This leafy green vegetable may not be as popular with everyone as it is with Popeye and me, but it's definitely a nutritional powerhouse deserving of its own National Day. Spinach is a low-calorie superfood that's chock full of nutrients. Even if you don't like the taste, there are still a number of tasty ways to add spinach to your diet.

cartoon of Popeye the sailor

(© King Features Syndicate; via non-free content minimal use license, WP:NFCC#3)

popeye spinach can

Some spinach facts you might not know

Folklore doesn't have much to say about spinach. There aren't any historical myths, fairy tales, or recorded uses for this vegetable. However, like other leafy vegetables, spinach was traditionally sown on days when the moon is in Pisces, Scorpio, or Cancer in order to guarantee an abundant production of lush green leaves.

In the U.S., spinach and other greens, such as collards and kale, are traditionally eaten on New Year's Day. Their deep green color is said to symbolize money and prosperity. Some people think that before cooking, the leaves resemble dollar bills.

According to the USDA, the Northeast and the West consume the most fresh spinach, while the South eats the most canned spinach.

In the Southern United States and in traditional African-American cuisine, cooked greens are common and are often served with pieces of ham or bacon for seasoning. The boiling water, called potlikker or pot liquor, is used for broth.

It wasn't until the first half of the twentieth century that spinach became popular, developing a cult-like following due in large part to a cartoon popular during that time.

little boy with fresh spinach leaves

Types of spinach

There are three basic types of spinach:
1. Savoy spinach has dark green, wrinkled, curly leaves. This is the type sold in bunches in grocery stores in the United States.
2. Flat or smooth-leaf spinach has broad, smooth leaves that are easier to clean than savoy.
3. Semi-savoy is a hybrid variety with slightly crinkled leaves.

cooked spinach

Myth vs. fact

In 1870, Erich von Wolf, a German chemist, decided to analyze the amount of iron found in spinach as well as a number of other vegetable greens, such as collards and kale. When recording his findings, he accidentally misplaced a decimal point, changing the iron content in his results by an entire order of magnitude. While there are approximately 3.5 milligrams of iron in one cup of spinach, the erroneous amount of 35 milligrams per serving became the accepted fact.

Once the incorrect number was printed, spinach’s nutritional value became legendary. When Popeye was created, the executives at Paramount Studios recommended he eat spinach for strength because of its highly acclaimed health benefits. Popeye's endorsement increased American spinach consumption by approximately one-third.

U.S. stamp featuring Popeye

The error was corrected in 1937 after someone rechecked the numbers. But by that time, it had become a widely accepted fact.. The error was so widespread that in 1981, the British Medical Journal made the decision to publish an article discussing the erroneous spinach report in order to debunk the issue once and for all.

Good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and more

Versatile spinach can be served at any meal, including breakfast. It makes a healthy nutritional drink or smoothie and a lovely soufflé.

spinach pancakes

spinach smoothie

spinach in a salad

Malabar spinach

Basella alba is an edible perennial vine that grows well in full, direct sunlight in hot, humid climates. Also known as Ceylon spinach, it is used in a variety of curries and sauces. It's also used in Chinese cuisine, stir-frys, and soups. Historically, Basella alba 'Rubra' has been used to make red dye.

malabar spinach

(Above: Red Malabar spinach on my deck)

large malabar spinach vine

Nutritional value

Botanically known as Spinacia oleracea, spinach belongs to the Amaranth family and is related to quinoa, Swiss chard, and beets. It's low in calories and a good source of vitamins A, C, K, as well as minerals such as iron and manganese.

A versatile vegetable, it can be eaten raw in salads, steamed, blended in soups, and sautéed with other veggies.

Among other health benefits, eating this leafy green veggie may benefit eye health, lower blood pressure, and reduce oxidative stress.

Whether or not you like spinach, it's definitely one veggie to include in a healthy diet.

Popeye statue

(Farmer's market in the Hamptons, New York; photo by Marius Watz (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0))