A member of the Amaranthaceae family, spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is a flowering edible plant. The low growing plant has leaves that approximately resemble a spade. It is available in three main types, the savoy variety with crinkly leaves, the flat-leafed, and semi-savoy varieties with flatter leaves. If allowed to grow without harvesting, the annual plant will develop seeds towards the end of summer with the leaves dying off. In rare situations the plant grows as a biennial plant in more temperate climates however, the best plants grow in cooler climates.
Spinach leaves tend to be tender with a slightly bitter flavour. The older varieties of spinach can be recognized by their more narrow shaped leaves and a stronger bitter taste. The modern varieties are faster growing with more broad leaves, and are less likely to develop seeds.
Due to it being a low growing plant it gets rather dirty and must be cleaned thoroughly before eating, especially the crinkly leaf variety. The flat-leaf variety is much easier to clean due to the shape of the leaf and is the variety typically used for canning, freezing, baby foods and other processed preparations. The hybrid variety with nominally crinkled leaves known as semi-savoy is usually the type sold fresh in supermarkets. This variety grows upright making it less likely to get mud and dirt caught in the crinkles. Due to its high nutritional value, spinach is considered to be a super-food in the human diet.
History of Spinach
Spinach is thought to be native to central and south-western Asia where it is believed to have developed from Spinacia tetranda, a wild edible green still gathered in Anatolia. The appearance of spinach in the Mediterranean region is credited to the ingenuity of Arab agronomists. Since spinach does not grow well in hot climates, they developed sophisticated irrigation methods as early as the eighth century A.D. which eventually led to its cultivation in the region.
The very first documented evidence of spinach is from Persia around 226 – 640 A.D. and then again in 647 A.D when it was presented as a gift to China by the king of Nepal. At the time it was referred to as “Persian Green” and was commonly cultivated in the Sassanid Empire. It soon spread through all of Asia and Europe. It reached Italy in the ninth century through Saracen invaders and ended up in Spain in the eleventh century where it was introduced by the Moors. Spinach was commonly available throughout all of Europe by the Middle Ages and for some time it was known as “Spanish vegetable” in England.
Spinach was a common ingredient in Mediterranean cooking by the thirteenth century and an important part of the diet by the fifteenth century. It was especially valued in early spring when it was ready for harvest while other vegetables were not yet available. Spinach was a favorite of Catherine de Medici, a Franco-Italian noblewoman. When she married the king of France, she took her own cooks with her so they could prepare the vegetable the way she liked it. Dishes readied on a bed of spinach leaves have since been referred to as “a la Florentine.”
Spinach first appeared in the Western world in 1485 when it was mentioned in a German cookbook, and was planted in England in the middle of the sixteenth century. Thomas Jefferson grew spinach at Monticello but the vegetable did not gain common acceptance until the late nineteenth century. In 1930 the cartoon character “Popeye the Sailor Man” advocated the consumption of spinach, and the vegetable gained popularity particularly among children, who wanted to grow up big and strong like the cartoon character. Today, the United States and Netherlands are the largest producers of spinach in the world.
Health Benefits of Spinach
Spinach is not considered to be a super food without reason. The green leafy vegetable contains a large variety of macro and micro nutrients that are of benefit to health. The phytonutrients in spinach have been shown to slow the rapid cell division of stomach and skin cancer causing cells in lab animals. Additionally the greater the consumption of spinach by adult women the less likely they are to develop breast cancer.
Spinach contains significant amounts of vitamin K1 which can slow down the activation of osteocast cells (these cells can break down bone). Vitamin K1 and K2 convert to osteocalcin in the colon, and osteocalcin helps to keep calcium molecules in the bone. Vitamin K is also vital to the process of carboxylation, which produces the protein responsible for halting the formation of calcium in tissues. This helps reduce the risks of atherosclerosis, stroke and cardiovascular disease. The presence of vitamin K in the body also promotes brain function and a healthy nervous system.
