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The spinach story

Interesting info on the leafy vegetable


Spinach, a flowering plant of the family Amaranthaceae, is native to central and southwestern Asia. The leaves are alternate, variable in length (from about 3 cm to 30 cm) and breadth (from 1 cm to 15 cm), with larger ones at the base of the plant and smaller ones higher up on the flowering stem.

The flowers are inconspicuous, yellow-green, 3-4 mm in diameter, maturing into a small, hard, dry, lumpy fruit cluster 5-10 mm across, containing several seeds.

Spinach is an important leaf vegetable, now grown throughout the temperate regions of the world. It is most productive when the weather is cooler, since heat causes it to go to seed very early. When cooked, its volume is reduced by three fourths.

According to folklore, spinach is a rich source of iron. In reality, a 60-gm serving of boiled spinach contains around 1.9 mg of iron. A good many green vegetables contain less than 1 mg of iron for an equivalent serving. Hence, spinach does contain a relatively high level of iron. However, in terms of its nutritional value (the amount of iron actually absorbed by the body), the benefits of spinach have been greatly overrated.

This is because the body cannot absorb the non-haem iron from vegetables as efficiently as the haem-iron found in meats. More important, spinach contains high levels of oxalate.

The oxalate in spinach binds with iron to form ferrous oxalate, meaning it cannot be broken down and absorbed by the body. As a consequence, the amount of iron that can be absorbed from spinach is negligible.

Spinach has high calcium content. Once again, this is of negligible nutritional benefit because the oxalate in spinach also binds with calcium. By way of comparison, the body can absorb about half of the calcium present in broccoli, yet only around 5 per cent of the calcium in spinach. Another negative for spinach is that oxalate can contribute to gout and kidney stones.

However, spinach does have some things going for it. It is a rich source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and several vital antioxidants.

Recently, opioid peptides called rubiscolins have also been found in spinach. It is a source of folic acid, and this vitamin was first purified from spinach. To benefit from the folate in spinach, it is better to steam it than to boil it. Boiling spinach for four minutes can halve the level of folate.

Spinach can be bought loose or in pre-packaged bags. You can get better quality when you buy loose, because you can examine the leaves. When examining the leaves, pick the ones that are smaller and dark green.

Leaves that are crisp and spongy are of good quality. Do not pick leaves that are wilting, brown or yellow. Look for stems that are fairly thin and coarse.

Thick stems indicate overgrown spinach, which may be leathery and bitter. Fresh spinach should be cleaned thoroughly and stored in an unsealed bag in the crisper tray of the refrigerator for a few days. Even at 4C, spinach loses much of its nutritional value by eight days so for longer storage it should be fresh frozen, cooked and frozen or canned. Storage can be for up to eight months in the freezer.

A recipe.

Garlic Spinach


Olive oil - 2 tbsp
Garlic, pureed - 10 pods
Butter - 1tbsp
Spinach, trimmed - one and a half lbs
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Method: Puree garlic and olive oil in a food processor or with a hand blender. Heat garlic-oil mixture in a large skillet over low heat; add spinach and cook until just wilted, for about five minutes. Remove from heat, sprinkle with salt, pepper and lemon juice; toss well and serve.


Jr. Sous Chef, Taj Connemara, Chennai.

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