Speaking Highly of Spinach

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is an edible plant in the family of Amaranthaceae-Chenopodiaceae, which also contains beets, chard, epazote, lamb’s quarters, quinoa, purslane, tumbleweed, goosefoot, and amaranth. It shares a similar taste profile with two of its cousins, having the bitterness of beet greens and the slightly salty flavor of chard.

Spinach originated in central and southwest Asia, where it may have been domesticated from the wild Spinacia tetranda, which is still gathered as an edible green in what is now Turkey. The first references to spinach are from the Sasanian Empire (about 226-640 A.D.) in Persia (what is now Iran). Arab traders brought spinach into India, and in 647 A.D., spinach was sent as a gift from the king of Nepal to China, where it is still known as the “Persian green.”

Spinach does not grow well in hot weather, but Islamic farmers used sophisticated irrigation techniques to successfully cultivate it in the Mediterranean regions, probably as early as the 8th century A.D.. Spinach became a popular vegetable in the Islamic Mediterranean. It reportedly arrived in Italy in 847 A.D. In Venice, cooks integrated Muslim flavoring techniques by using pine nuts and raisins in spinach dishes. Spinach appears in three 10th-century Arabian texts, one medical and two agricultural.  It arrived in Spain by the 11th or 12th century. A popular dish in Islamic Cordoba was reportedly sajina, also called ásida, a kind of watery soup made with wheat flour cooked with spinach. 

In Turkey, spinach was known by the 13th century, if not earlier, and was popular with the Seljuk Turks. The Italians were important for promoting the role this new vegetable played in the Mediterranean diet, as they favored spinach in their gardens beginning in the 13th century. Mediterranean Jews, the Sephardim, were also fond of spinach and prepared dishes such as shpongous, a savory casserole that was customary on Shavuot, the holiday fifty days after Passover celebrating the Palestinian harvest and the anniversary of the giving of the Law. In 13th-century Damascus, burani was a popular spinach dish of Persian origin.  The prickly-seeded form of spinach was known in Germany by the 13th century.

Spinach first appeared in England in the 14th century, probably via Spain. In fact, for a while, spinach was known as “the Spanish vegetable” in England. It gained quick popularity because it appeared in early spring, when other vegetables were scarce and when Lenten dietary restrictions discouraged consumption of other foods. Spinach is mentioned in the first known English cookbook, The Forme of Cury (1390), where it is referred to as spinnedge and/or spynoches.

Spinach was first mentioned in a German cookbook sometime in 1485. When spinach reached Provence in the 15th century, it became the second most popular vegetable, behind cabbageIn 1533, Catherine de’ Medici became queen of France. She brought many vegetables with her from Florence, but her favorite was spinach: she reportedly insisted it be served at every meal. To this day, dishes prepared on a bed of spinach are referred to as “a la Florentine.”

In 1614, Giangiacomo Castelvetro wrote Breve Racconto di Tutte le Radici di Tutte l’Herbe et di Tutti i Frutti (A Brief Account of All Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit), in which he called for spinach to be used as the stuffing for tortelli.

In the 17th century, English philosopher John Locke reported having had a spinach and herb soup during his travels in southwestern France.

Bernard McMahon from Philadelphia listed three types of Spinach in his broadside catalog in 1804. In 1809 and 1812, Thomas Jefferson cultivated spinach at Monticello, but the dark leafy green vegetable only became popular in the U.S. in the late 19th century.

With the advent of canning and freezing, spinach became much more popular throughout the world and is now available in many countries that did not have a suitable climate to produce it. As people learned of its many nutritional advantages, spinach increased in popularity worldwide.  In the 1930s, the cartoon character Popeye the Sailor promoted the consumption of spinach, and boosted its popularity, especially among children. During World War I, wine fortified with spinach juice was given to French soldiers weakened by hemorrhage.

Spinach grows well in temperate climates. Today, the United States and the Netherlands are among the largest commercial producers of spinach. Although spinach is available throughout the year, its season runs from March through May and from September through October when it is the freshest, has the best flavor, and is most readily available.

