Spinach was the favourite of Popeye the Sailorman since 1932 – and has been attributed to his super-human strength ever since. In fact, due to its popularity in the cartoon world, spinach sales grew by a whole third in the US market. So, can spinach really give you superpowers? Let’s explore and find out…

What is spinach?

spinach leaves

Spinach is an edible flowering plant whose leaves are commonly eaten as a vegetable. It can grow as high as a foot tall and produces small, yellow-green flowers upon maturing.

Origins

Spinach traces its roots back to ancient Persia (now Iran) where it is a native species. It didn’t reach Europe until AD 827 and the very first recorded description of spinach in the US was in 1552 – it’s quite the international traveller!

 

It’s also in the same food group as swiss chard, beet greens, amaranth and quinoa – but you’ll normally find it next to well-known cruciferous vegetables like collard greens, kale, or bok choy.

 

Etymology

The English word “Spinach” derives all the way back to the Persian word for “green hand” whilst the Latin name, “Spinacia oleracea”, translates to “spine” and “edible plant”. As for the use of the word “Florentine” to describe dishes that have spinach as a main component, which can be traced back to Catherine de Medici, the Italian wife of France’s Henry II. It is believed that Catherine was such a big lover of the plant that she used to bring her own cooks from Florence to cook it for her in their own style.

 

Producing countries

China is the world’s largest producer – out of 26.7 million tonnes produced last year, China accounted for 92% of the total yield – though it is a relatively easy crop to grow worldwide. Because of this, many countries have their own variety of Spinach with corresponding names: Lincolnshire Spinach, Chinese Spinach and African Spinach to name a few.

 

Different types of spinach

Spinach comes in three main types: Savoy, Semi-Savoy, and Flat-Leaf.

 

Savoy has dark green, crinkly and curly leaves and is often sold in the fresh bunches you’ll find in supermarkets.

 

Flat-Leaf has smooth, broad leaves and is often used for canned and processed foods. The commonly seen “baby spinach” comes from a Flat-Leaf variety and is the kind you’ll spot packaged up in bags to be used for salads.

 

Semi-Savoy is a hybrid between Savoy and Flat-Leaf. It’s far less wrinkled than it’s Savoy counterpart and is produced both to use fresh and in processing.

How to identify spinach

wooden bowl of green spinach

With the huge variety of green leaves to choose from in a supermarket, it can be easy to miss the bags of spinach nestled up in between romaine, escarole, iceberg and arugula.

So, what should you be looking out for? Leaf shapes can range between round, oval, arrow-shaped, or triangular and are accompanied by edible stems between 1 to 6 inches long. Leaf textures can be either flat and smooth or crinkled – depending on whether you’re looking at a flat-leaf, savoy or hybrid variety.

To add to the confusion, you may also hear spinach referred to by color. For example, “purple passion” and “red mountain”. However, despite being in the same overall family of food – “chenopod”- they don’t actually belong in the same species as the green varieties that you may be more familiar with.

For those of you that haven’t had the joy of tasting spinach so far on your culinary journey, the flavour can best be described as mild, slightly sweeter than lettuce with an underlying ‘mineral’ taste. If you like a wide variety of salad leaves or enjoy filling your diet with ‘greens’, you’ll enjoy spinach – but the best thing about this leaf is that if you don’t enjoy the flavour there’s still plenty of ways of incorporating it into your diet, which we will discuss further in the article.

Quick spinach facts

spinach sautéed with corn and garlic

Though not a common trivia topic, you never know when some spinach-based facts might come in useful – even if it’s just to prove that you’re smarter than your friends! Did you know:

  • Tuesday 26th March is National Spinach Day! Which makes it the perfect excuse to enjoy the leafy green in your smoothies, as part of a curry or even a nutritious salad.
  • In 1937 the spinach-growing town of Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue of Popeye to credit him for the positive effects he had on the spinach industry.
  • Medieval artists used to extract the green pigment from spinach because it gave off such a vibrant green hue.
  • ‘Birds Eye’ was the first company to produce and sell frozen spinach, way back in 1949.
  • Spinach contains 15 different types of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin K, vitamin A, iron and potassium.
  • During World War I, spinach juice was added to the wine given to French soldiers to help fortify their blood.
  • Spinach, unlike most leafy greens, increases in nutritional value once cooked.
  • Alma, Arkansas holds an annual spinach festival every April.
  • Spinach contains oxalic acid, which can prevent the absorption of calcium and iron. An easy fix? Just serve your spinach with something high in vitamin C.
  • Spinach is packed with phytonutrients and antioxidants whose anti-inflammatory properties can be helpful in cancer prevention

Nutritional profile

bowl of fresh spinach soup on a board with spoon, peppercorns, and raw spinach leaves

So, you now know what it is, and what you’re looking for – but why is spinach hailed as such a power food?

