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Popeye Ate Spinach Because of a Misplaced Decimal Point

Funny History | September 21, 2019

Spinach made Popeye strong...but was it all a mistake? Source: (teleradio.com.ec)

Who didn't love the Popeye comics? One of the best-remembered traits about the lovable Popeye, who debuted in 1929, is his love of spinach. The green leafy vegetable, in fact, gave Popeye a boost of strength whenever he ate it, usually in times of trouble. But why does spinach make Popeye strong? The creator of the comic strip, Elzie Crisler Segar, gave Popeye the ability to power up by eating a can of spinach because it was widely known that spinach was a superfood that was packed with iron. Well, it turned out that spinach had an inflated reputation. Let's look at how a basic math error led to spinach becoming Popeye's go-to source for super strength. 

Oops...scientist Erich von Wolf put the decimal in the wrong place. Source: (historyofecology.blogspot.com)

Math is Hard

A German chemist and researcher named Erich von Wolf was working on a project in 1870 to determine the iron content of various green vegetables. He kept careful notes of his findings, but when he went back later to write up his results, he did something that all of us have done at one time or another: He put the decimal point in the wrong spot. The note about the iron content of a serving of spinach should have read "3.5 milligrams," but it became "35 milligrams." Oops. 

Spinach was a better choice than magic powers. Source: (happymag.tv)

Spinach and Fake News

As a result of Von Wolf's math error, the public soon came to believe spinach had 10 times the amount of iron in it than it actually does. When his report was released, people began to view spinach as a superfood. Spinach's impressive, albeit false, reputation as a power-packed vegetable inspired Segar's Popeye character. Rather than relying on magic spells or supernatural powers for his super strength, Segar wanted Popeye to get his strength a natural way. Iron-packed spinach was the perfect solution. 

Eventually, von Wolf's mistake was discovered. Source: (nhpr.org)

The Error went Unchecked for 67 Years

When Erich von Wolf's report was released, everyone took the information at face value. No one thought to double-check his numbers. For more than 60 years, folks walked around believing that they could instantly boost their iron by eating some spinach. It wasn't until 1937 that someone thought to check Von Wolf's math. What they discovered was a misplaced decimal point—a common error. Once corrected, officials began knocking spinach's nutritional information down to more realistic amounts, but that didn’t alter its reputation.

Thanks to Popeye--and a math error--kids had to eat their spinach. Source: (plantmattersandmore.com)

A Prevailing Myth

Despite repeated attempts to inform the public about the error and let them know that spinach was not the wonder food they thought it to be, the general public still held tight to the belief that there was power in spinach. The main reason this myth persisted was ... Popeye. By the 1930s, Popeye was one of the most popular comic characters around. Kids adored him and wanted to be just like him. Parents seized on this and offered their children spinach for dinner. 

Popeye, poster, circa 1940s. Source: (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Popeye, a Hero to Spinach Farmers

Popeye is responsible for increasing American spinach consumption by more than one-third. In fact, a statue was erected in his honor in the spinach-growing town of Crystal City, Texas. Popeye has been hailed as a hero for encouraging healthy eating habits. Studies have even proven that children are more eager to eat their vegetables after watching Popeye cartoons. While all of this is fantastic, it still contributes to spinach's false reputation. 

Spinach may not give you super strength, but it is still good for you. Source: (medicaldaily.com)

Eat Your Spinach

Spinach may not be the superfood that Erich von Wolf thought it was, but that doesn't mean we should remove it from our dinner plates. On the contrary, spinach is loaded with nutrients. Just one cup of uncooked spinach contains .86 grams of protein, 30 milligrams of calcium, 167 milligrams of potassium, 58 micrograms of folate, and 2,813 IU of Vitamin A. Plus, spinach only has about 7 calories per cup. Eating spinach, either cooked or raw in salads, is a good way to add fiber to your diet. Chances are, you won't get bulging forearms, but hey, it's better than Metamucil.

Tags: Popeye | Spinach

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.