Spinach, From Persia To Popeye

Spinach may well be the most popular vegetable in the world today. It seems as though everyone is familiar with its dark-green leaves, and spinach dishes are found in cultures world-wide. But how many people think of spinach beyond the dinner table?

It turns out that spinach, in addition to its delicious flavor and multiple vitamins and minerals, packs quite the punch of health benefits. Those dark-green leaves hint at spinach’s high concentration of flavonoids, which have powerful antioxidant properties and have been implicated in helping to fight cancer, eye degeneration, and more. Turns out that Popeye the sailor man was right when he told children to eat spinach for their health!

The “Persian vegetable”

Today, spinach is so widely consumed across the world that it is almost impossible to conceive of a time when it wasn’t readily available. But, for a large part of ancient history, spinach was confined to its native Persia because of its stringent growing requirements. People in the Mediterranean were clamoring for more of the vegetable because of its delicious flavor, but unfortunately spinach didn’t take well to the hotter, more arid region, and steadfastly refused to grow in that area.

Enter the Arabic traders responsible for introducing spinach to areas outside Persia in the first place. Using cutting-edge irrigation techniques, they managed to adapt the fields of Spain and Italy to the growing conditions required to support spinach, for which the inhabitants of those countries were extremely grateful—even today, many of the Spanish vocabulary concerning irrigation is derived from Arabic words.

As people began to explore more of the world, spinach took off world-wide, and the rest is history. However, traces of spinach’s origin remain today: the Chinese name for the plant is bo si cai, literally meaning “Persian vegetable.” Thank you, Persia, for this delicious gift!

More than just iron

Spinach’s stereotypical health benefits have to do with its iron levels, the nutritional benefit responsible for Popeye’s famously popping biceps. Spinach does have remarkably high iron levels, but its nutritional benefits don’t stop there! Spinach is also a great source of folate, a vital nutrient for pregnant women, and Vitamin A, which can help improve eyesight, rejuvenate aging skin, and more, as well as being an excellent source of antioxidants which have any number of health benefits 1.

Spinach also contains a number of compounds called carotenoids, which have been heavily implied in promoting health. Two of these carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, have been suggested to help prevent age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of irreversible loss of vision in the elderly population of the Western world. Studies have suggested that eating spinach helps deposit these carotenoids in the retina, which then prevent oxidative damage and promote overall eye health and good eyesight 2.

While this has not been conclusively proven yet, doctors still recommend that people wanting to protect their eyesight should wear sunglasses and eat lots of leafy green vegetables like spinach! Another compound from spinach with potential health benefits are molecules called glycolipids. Glycolipids are found in everything more complex than bacteria, but the glycolipids of spinach are particularly interesting because studies indicate that they have the ability to inhibit cancer cell activity and proliferation 3.

So spinach has quite the combination of benefits: vital nutrients and minerals not just limited to iron, the ability to help retain eyesight and fight cancer, and a delicious taste. No wonder it is so popular!

References

1. Uuusiku NP, Oelofse A, Duodu KG, et al. 2010. Nutritional value of leafy vegetables of sub-Saharan Africa and their potential contribution to human health: a review. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 23(6): 499-509.

2. Mozaffarieh M, Sacu S, and A Wedrich. 2003. The role of the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, in protecting against age-related macular degeneration: a review based on controversial evidence. Nutrition Journal 2:20.

3. Kuriyama I, Musumi K, Yonezawa Y, et al. 2005. Inhibitory effects of glycolipids fraction from spinach on mammalian DNA polymerase activity and human cancer cell proliferation. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry 16(10): 594-601. 

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