Well, there’s a few reasons for this. A whole cup of cooked spinach contains just 47 calories whilst also packing a real nutritional punch. That same cup contains 5.35g protein, 6.75g carbohydrate, 0.47g fat and 4.32g dietary fibre and in terms of micro-nutrients it contains an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin K, folate, manganese, potassium, magnesium, copper, vitamin B2, iron, vitamin B6, vitamin C, calcium, and vitamin E.

Combined with other foods such as quinoa, tofu or tempeh, spinach is a fantastic source of plant based protein – but the act of combining it with other protein-rich food sources ensures you’re hitting all of your essential amino acids in one go.

A whole cup of spinach, raw rather than cooked, has even less calories – 7 to be exact. For this reason, it’s an excellent addition to salads. Adding protein, fiber, and bulk it’s a great way of making meals feel more substantial and keeping you full for longer. The nutritional values of raw spinach can be seen in the below chart:

spinach nutritional profile

Health benefits of spinach

health benefits of spinach leaves in a bowl

After reading all the nutritional information, it’s easy to see why spinach is so often praised as a great addition to any diet. Not just that, there are some incredible benefits spinach has for health concerns such as heart health, cancer, and asthma. The question is, how exactly do these little green leaves contribute so much to our health?

Bones

Vitamin K is incredibly important when it comes to bone health – and as it happens, spinach is absolutely packed with it. Vitamin K can reduce fracture rates and work with vitamin D to increase bone density.

 

Vitamin K is especially important for women, where The University of Maryland published a study that showed the link between low vitamin K levels and an increase in hip fracture risk. In addition, the high levels of potassium in spinach is also helpful in protecting bones from mineral density loss.

 

Although high in calcium, the oxalates present in spinach prevent it from being fully absorbed – so most nutritional experts recommend getting your calcium from alternative sources, such as tofu, broccoli or kale.

 

Anaemia

Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common form of anaemia and is most prevalent amongst women. Without enough iron intake you can suffer side effects such as lethargy, pale skin, heart palpitations and shortness of breath – scary stuff!

 

To prevent against this, organisations such as the National Organization of Women’s Health recommend a daily intake of 27mg for vegetarians and vegans. The reason for this is that non-heme (or non-animal) sources of iron can be more difficult for the body to absorb.

 

The good news is that one cup of cooked spinach provides a whopping 36% of your recommended daily intake – no wonder Popeye was so strong!

 

Cancer

Hold on to your seats, there’s a great big couple of words coming up: methylenedioxyflavonol glucuronides. Though quite the tongue twister, spinach is almost unique in containing this cancer fighting compound.

 

Spinach is also rich in the antioxidants lutein, zeaxanthin, neoxanthin, and violaxanthin which all have anti-inflammatory properties. Although most cancer research focuses on antioxidants and phytonutrients in isolation, the high flavonoid profile spinach contains suggests that it may well have overall cancer-fighting properties.

 

Heart health

According to the American Heart Association, potassium is key to maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system. Potassium can reduce stroke risk, lower blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease through a process called ‘vasodilation’. In simple terms, this means potassium helps the blood vessels to widen, allowing increased blood flow.

 

One study of 12,000 adults showed the high intake of potassium each day lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease by 37 percent, compared to those on a much lower intake. One cup of cooked spinach provides 18% of your recommended daily allowance of potassium, so with just one portion you’re well on your way to keeping your heart ticking.

 

The other thing that makes spinach so heart healthy is its astronomical levels of vitamin K. Vitamin K is an essential factor in blood clotting and lack of it can cause issues like haemorrhaging. Thankfully, that same cup of cooked spinach you ate earlier contains 987% of your daily recommendation of vitamin K. Yep, you read that right, 987%!

 

Eyes

We’ve all heard that carrots help us see in the dark – but what about spinach? Turns out, this leafy green is packed full of an antioxidant called lutein, which can help prevent macular degeneration. In fact, according to one study, those that regularly ate spinach saw a 43% reduction to their risk of developing the condition.

 

Another vitamin – vitamin A- is also essential to good eye health by helping to keep the cornea (the outside covering of the eye) clear. One cup of spinach contains 105% of your daily recommendation for vitamin A – ensuring those peepers keep clear and sparkling.

How to buy spinach

spinach smoothie with lime

Spinach generally comes either canned, frozen or fresh – and whichever you buy depends almost entirely on the recipe you’re cooking. Canned is often good in soups or curries whilst fresh is delicious in salads. Frozen bags of spinach are always good to keep in the freezer for a nutritional hit on standby.

