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Popeye: a poor communicator

I blame Popeye and the Germans. If you are looking a bit peaky, maybe a bit anaemic, perhaps headachey and generally mardy, your gran might pipe up: ‘Iron deficiency’, hotfoot to the pantry and start rustling up a platefull of mushy green stuff for you to consume but the reality is spinach contains little more iron than any other green-leafed vegetable.

There’s a reason why this has gathered pace. In 1870 a scientist called Dr E Von Woolf concluded that spinach contained so much iron that you would be able to construct the German equivalent of the Forth Bridge with it. People started building cars made of spinach and spinach crowbars could be had for 2 shillings sixpence at the local hardware merchants. People started recycling spinach so that we could make gates and railings.

Then when the cars started wilting during rainfall somebody smelt a rat. A spinach investigation was launched in 1937 and after a quick scan down Woolf’s Excel spreadsheet some bright spark noticed something small, yet rather illuminating: when Woolf was measuring the amount of iron in spinach he got it right but, sadly, when he was writing that number down he put the decimal point in the wrong place.

It was a typo.

As such modern society learned in an instant that the amount of iron in spinach was ten times less than originally thought. The British government immediately cancelled the order for spinach-based Lancaster bombers and instructed all people who had spinach fillings to check their decaying molars with a toothpick. All the frustratingly ineffectual crowbars were taken off the shelves.

But the job wasn’t quite done. People were still consuming spinach by the bucketload, convinced that their health would be the beneficiary. Popeye didn’t help. While it was clear he was found wanting as a communicator, there was no denying his abilities in the arena of violence and self-defence and that alone proved attractive.

Spinach was living on borrowed time. In the early 1990s further studies were undertaken to get to the bottom of its claimed nutritional values. The results were damning. Popeye was forced into exile and he is not available for interviews. It is said he has grown a beard.

According to one study, spinach does contain a relatively high amount of iron compared to other foodstuffs like kebabs, but only 2-5% of its iron content is actually available for absorption. In that respect it’s ordinary, and if you want to increase your iron content you’d be better off tucking into some liver or downing a pint of Guinness.

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