Like many children of my generation, I grew up watching old re-runs of Popeye cartoons where the famous sailor would pop a can of spinach for strength. The accompanying message (mostly from my parents) was that spinach was good for you because it was rich in iron.
But spinach is so much more than just that! Nutritionally speaking Spinach comes in fifth place in the list of PowerHouse Fruit and Vegetables (you can read more about it here), making it one of the top rated Superfoods.
Spinach is not just a healthy vegetable but also a very versatile one, which makes it so much easier to introduce it into your everyday diet. If that isn’t enough to make you emulate the well loved Popeye, I should add that it is inexpensive as far as superfoods go, simple to prepare and it is low in calories. What more could you ask for?
The nutritional properties of Spinach (Spinacia Oleracea)
Spinach (spinacia oleracea) is a leafy green vegetable which originated in Persia. The vivid green leaves are packed with nutrients, most of which remain after light steaming or sauteeing, although it is also great consumed raw. A little known fact is that spinach belongs to the amaranth family and is related not only to amaranth, but to beetroots and quinoa as well.
Most of the carbohydrate content of spinach is made up of insoluble fibre, which helps to add bulk to stools and is therefore useful in preventing constipation. It is also worth noting that spinach is made up of about 90% water, which means it is a great vegetable to eat raw to help you stay hydrated, especially if you are not a big fan of guzzling plain water. It’s also got the added advantage that it has the lowest possible G.I. level (1 per 100grams!), a plus for anyone looking to lose weight.
Below is the complete nutritional profile based on 100 grams of raw spinach. In brackets you can also see the percentage Recommended Daily Amount for each nutrient.
- KCalories: 23
- Water: 91.4 grams
- Protein: 2.9 grams (6% RDA)
- Carbohydrates: 3.6 grams (1%RDA)
- Sugar: 0.4 grams
- Fibre: 2.2 grams (9% RDA)
- Fat: 0.4 grams
- Vitamin A: 9376 IU (188% RDA)
- Vitamin C: 28mg (47% RDA)
- Vitamin E: 2mg (10%)
- Vitamin K: 483 mcg (604% RDA)
- Vitamin B6: 0.2mg (10%RDA)
- Vitamin B9 (Folate): 194mcg (49% RDA)
- Calcium: 99mg (10% RDA)
- Iron: 2.7mg (15% RDA)
- Magnesium: 79mg (20% RDA)
- Phosphorous: 49mg (5% RDA)
- Potassium: 558mg (16% RDA)
- Sodium: 79mg (3% RDA)
- Zinc: 0.5mg (4% RDA)
- Copper: 0.1mg (5% RDA)
- Manganese: 0.9 mg (45% RDA)
- Selenium: 1mcg (1% RDA)
- Choline: 18mg
- Betaine: 550mg
- Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): 0.2 mg (11% RDA)
- Omega 3 fatty acids: 138mg
- Omega 6 fatty acids: 26mg
But how does this all translate into health benefits? I hear you ask.
The health benefits of spinach
1. Spinach can boost your immune system – the magnesium, vitamin E, various other minerals and vitamins support the immune system and act as antioxidants which are essential in the prevention of common diseases such as diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s).
2. It can contribute to staying hydrated – it is made up of 90% water after all.
3. It promotes heart health – Spinach is one of the best plant sources of nitrates, which alongside lutein (which prevents arteries from stiffening), helps keep your heart healthy and lowers blood pressure.
4. It promotes eye health - two carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, combined with Vitamin A not only help prevent cataracts, but overall eye health and good vision.
5. It can help maintain healthy bones and combat osteoporosis – this is thanks to the calcium and magnesium content.
6. It can prevent anaemia – iron and vitamin C work in tandem to help absorption of both nutrients, and spinach contains significant quantities of both.
7. It can aid weightloss - the thylakoids it contains make you fill fuller longer, it is low in calories and it helps move stools along quickly preventing constipation.
8. The folate (Vitamin B9) is essential in the development of babies, before and after pregnancy.
9. Helps brain development in babies as Vitamin B6 is needed for this once the baby is born.
10. It is anti-inflammatory – it contains Kaempferol (an antioxidant) as well as Quercetin, which are known for their anti-inflammatory properties.
11. It can lead to glowing skin and helps it stay healthy – this is because the vitamins (A, C, E and K) help build collagen which also acts as an anti-ageing agent.
12. Helps prevent acne and to repair (skin) injuries thanks to all the vitamins (A, C, E and K).
13. It aids relaxation and boost mood – the zinc and magnesium, as well as the Vitamin K, all support a healthy nervous system. You can read all about the mood boost factor here.
14. Fights fatigue and increases strength – due to the iron and magnesium content. Which is probably the main reason Popeye ate it in canfuls just before he went into action!
