Spinach originates from the Middle East, most likely Persia or modern-day Iran. Spinach, which does not grow well in hot weather, was successfully cultivated in the hot, and arid Mediterranean climate by Arab agronomists through the use of sophisticated irrigation techniques. The first references to spinach are from Sasanian Persia about 226-640 A.D., and we know that in 647 it was taken from Nepal to China where it was, and still is, known as the “Persian Green.” The first written evidence of spinach in the Mediterranean are in three tenth-century works, the medical work by al-Razi and in two agricultural treatises, one by Ibn Wahshiya, and the other by Qustus al-Rumi. Spinach became a popular vegetable in the Arab Mediterranean, and arrived in Spain by the latter part of the twelfth century where a Arab agronomist called it the “captain of leafy greens.” In 1533, Catherine de’ Medici became queen of France. She liked spinach so much that she insisted it be served at every meal. To this day, dishes made with spinach are known as “Florentine“, reflecting Catherine’s birth in Florence. Cultivation of spinach began in the USA around 1800.
Spinach is an excellent source of bone-healthy vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, and calcium, heart-healthy folate, potassium, and vitamin B6, energy-producing iron and vitamin B2, and free radical-scavenging vitamin A and vitamin C. It is a very good source of digestion-supportive dietary fiber, muscle-building protein, energy-producing phosphorus, and the antioxidants copper, zinc and vitamin E. In addition, it is a good source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and heart-healthy niacin and selenium. While this mixture of conventional nutrients gives spinach a unique status in the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory department, it is the unusual mixture of phytonutrients in spinach that “seals the deal” in terms of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components. In terms of flavonoids, spinach is a unique source of methylenedioxyflavonol glucuronides, and in terms of carotenoids, its difficult to find a more helpful source of lutein and zeaxanthin. The epoxyxanthophyll carotenoids neoxanthin, and violaxanthin are also in spinach leaves. The natural nitrates found in spinach and other leafy greens feed muscular mitochondria, and thus help regulate blood pressure, immune defense, and cell metabolism. Inorganic nitrates, (which are different than the synthetic nitrates which are commonly added to processed foods) are used by the body to produce nitric oxide (NO), a vital molecular component that delivers oxygen to blood and performs a variety of other physiological and pathological processes in the body. Nitric oxide is a powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombotic, and vasodilation agent, all of which result in numerous health benefits, and Popeye’s big muscles!
Lutein is a carotenoid found in spinach that is protective against eye diseases such as age-related cataracts and macular degeneration. There is some indication that it might be absorbed better if you eat it with a little fat, like a small amount of olive oil. Spinach, along with other green leafy vegetables, is commonly known to be a rich source of iron. However, the absorption of iron depends on a number of factors. In the case of spinach, it contains iron absorption inhibiting substances, including high levels of oxalate which can bind to the iron to form ferrous oxalate, that renders much of the iron in spinach unusable by the body. Spinach also has a high calcium content. However, the oxalate content in spinach also binds with calcium, decreasing its absorption. Calcium together with zinc, also limit iron absorption. According to Dr. Sue Rodwell Williams, author of many best-selling texts for practitioners over the past several decades, the calcium in spinach is the least bioavailable of calcium sources. By way of comparison, the body can absorb about half of the calcium present in broccoli, yet only around 5% of the calcium in spinach.
There are three basic types of spinach:
- Savoy has dark green, crinkly and curly leaves. It is the type sold in fresh bunches in most supermarkets. Some heirloom varietys of savoy are Bloomsdale, and Merlo Nero a mild variety from Italy, and Viroflay a very large spinach.
- Flat Leaf smooth spinach has broad, smooth leaves that are easier to clean than Savoy. Flat-leaf Baby Spinach is a variety. This type is often grown for canned and frozen spinach, as well as soups, baby foods, and processed foods.
- Semi-Savoy is a hybrid variety with slightly crinkled leaves. It has the same texture as Savoy, but it is not as difficult to clean. It is grown for both fresh market and processing. Five Star, a widely grown variety.
Currently, California & Texas are the major USA spinach producers. On the left coast we can buy organic spinach all year around at our grocery stores, and farmers markets. Choose fresh crisp bunches with vibrantly green leaves with no sign of yellowing, wilting or bruising. Spinach pairs best with, Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, and Chenin Blanc wines. It also gets along with all aged cheeses like Parmesan and other dairy products. Now spinach is grown in sandy soil, so make sure you wash it thoroughly under water to remove all the grit. Cooking spinach causes it to have a more acidic flavor, so a lot of recipes will call for butter or cream added to counteract the strong flavor. Fresh raw organic spinach is my favorite. I use it in salads, and wraps along with lettuce, or sprouts. Ham or turkey spinach, stuffed croissants with cheese is another favorite. Use Baby spinach, for eating raw, it’s smaller, and has a more tender leaf. After all no one here expects you to eat spinach squeezed out of a can, there’s only one Popeye. Don’t wash your spinach until you use it, it won’t keep as well. Spinach doesn’t store well so finish it or pitch it.
It is important to wash raw fruits, and vegetables before eating them to prevent an E. coli illness. It only takes a few cells of the bacteria to make a person sick. Most of the organism is destroyed through cooking. The risks of getting sick from E. coli increase with vegetables that have edible parts that touch the soil, such as leafy vegetables. Wash your spinach thoroughly under running water. This is important to remove not only E. coli but also pests,sand, and pesticide residue.Spinach is one of the high pesticide-containing foods, so it’s important to eat organic spinach if you can. Also available most places that produce is sold, are spray veggie wash products. USE THEM if you you don’t buy organic, and plan to eat raw veggies. Good Luck…Was Popeye Right ??