By Jennifer Muck-Dietrich
Spinach (spinacia oleracea) in the Amaranthaceae family is native to central and western Asia in the area formerly known as Persia. It germinates in temperatures of 45 to 75 degrees and grows best in the cooler seasons. Higher temperatures causes it to bolt and go to seed much faster and the leaves are less tender. Spinach is an annual plant that grows to about one foot tall. The leaves are ovate to triangular, simple, and alternate. It comes in three varieties: savoy, dark and crinkly leaves; flat, broad and smooth; and semi-savoy, a hybrid variety. In the northeast we get two crops of spinach, in spring and fall.
Prized for its sweet, tender leaves, both fresh or cooked, spinach made its way across Southern Europe through the 13th century. By the 1600s it was being served to the Kings and Queens of England, eventually being brought to North America. In 1806 at least three cultivars were known to be grown by American Colonists.
Nutritionally spinach is 9% water, 4% carbohydrates, 3% protein, and the last 2% is fiber. It contains vitamins A, C, K, B, B6, E, magnesium, manganese, iron, calcium, potassium, and fiber.
But what does this all mean?
Magnesium is necessary for energy metabolism, maintaining muscle and nerve function, regular heart rhythm, healthy immune system, and maintaining blood pressure.
Spinach is high in an antioxidant called alpha-lipoic acid, which has been shown to lower glucose levels, increase insulin sensitivity, which can help aid people in managing their diabetes.
The chlorophyll found in spinach and other leafy greens is believed to be effective in blocking the carcinogenic effects of heterocyclic amines (these are generated when grilling foods at a high temperature).
Children who consume high amounts of beta-carotene are at lower risk of developing asthma.
Potassium can help reduce the effects of sodium in the body helping people control high blood pressure.
Vitamin K consumption acts as a modifier of bone matrix proteins and improves calcium absorption making stronger bones.
Vitamin A helps moderate the production of oil in the skin and hair follicles giving us clear skin and healthy hair. Vitamin C is crucial for building and maintaining collagen which provides structure to skin and hair.
Iron is very important in affecting how efficiently the body uses energy. It is a major component of hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs throughout your body.
E.C. Segar was the cartoonist responsible for creating Popeye in 1929. He was a vegetarian who promoted the benefits of eating vegetables by creating a character whose strength was boosted from eating spinach.
All this goodness does come with risks. Consuming too much potassium can be harmful for those whose kidneys are not fully functional. Those taking blood-thinners, such as warfarin, need to be careful consuming too much vitamin K, which plays a key role in blood clotting and the combination of calcium binding with the oxalates in spinach can cause kidney stones.
Organic vs. Conventionally Grown vs. Local
China is the largest producer of spinach in the world. At 92%, that equals 26.7 million tons!
Locally grown spinach is the best way to get your green on. Spinach loses much of its nutritional value with storage of more than a few days. Refrigeration slows the effect for up to eight days, but it will lose most of its folate (B vitamins) and carotenoid content. For longer storage it can be blanched and frozen shortly after being harvested. It will then last up to eight months with most of the vitamins in tact. Interestingly, 3.5 oz of cooked spinach contains 3.5 mg of iron. 3.5 oz of ground beef only has 2.49 mg. The down side of spinach is that it contains oxalate which binds with the iron rendering it unusable for the body. The same goes for calcium in spinach. It is among the least bioavailable of food calcium sources. Broccoli has calcium which is much more absorbable with 50% being bioavailable, where as spinach it’s just 5%. But there are tricks that scientists discovered to make spinach both more nutritional and delicious.
Adding vitamin C to lightly cooked spinach helps our bodies more easily absorb the iron. An example is to add fresh lemon juice or eat it with a tomato. Vitamin D helps our body absorb the calcium. Mix cheese or eggs with your spinach. Fatty fish is also a good source of vitamin D.
Fresh spinach is packed in nitrogen gas to extend its shelf life. Some packaged spinach is exposed to radiation to kill any harmful bacteria that may be on the leaves. The FDA approves radiation because their studies show irradiated spinach does not lose any of its nutritional value. It puts it into an animated suspension until you purchase it (a good three weeks after it was harvested and traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to your grocery store shelf). Once you open that package, I’m sure you notice that it turns into green slime within a few days.
The soil in which the spinach is grown is also a very important factor in its nutritional value. Cadmium is a bi-product from industrial processes like PVC products, anti-corrosive agents, and phosphate fertilizers. High concentrations have been found in green leafy vegetables like spinach, lettuce, kale, and swiss chard. The effects of cadmium-contaminated foods are acute gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. Kidney damage has long since been described by people chronically exposed to cadmium. It builds up in the kidney and causes stones to develop. Pregnant women exposed to high levels of cadmium is associated with low birth weight and increase of spontaneous abortion. It can also cause bone damage to workers exposed to cadmium dust. The effect shows patients to have increased rates of osteoporosis, higher rate of fractures and skeletal decalcification.
[source: www.ncb.nlm.nih.gov “The Toxicity of Cadmium and the Resulting Hazards for Human Health”]
Strawberry Spinach Salad
6 cups baby spinach
1/2 sweet, white onion cut in slices
1 cup fresh strawberries, cut in half
I clove crushed garlic
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
Salt & pepper
Wash and spin dry spinach and place in a low, wide bowl. Place white onion rings over spinach then toss strawberries over the top. Put all the dressing ingredients in a small mason jar and shake to mix together. Just before serving, drizzle dressing over the salad and gently toss.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
1 sheet defrosted puff pastry
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 bunch fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
1 bunch swiss chard, washed and chopped
2 lbs spinach, washed and chopped
1 can marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper
Roll out puff pastry to fit the size of a 9 x 13 baking pan. In a bowl, mix all the ingredients then spoon into the baking pan. Lay the puff pastry on top and pierce it with a fork throughout the sheet. Brush top with extra virgin olive oil.
Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes, then take off the foil and bake for another 15. Let cool before cutting and serving.
Green Machine Smoothie
1 cup baby spinach
I gala apple, cored and quartered
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
1 Tbs. local raw honey or maple syrup (or agave syrup)
1 cup water (or green tea)
Put all ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth. Enjoy!
*Illustration by Kevin Kobasic