Why Did Popeye Eat So Much Spinach? The Surprising Answer

updated Sep 30, 2020
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(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

We know Popeye loved the stuff, but the question is: why spinach? The answer, it turns out, all goes back to one little mistake.

In 1870 German chemist Erich von Wolf correctly ascertained the amount of iron in spinach, but while transcribing his notes, he accidentally misplaced a decimal point: instead of recording that spinach had 3.5 milligrams of iron per 100-gram serving (as is the case), he wrote that it had 35 milligrams.

This is a huge amount. As Samuel Arbesman notes in his book The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, if that calculation were actually correct, “a 100-gram serving would be like eating a small piece of a paper clip.” But this was the “fact” that went out into the world, and as it wasn’t corrected until almost seventy years later, in 1937, spinach enjoyed a long tenure as the most vaunted of vegetables.

Which brings us to Popeye: these huge health claims did not escape the notice of the studio that created Popeye, which is why they chose spinach as the superfood that gave Popeye his strength. In reality spinach may not have been as powerful as they thought, nutritionally, but it certainly had a powerful PR effect. According to Arbesman, “Popeye helped increase American consumption of spinach by a third!”

Ha! Fascinating stuff. So, now you know the backstory of Popeye and his spinach!

(Image: via Brainpicker)