To choose the best spinach, look for vibrant, deep green stems with no signs of yellowing. The leaves should look fresh, tender and with no signs of damage. Avoid any spinach that looks wet or slimy as this is an early sign of rotting.

When it comes to buying bags of spinach, the fresher the better. Studies have shown that spinach actually begins to lose its nutritional value days after being picked. Because of this, we would always recommend only buying what you need at the time – by the time you’ve finished that huge bag you picked up at the supermarket it may well have started to go “off”.

If picking up fresh bunches of spinach, rather than bagged, give the leaves a good rinse under cold water then pop in a salad spinner to dry off. Don’t have a salad spinner? Press the leaves between sheets of paper towel. Drying the leaves ensures they won’t go soggy by the time you plan on using them, so make sure you get them nice and dry.

Once dried, put the leaves in an airtight Ziploc bag or Tupperware container to keep them fresh for as long as possible. Pre-bagged spinach is always washed and put into atmospheric packaging, so don’t worry about rinsing this stuff – just make sure whenever you use some that you reseal the rest of the bag.

When is spinach at its best?

When it comes to seasons, it’s generally agreed that spinach is at its best between March and June, although it’s produced year-round in states such as California.

Should you buy organic spinach?

The question you’ll see a lot when it comes to spinach is ‘should I buy organic?’ – on this occasion we would suggest ‘yes’. You see, spinach is included in a list called “The Dirty Dozen” – a list of twelve fruits and vegetables that come with the highest levels of residual pesticides.

In fact, 97% of tested conventional spinach samples contained pesticide residues. No need to fear, though. If finances are an issue and you still want to get your fill of this super healthy leaf, just ensure you wash and dry your spinach thoroughly.

How to prepare spinach

spinach leaves in a white colander on a tea towel

Spinach is a great salad staple and the easiest way to prepare it is to simply eat it raw! If you can, try to consume it with something rich in vitamin C – such as citrus fruits or bell peppers – as it helps your body to absorb the iron and calcium in the spinach.

To steam, rinse the leaves with water then add to a saucepan on a medium heat. Simply leave for a couple of minutes and then serve.

To microwave, add a cup of spinach to a covered, microwave safe container with a splash of water. Cook on high for 2 minutes, then leave covered for an additional minute before serving.

To sauté, heat a little oil in a large pan then add the leaves. Keep the spinach moving – it should be cooked in 1-2 minutes.

For more prep tips, check out this video from FoodFaq:

Ways to Consume Spinach

Thanks to its mild flavour, spinach can be added to your diet in a multitude of ways. So, even if you’re an avid veggie avoider, there’s plenty of recipes or solutions out there that you can use to get the amazing health benefits of the green stuff.

Food

tasty vegan spinach salad on a white plate

Well, this is the obvious one.

From soups to salads, curries to creamy side dishes – the possibilities are endless when it comes to the many versatile ways that it can be used.

Chop a bunch of spinach up finely and stir into a hot curry for a nutrient kick. Keep the leaves whole and mix in some tasty salad ingredients – fruit is good for helping in the absorption of calcium, so try throwing in some sliced orange. Add in some healthy fats from avocado or a sprinkle of seeds for a hearty but healthy meal.

Spinach is also wonderful in pasta recipes – whether it be stuffed into cannelloni or pasta shells or stirred into a vegan bechamel to use in lasagna. For a quick and easy side dish, try sautéing a bunch of spinach with garlic and sliced onion in some oil until just wilted.

If you’re looking for something a little creamier, wilt the spinach then stir in soy or oat cream with a sprinkle of salt and pepper for a perfect accompaniment for all sorts of meals.

Smoothies

spinach smoothie with raw leaves and limes in the background

If you’re not a fan of greens, smoothies can be the quickest and easiest way of getting more goodness into your diet.

Thanks to the mild flavour of spinach compared to things like kale, its taste can be masked easily by other fruits of veggies. A really simple recipe involves whizzing up one cup each of spinach, pineapple and banana along with enough plant-based milk to make your smoothie the desired consistency. The spinach flavour is masked easily by the sweetness of the banana whilst the vitamin C in the pineapple helps you to absorb more of the nutrients in the spinach.

If you love smoothies but can’t use your bags of spinach up fast enough, try pre-portioning Ziploc bags of spinach and other fruits and keeping them in the freezer until ready. When you fancy a smoothie, simply tip the contents of the bag into a blender alongside water or plant milk and blitz until smooth.

