Daniel Engber writes in Who Will Debunk The Debunkers?:

Popeye loved his leafy greens and used them to obtain his super strength, Arbesman’s book explained, because the cartoon’s creators knew that spinach has a lot of iron. Indeed, the character would be a major evangelist for spinach in the 1930s, and it’s said he helped increase the green’s consumption in the U.S. by one-third. But this “fact” about the iron content of spinach was already on the verge of being obsolete, Arbesman said: In 1937, scientists realized that the original measurement of the iron in 100 grams of spinach — 35 milligrams — was off by a factor of 10. That’s because a German chemist named Erich von Wolff had misplaced a decimal point in his notebook back in 1870, and the goof persisted in the literature for more than half a century.


All these tellings and retellings miss one important fact: The story of the spinach myth is itself apocryphal. It’s true that spinach isn’t really all that useful as a source of iron, and it’s true that people used to think it was. But all the rest is false: No one moved a decimal point in 1870; no mistake in data entry spurred Popeye to devote himself to spinach; no misguided rules of eating were implanted by the sailor strip.

Is it true that the story that Arbesman and other tell about how the misplacement of a decimal point by Erich von Wolff lead to a popular misconception about the iron content of spinach is false?


1 Answer 1


Was a misplaced decimal point responsible for the popular belief that spinach has a lot of iron?


It was an interpretation error of von Wolff's findings, of about a factor of ten.

What happened was that von Wolff (correctly) measured the iron content of dried spinach, but his numbers were interpreted as the iron content of fresh spinach (which happens to be less by about a factor of ten).

SPINACH, IRON and POPEYE: Ironic lessons from biochemistry and history on the importance of healthy eating, healthy scepticism and adequate citations has the whole story, and contains lots of links to further sources on how the myth began and was perpetuated.

Funny sidenote: Our metabolism cannot even digest the iron...

  • 1
    source for your funny sidenote? xd Jun 6, 2016 at 17:28
  • 1
    @Mindwin: Either the linked source, the German WP page on spinach, or one of the sources linked from there. I didn't actually read much if anything about spinach before today. ;-) I hope that is precise enough for a coment-answer. ;-)
    – DevSolar
    Jun 6, 2016 at 17:34
  • @Mindwin: Tracked it. It's just a sidenote (there's that word again...) in this article (German language). Further digging hinted at a high content of oxalic acid inhibiting absorption of the iron into the body.
    – DevSolar
    Jun 7, 2016 at 11:33
  • Ok, if you don't want to be linked, you won't. I understand. Lets delete this conversation thread from 3 mins ago since it server its purpose. Posting Q now. Jun 7, 2016 at 13:44
  • 1
    Can humans digest the iron present in spinach?
    – user11643
    Jun 7, 2016 at 19:48

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .