If Spinach Contains Iron, Why Isn’t it Attracted to Magnets?

Not unless the spinach was in a steel can, which is perversely known as a tin can, even when it’s an aluminum can. The much-touted iron in spinach just isn’t in a form that’s attractive to a magnet.

Iron is magnetic, attracted to magnets, when it is in the metallic form, but not when it is chemically combined with other elements. The metallic iron in your steel refrigerator door can attract a whole conglomeration of silly looking magnetic doodads, but iron in the chemical form of rust, for example, is nonmagnetic. It’s the same in the case of spinach: The iron in the spinach (fortunately) isn’t in the form of little pieces of metal; it’s in the form of complex chemical compounds that just aren’t magnetic.

But why does everybody think of spinach when they think of iron-rich foods? Probably the major reason is Popeye, that irrepressible cartoon character who for more than sixty years has been demonstrating to the world that a combination of virtue, spinach, and stupidity will triumph in the end.

Actually, there’s nothing unique about the iron in spinach. Many green vegetables and other foods of sundry colors also contain substantial amounts of iron. Ironically (accidental, so help me), a hamburger contains about the same amount of iron as an equal weight of spinach. So how come spinach made Popeye powerful, while hamburgers made Wimpy wimpy?

Popeye was simply helping the mothers of America to get their kids to eat their vegetables, especially spinach, which tastes lousy to most kids because of the sour oxalic acid that it contains. (Just try to get a child to eat rhubarb, which packs a mouthpuckering load of oxalic acid.) If Daddy didn’t happen to be an adequately muscular role model (“Don’t you want to grow up big and strong like . . .?”), Mom could always use Popeye as an indisputable surrogate.

So much for mineral nutrition. But what about Popeye’s fabled strength? Why didn’t he guzzle cans of squash or turnips instead of spinach? How did cartoonist Elzie C. Segar, Popeye’s creator, ever decide that spinach should be his sailor man’s ticket to brawniness?

It’s that legendary iron again. People who don’t have enough iron in their blood are often pale and feeble. The adjective anemic has actually come to mean weak or lethargic. Of course, that doesn’t mean that eating more iron will make you stronger if you’re not anemic. But since when has a cartoon character ever been deterred by logic?

Your car is rusting away before your eyes; it won’t start; your tires are flat; and you’ve just skidded on your icy driveway, hitting a tree branch and shattering your shatterproof wind-shield. Wouldn’t it be comforting to understand all the science behind these events? Well, maybe after you’ve calmed down.