Children may want to eat spinach to be strong like Popeye, but adults might be surprised to learn that eating it also helps to protect them against chronic inflammation, free-radical damage, cardiovascular problems, bone problems, and cancer. Spinach is an excellent source of vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, and calcium  for strong bones; folate, potassium, and vitamin B6 for a healthy heart; iron and riboflavin for energy; and carotenoids, vitamin C, and vitamin E to fight free radicals. It is a very good source of fiber to support digestion; protein to build muscle; phosphorus and thiamine for energy; and copper, zinc, and vitamin E to fight free radicals. In addition, it is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids to fight inflammation, and niacin and selenium for a healthy heart.

Spinach is a star in terms of its phytochemical content. Spinach contains more than a dozen different flavonoid and carotenoid compounds that function as anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agents. Spinach extracts have slowed down cell division in human stomach cancer cells and reduced skin cancers in animals. A study of adult women living in New England in the late 1980s also showed that spinach intake was inversely related to incidence of breast cancer. Excessive inflammation is a risk factor for cancer, which is why many anti-inflammatory nutrients also have anti-cancer properties. Spinach reduces inflammation. In your digestive tract, reduced inflammation is associated not only with the flavonoids found in spinach, but also with its carotenoids, including neoxanthin and violaxanthin, two unique anti-inflammatory carotenoids that are found in plentiful amounts in the leaves of spinach. Spinach shows evidence of significant protection against the occurrence of aggressive prostate cancer.

Most of the flavonoid and carotenoid nutrients found in spinach that provide anti-inflammatory benefits provide antioxidant benefits as well. Spinach is an excellent source of other antioxidant nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and manganese. It’s also a very good source of the antioxidant zinc and a good source of the antioxidant selenium. As a result, spinach helps lower your risk of many problems related to oxidative stress. Your blood vessels, for example, are especially susceptible to damage from oxidative stress, and eating spinach reduces your risk of several blood vessel-related problems, including atherosclerosis and high blood pressure. The blood pressure benefits of spinach may be related not only to its antioxidants, but also to some of its special peptides. Peptides are small pieces of protein, several peptides in spinach can help lower blood pressure by inhibiting an enzyme that raises it. Two of the carotenoids that are especially plentiful in spinach, lutein and zeaxanthin, are primary antioxidants in several regions of your eyes, including your retinas and maculas. Your blood levels of lutein can be increased by eating normal amounts of spinach. Spinach may also help prevent eye problems, including age-related macular degeneration.

The vitamin K in spinach (almost 200% of the Daily Value in one cup of fresh raw spinach leaves; over 1110% in one cup cooked) is important for maintaining your bone health. Spinach is also an excellent source of other bone-supportive nutrients including calcium and magnesium.

Spinach is rich in the amino acid, arginine. An enzyme called nitric oxide synthase (NOS)—found in many of your body’s cell types—can use arginine to help produce nitric oxide (NO), which is a muscle relaxant. When NO causes the smooth muscles around your blood vessels to relax, the space inside your blood vessels can expand, allowing blood to flow more freely and creating a drop in blood pressure. In the same way, NO can improve erectile function in men.

Arginine can also result in the formation of molecules called polyarginine peptides. These polyarginine peptides are able to block activity of an enzyme called tissue-nonspecific alkaline phosphatase, or TNAP. When TNAP activity is shut down, your fat cells (adipocytes) tend to create less fat.

Spinach is among a small number of foods that contain measurable amounts of oxalic acid, a naturally occurring substances found in plants and animals. When oxalic acid becomes too concentrated in body fluids, it can crystallize and cause health problems, including kidney and gall stones. However, oxalic acid is also a powerful antioxidant that is produced in your body, and is believed to be successful in fighting several kinds of tumor cells. People with existing and untreated kidney or gallbladder problems may want to avoid eating large amounts of raw spinach, but for most people, it isn’t a problem. Iron absorption is not significantly affected by the oxalic acid in spinach, but oxalic acid may interfere with our absorption of calcium. At a minimum, you should expect to absorb a minimum of about 10% of the calcium from the spinach that you eat. For example, in one cup of boiled spinach containing about 285 milligrams, you can expect to absorb about 25-30 milligrams. For adults, the Adequate Intake (AI) level for calcium falls between 1,000 and 1,200 milligrams. This recommended amount assumes an absorption rate of about 30%. In other words, you need about 300-360 milligrams of absorbable calcium each day. A cup of spinach can provide you with about 10% of the recommended calcium intake for about 40 calories.