Remember, though, that you should be getting more veggies than fruit when consuming smoothies, so go easy on the fruit-heavy recipes!

READ NEXT: WHAT’S THE BEST NINJA BLENDER FOR SMOOTHIES?

Juice

glass of spinach juice with a straw and a glass of raw spinach behind on a wooden table

If you have a juicer, spinach can be a great addition to your homemade concoctions. Just like with smoothies, the flavour is mild and can be paired with almost anything. Orange and spinach is a great choice because of the high levels of vitamin C – but also because the strong orange flavour helps to mask the greens.

One thing we’d always recommend, though, is to keep your juice intake to one glass (or around 250ml a day) because whole foods are always best. By juicing, you remove the fibre contained in the whole foods which means a juice will not keep you satiated like a meal would and the sugar content can be through the roof.

With that being said, a nice glass of juice made from a variety of fruit and veg can be a tasty and healthy addition to any diet because of the high levels of nutrients in every glass – just be mindful of your portions!

Supplements

spinach supplements

Coming in tablet or powder form, you can get your fill of spinach through supplementation. The high levels of vitamin K, iron and potassium means that the supplements industry have taken notice of the many ways the green can improve your health.

Supplements in tablet form often state that they are the equivalent of consuming 750g of fresh spinach – so is this a better way of getting your dose in? We say, no. Supplements definitely have their place in a varied Vegan diet, but when you reduce spinach to a tablet or powder form, you miss out on vital things like dietary fibre.

The phrase ‘too much of a good thing’ also applies here – the supercharged levels of water-soluble vitamins in tablets are often poorly absorbed by the body, meaning that you end up forking out money for rather expensive urine!

Although there are better ways of stepping up your spinach intake, if you really struggle consuming the veg, try adding a scoop of spinach powder to a shake or smoothie or pop a tablet after a glass of orange juice – just remember, whole foods are always better.

Spinach recipes

Now’s the perfect time the perfect time to share some fabulous recipes with you so that you can cook up some magic in the kitchen, from smoothies to curry and everything in between hopefully this list will give you enough variety to choose from…

Five minute vegan creamed spinach

creamy vegan spinach in a white bowl with spoon on a wooden table

Snazz up your side dishes with some souped up spinach. This recipe is really easy and uses a few pre-packaged ingredients so that you can have a superstar dish in no time at all. Most of the things in this one are standard vegan store cupboard items – so no need to worry about doing a mad dash round the supermarket.

Vegan spinach mac & cheese

vegan mac and cheese with spinach

Who said being vegan means you have to give up a big bowl of comforting mac and cheese? Move over Kraft, because this recipe combines a creamy, cheesy sauce with the nutritional power of spinach. Tasty comfort food with a side helping of health? Count me in.

Easy spinach pesto pasta

vegan spinach pesto pasta

No dish is quite as simple as stirring through a heaping spoon of pesto through some pasta. Unfortunately, pesto is traditionally made with parmesan – which isn’t even vegetarian, let alone vegan. Luckily, this recipe is here to save the day – upping the health factor by making spinach the star ingredient.

Vegan spinach, mushroom & caramelized onion quesadillas

vegan spinach quesadillas

This recipe couldn’t be easier – and really hits the spot when you fancy something carby. It’s also super cheap, making this a great weeknight dish, especially for students or those on a budget.

Easy vegan spinach ‘pie’ or spanakopita

vegan spanakopita

Traditional spanakopita is choc full of eggs, feta, parmesan and butter – so definitely not suitable for us Vegans. This recipe fixes those issues by replacing dairy with things like almond flour, nutritional yeast and garlic, for a rich and savoury hit without the animal products. The recipe creator has also made this recipe nice and easy, so it’s perfect if you’re not hugely confident in the kitchen.

Minimalist Baker’s favorite green smoothie

green smoothie with spinach

No great spinach list is complete without a delicious smoothie recipe. This one uses flax seed and peanut butter for the addition of healthy fats, fibre and protein. One serving of this contains 11g of plant-based protein – making it a top choice for the fitness savvy or for those just looking to squeeze some more nutrients into their diet.

Spinach pistachio cake

spinach pistachio cake

Just to throw something a bit different into the mix, we’ve added this fab recipe for a spinach pistachio cake. Vibrant green in colour, this one’s sure to prove a showstopper amongst family and friends – and no one will ever know there’s a bunch of veg included!

Are there any downsides?

As with most things, there are disadvantages as well as advantages to including spinach in your diet.

Due to its chemical makeup and some of the levels of vitamins and minerals, some people shouldn’t consume a lot of this veg. The amount of vitamin K in spinach is beneficial to most people due to its blood thinning effect. However, if you currently take and blood-thinning drugs like warfarin, you should steer clear because both things together will mean that your blood may become too low in its essential clotting factors.

