Medical myths: Spinach is full of iron

Dr Max Pemberton 30 November -0001

Our resident myth buster Dr Max Pemberton is here to put another old wives tale to bed. This time, is spinach really a good source of iron?

Where did the myth come from?

We all know that Popeye had spinach to thank for his muscles. Unfortunately, outside of cartoons, this vegetable isn't quite as miraculous as we've been led to believe.

The idea that spinach is full of iron dates back to 1870 and a research paper written by Dr Emil von Wolff, a German scientist. His figures showed that it had an astonishingly high amount present. In fact, this was a mistake as he'd misplaced a decimal point in his calculations—so the result was ten times higher than it should have been.

This faulty measurement was not noticed until the 1930s but, by then, the idea had stuck. 


What's the truth?


Spinach might not be quite as full-to-bursting with iron, but it does contain more than many vegetables. Unfortunately, it's not all good news.

Iron comes in different forms—the non-haem form found in spinach is hard for the body to use, as it's absorbed very slowly. Spinach also contains a chemical, oxalate, which binds with iron and makes it even harder for the body to absorb.


So, there's nothing to worry about?

There's no doubt that spinach is good for you—it has lots of nutrients as well as fibre. But if you want to build muscles like Popeye, you can't rely on spinach alone.