Spinach contains moderate amounts of other naturally occurring substances called purines, which are commonly found in plants and animals. Purines are metabolized into uric acid, which is an antioxidant that helps prevent damage to your blood vessel linings. When uric acid accumulates, uric acid crystals can become deposited in your tendons, joints, kidneys, and other organs if you have a condition known as gout. People with gout and certain other health problems may want to limit or avoid intake of purine-containing foods such as spinach.

Nutrients in 1 Cup of Cooked Spinach (180 grams)

Nutrient

Amount

DV

vitamin K

888.48 mcg

1110.6%

vitamin A

18865.80 IU

377.3%

manganese

1.68 mg

84.0%

folate

262.80 mcg

65.7%

magnesium

156.60 mg

39.1%

iron

6.43 mg

35.7%

vitamin C

17.64 mg

29.4%

vitamin B2

0.42 mg

24.7%

calcium

244.80 mg

24.5%

potassium

838.80 mg

24.0%

vitamin B6

0.44 mg

22.0%

tryptophan

0.07 g

21.9%

vitamin E

3.74 mg

18.7%

fiber

4.32 g

17.3%

copper

0.31 mg

15.5%

vitamin B1

0.17 mg

11.3%

protein

5.35 g

10.7%

phosphorus

100.80 mg

10.1%

zinc

1.37 mg

9.1%

choline

35.46 mg

8.3%

omega-3 fats

0.17 g

7.1%

vitamin B3

0.88 mg

4.4%

selenium

2.70 mcg

3.9%

Calories

41.4

.02%

There are three different types of spinach generally available. Savoy has crisp, creased curly leaves that have a springy texture. Smooth-leaf has flat, unwrinkled, spade-shaped leaves, while semi-savoy is similar in texture to savoy but is not as crinkled in appearance. Baby spinach is excellent for salads. Choose spinach that has vibrant deep green leaves and stems with no signs of yellowing. The leaves should look fresh and tender, and not be wilted or bruised. Avoid those that have a slimy coating as this is an indication of decay. Fresh spinach has a delicate texture and color that is lost when spinach is frozen or canned. According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 report “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” spinach is among the 12 foods on which pesticide residues have been most frequently found. So if you want to avoid pesticide-associated health risks, buy only organically grown spinach. Don’t wash spinach before storing, as the exposure to water encourages spoilage. Place spinach in a sealed container, squeezing out as much of the air as possible. Place it in refrigerator where it will keep fresh for up to 5 days.

Spinach should be washed very well since the leaves and stems tend to collect sand and soil. Before washing, trim off the roots and separate the leaves. Place the spinach in a large bowl of tepid water and swish the leaves around with your hands as this will allow any dirt to become dislodged. Remove the leaves from the water, empty the bowl, refill with clean water and repeat this process until no dirt remains in the water (usually two to three times will do the trick). Do not leave spinach soaking in the water as water-soluble nutrients will leach into the water. Spinach sold in bags has been pre-washed and only needs to be rinsed. If you are going to use it in a salad, dry it using a salad spinner or by shaking it in a colander.

Raw spinach has a mild, slightly sweet taste that is perfect for salads, while its flavor becomes more robust when it is cooked. Add raw baby spinach to smoothies. Spinach salads are a classic, easy, and delicious meal or side dish. You can steam our saute spinach with garlic for a delicious treat. Sprinkle it with pine nuts or nutritional yeast for some added interest. Add layers of steamed spinach to lasagna or other casseroles.


This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

38 thoughts on “Speaking Highly of Spinach

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