A note of caution - Spinach isn’t suitable (in large doses) for everyone
However, before you place bunch upon bunch of fresh spinach into your shopping basket, there are a few things you should be aware of.
First of all, spinach is rich in oxalates and calcium. These have been linked to acid and mineral buildup which can lead to kidney stones. Normally this will not be a problem as long as you eat moderate amounts. But if you are already prone to kidney problems you may want to give it a miss, or eat less.
Also, like for many other vegetables, it is rich in Vitamin K, which is involved in blood clotting. If you suffer from any blood clotting disorders and especially if you are on medication to manage blood clotting, you should not eat large quantities at any one time as it can interfere with the medication. If you like popping as much spinach as Popeye, then you may want to discuss this with your doctor.
Lastly, spinach contains large amounts of goitrogens. If you suffer from hypothyroidism (ie. you have an underactive thyroid) you will want to go easy on the spinach and eat it only in moderate amounts, and it is recommended you cook it rather than serving it raw.
Ways to prepare spinach
So now that we have looked at why it should be included in your diet. How can you prepare it?
I asked myself this very question recently. As great as this humble looking leafy green is, what do you do when you find yourself with five times more fresh baby spinach leaves on your hands than you bargained for? Not being a fan of canned vegetables myself, and aware that fresh spinach has an average shelf-life of about five days, it is useful to have a few alternative recipes in your arsenal to make the most of it.
After using it in salads, as a side, and in soups, how can you use up the last handful of fresh spinach leaves? One possibility is to use it to make green pesto.
Alternative spinach pesto
I am aware that traditional Genovese pesto is made with basil leaves, in fact I have made it multiple times. However, when racking my brain on for recipes to use up the last handful of baby spinach, I decided to replace the basil (my plant didn’t have enough left to make pesto anyhow) with spinach. Having run out of pine seeds, I also substituted them with walnuts, and set out to create a whole new kind of pesto.
I was pleasantly surprised and I was not alone in this - which was a relief because it turned out you can make far more pesto with a handful of spinach than you might imagine! In fact, it turned out to be an experiment that was so welcome, it will definitely be repeated again in this household in the near future.
My wish to share this recipe with all the health conscious out there is twofold. I believe there is no such thing as eating too many vegetables. Also, I tend to experiment a lot in the kitchen, I also tend to forget all steps and ingredients in my experiments almost as quickly. So writing the recipes helps me keep a record and also to jog my memory next time. On a side note, recent studies have shown that writing notes helps with memory and fights memory loss. But I digress.
What follows is possibly the simplest and easiest way to use up fresh baby spinach.
Popeye pesto a.k.a Baby Spinach Pesto
60-80g fresh baby spinach.
2 cloves of garlic (1 if using Spanish garlic)
A handful of walnuts, or hazelnuts (or 50g pine nuts).- shelled, roasted, unsalted
approx. 50g Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
1 or 2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 to 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil.
*A handful of fresh basil (optional)
1. Wash the spinach leaves and lemon in a bowl of bicarbonate and water. Drain and dry carefully with kitchen towel.
2. Grate the cheese with the fine grater option of your box grater, or in a food processor.
3. Peel the garlic and squeeze the lemon.
4. Place all the ingredients in a blender with sharp blades and blitz/pulse until all the ingredients have combined and the consistency resembles that of a puree.
5. Adjust the taste and consistency by adding more or less grated cheese and or olive oil.
6. Use over pasta dishes, as a spread, or with cooked artichokes.
7. To store unused pesto, transfer to an air tight glass jar and cover with olive oil. This will help preserve the spinach. It will keep in the fridge for 3 to 4 days or longer, depending on the freshness of your spinach.
Alternative ingredients and substitutions
I used walnuts as I didn’t have any pine seeds to hand. Walnuts are also much cheaper. You can also replace them with roasted shelled hazelnuts or a mix of the two.
Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano are both equally good for this recipe. You could also replace this with Pecorino Romano. Any of these cheeses will work well and will add the saltiness to compensate for the sweetness of the spinach. Which is why no added salt is needed in this recipe. You can control how sweet/salty it is by the amount of grated cheese you add.
Similarly the more olive oil you add, the thinner the consistency of your pesto, and vice versa.
Spanish garlic is much stronger and pungent than most of the garlic you find around (usually from China or India). I do not use either of those as I find them tasteless, plus there are reports that the garlic from China is bleached. I prefer to have real, untreated garlic, and use less but get more flavour.
You could add a bit of fresh basil, but spinach is sweet enough on its own.
Ultimately this is supposed to be spinach pesto so don’t go over the top with all the other ingredients otherwise you will not even taste the spinach!
Enjoy a taste of this superfood with a nice plate of lentil pasta or other healthy pasta of your choice (read more about healthy pasta types here).
Here’s to your health!