The vitamins C and A protect the body from free radical damage, while the fat-soluable antioxidant vitamin A aids the respiratory system and stops cholesterol from being deposited in blood vessels. Vitamin A is also good for healthy skin as it retains moisture in the epidermis and fights against psoriasis, keratinization, acne and even premature wrinkles.
Vitamins E and C present in spinach along with a variety of minerals act as powerful antioxidants that fight the onset of osteoporosis, high blood pressure and atherosclerosis. It is also well known for powering the immune system and keeping the arteries unclogged. The epoxyxanthophylls, Neoxanthin and violaxanthin are found in unusual amounts in the vegetable and play a critical role in regulation of inflammation.
The folate and magnesium found in spinach are both good for a healthy cardiovascular system while the carotenoid lutein assists in preventing cataracts and macular degeneration.
Nutritional Value Spinach
Spinach alone provides more vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients than any vitamin tablet can possible provide. Actually there are at least 14 various flavonoids housed in the vegetable. One hundred grams of raw spinach delivers 2.2 grams of dietary fibre, 2.9 grams of protein, no cholesterol, 0.4 grams of total fats and only 23 calories.
In the mineral department, the 100 gram serving delivers 10% of the recommended allowance of calcium, 6% copper, 15% iron, 20% magnesium, 45% manganese, 5% phosphorus, 12% potassium, 1% selenium, 3% sodium and 4% zinc. Spinach also supplies 48% folate, 4% niacin, 1% pantothenic acid, 11% riboflavin, 5% thiamin, 9% vitamin A, 10% B6, 47% vitamin C, 7 % vitamin E and 604% vitamin K.
Finally spinach contains large concentrations of phytonutrients. It also contains some oxalic acid which interferes with the absorption of iron and calcium found in the veggie. However, cooking spinach for one minute reduces its concentration, but keep in mind that overcooking will cut down the effectiveness of other nutrients.
Uses of Spinach
Spinach supplies a great flavour, texture and colour to a large number of dishes. Added to salad and sprinkled with cheese and lemon, salt, pepper and olive makes for a very nutritious lunch. Sautéed and placed over bread with crumbled cheese makes it a great appetizer. Cooking it lightly and then pureeing it turns it into a soup. It can be topped with sour cream for added flavour. Spinach lasagne is a time tested dish, or sautéed and added to the classic meat lasagne enhances the nutritional value of the dish and provides colour.
Steamed spinach makes a good side dish for fish like grilled haddock or salmon. It can be served with lamb, beef or even pork. It can also be served on top of a baked potato with some cream or butter. Spinach omelette makes for a very healthy and nutritious breakfast. Raw leaves inserted into a sandwich in place of lettuce or between chicken and turkey sandwich with slices of an apple yield a gourmet treat.
Cheese and spinach blend well together. Cut up and added to pasta dough, it produces excellent fresh green pasta. Alternatively it can be used as stuffing for ravioli, tortellini or gnocchi. Baked over clams or oysters and topped with cheese and mushrooms creates a scrumptious main dish. These are just a few of the numerous ways spinach can be enjoyed.
The German commission recommends the use of spinach for gastrointestinal issues, stimulation of growth in children, blood-generation, appetite stimulation and fatigue. Presently data on spinach shows most promise in its antioxidant characteristics, its ability to cut down on age-linked tissue damage, and prevention of neoplasm formation.
Swedish studies indicate that the veggie has the power to make us stronger. According to their study, the nitrate found in spinach tones muscles. In the study, which was published in the Journal of Physiology, researchers’ added nitrate to the drinking water of mice for one week, then compared their muscle function to that of a control group. The mice drinking nitrate water had significantly stronger muscles.
Another study that started in 1984 and concluded in 2002 found that women consuming kaempferol rich foods like spinach cut down on the risk of ovarian cancer by an incredible 40%. Neoxanthin, a carotenoid found in spinach is accountable for forcing prostate cancer cells to self-destruct.