Spinach also contains a naturally occurring compound called ‘oxalate’. In some cases, with those already prone to them, this high level can cause kidney stones. Essentially, the oxalate crystals bind with calcium in the kidney, forming stones. Other oxalate rich food include nuts, pepper and rhubarb. We’re not saying avoid these altogether, just be mindful of your consumption as large amounts may cause you some real discomfort.

Though spinach is a good source of iron, the kind it contains is called ‘non-heme iron’ – meaning that it is not derived from an animal source. This kind of iron can be harder for the body to digest and absorb because the oxalate crystals bind with the iron.

As we’ve spoken about before, an easy way to counteract this is to pair spinach with food rich in vitamin C – such as bell peppers or citrus fruit. Calcium-rich food can also impair the absorption of iron, so steer clear of pairing spinach with things like tofu, or you may not see all the benefits from Popeyes favourite.

Storing spinach and knowing when it’s gone bad

To keep it simple – if it’s gone slimy, brown, or smells bad, it’s probably not going to be good to eat.

For a little more detail and a comprehensive look at storing and knowing when spinach is past its best, check out one of our earlier articles: How Long Does Spinach Last?

Are spinach supplements available?

As discussed earlier, there are plenty of supplements to choose from on the market. Whether or not you use them depends entirely on your diet and situation.

As ever, we would always stress that whole foods are better – they go through less processing, are often much cheaper, and ensure that you aren’t ‘overdosing’ on certain nutrients. However, they do have a place in a well-balanced diet and, because of the nutritional profile of spinach, it’s certainly one to consider for its health benefits.

Generally coming in either pill or powder form, they are readily picked up from most health stores or pharmacies.

The pros

Spinach is high in vitamins A, K and C as well as being packed with iron and folic acid – so if you’re lacking in these areas a supplement can be a simple step to take to ensuring adequate intake of these nutrients.

 

Depending on your lifestyle, it can also be difficult to get the optimum quantity of spinach into your diet without supplementing – those who enjoy a varied diet may get bored with a cup of spinach at every lunchtime or evening meal.

 

Equally, picky eaters and those adverse to veg may not enjoy adding it to their diet – in which case a supplement may be the way to go.

 

The cons

A spinach supplement usually contains far more than the equivalent average serving in one pill or scoop of powder. Because of this, you may inadvertently ‘overdose’ on certain nutrients.

 

Water soluble vitamins are of low risk as excess is excreted through urine. Issues arise, however, with fat soluble vitamins as these build up in our systems and are slower to be used up by the body. Vitamin A is one of these vitamins and overdosing can cause issues with vision, skin and bone pain and long-term risks include liver damage and increased pressure on the brain.

 

Don’t worry too much, though – you’d have to be eating an awful lot to see any negative effects – just be mindful of this when popping a supplement.

 

Another issue is cost – supplements usually cost far more that their equivalent whole foods, so are not recommended for those on a tight budget. Also, if you’re already taking a broad-spectrum multivitamin, an extra supplement in the way of spinach may be a wasted expense as the multivitamin will cover most areas of nutrition.

Can you grow spinach at home?

For the green-fingered amongst us, spinach can be grown year-round – making it a good choice for when other crops are in short supply – and you don’t need a sprawling vegetable patch to grow it, either.

Winter crops need somewhere with good access to sunlight, whilst summer and spring varieties tend to prefer shady spots. Summer specimens can be sown from February under fleeces or from March outdoors, weather permitting. Winter varieties should be sown in August, then again in September. Obviously, if you’re the other side of the equator where your seasons are reversed, then you’ll need to flip the months around.

Make sure all specimens are well watered during dry, hot spells and when it starts to get cold, you may need to give your plants a little protection in the form of a cloche or straw.

In the Northern hemisphere, you should pick summer plants between May and October and winter greens between October and April. You should pick leaves continually once they grow large enough. To prevent and bitterness, make sure that you fertilise your plants regularly.

If you’re really worried about pesticides, then growing your own could be a good way to go, as you’ll know exactly what was used during the process.

For more spinach growing info, check out this excellent video from Learn How To Garden (obviously, the recommended blood meal isn’t an option for us, but you can sub it with an V-friendly fertilizer):

Spinach 101, done!

So, that’s it for spinach! Hopefully we’ve covered everything, and you’ll go away excited about greening up your diet with lots of lovely leaves. There are countless ways to get the most of this green, so why not give it a go? Have a wild spinach fact or favourite recipe? Don’t forget to share in the comments below.

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