The Great Popeye Spinach Decimal Point Myth

By Gaz Smith

I have an interesting job, which occasionally takes me along unforeseen paths. Let me explain (warning – if you have no knowledge of Popeye and his super-strength inducing spinach-scoffing habit then the following will mean little): recently the sms team was gathered together in development for the relaunch of one of our great shows, Cartoon Science. As part of the show, we were watching a clip from an old Popeye cartoon. As I am now well into middle age, I grew up on Popeye cartoons, and loved them to bits.

“I’m strong to the finish, ’cause I eats me spinach…”

Popeye-Spinach-FeaturedWithout knowing where the information came from, I have believed for decades that spinach was pushed as the superfood of its time (1930s) by an American government desperate to feed a depressed nation, and that Popeye was front and centre of this ‘marketing’ campaign. Popeye single-handedly he increased consumption of spinach in the US by about a third.

I also believed that spinach was mistakenly chosen as the super-strength giving food, as its iron content had been earlier over-inflated by 19th century German scientists researching spinach. They incorrectly inserted the decimal place in the wrong place in their calculations, thus giving spinach an iron content apparently ten times its actual amount!

Well it’s a great story, and one that I thought would work well within the show. However like all good scientists we should always check our facts. The truth is actually much more convoluted…

As recently as 2013 the Daily Mail online, quoting a ‘book by mathematician and scientist Samuel Arbesman’, was running a story about this misplaced decimal point, just like I had believed to be the case. However further digging suggests that the misplaced decimal point story is a myth that was created in 1972 by nutritionist Professor Arnold E. Bender in his inaugural lecture at Queen Elizabeth College, University of London. This was then reinforced in an article in 1981 in the British Medical Journal.

According to the work of Mike Sutton in 2010, the original error was not due to a misplaced decimal point, but more likely the result of bad scientific practice including specimen contamination, and the use of charcoal in heating. Furthermore, Sutton claims that Popeye wasn’t eating the spinach for its iron content anyway, but for its Vitamin A content, or at least he was according to his creator, E.C. Segar. And you’d imagine he’d know. Vitamin A is important for growth and development, so would help to keep Popeye strong!

“I am what I am, and that’s all what I am.”

popeyeDoes this evidence in any way spoil the story? To my mind it actually makes it more interesting! The original myth about why Popeye eats spinach has been used as an illustration of how humans have a tendency to ignore re-examining evidence, and highlights the need to be sceptical of research and always ask questions! Even though we all ‘knew’ that spinach didn’t have any more iron than, say, broccoli or kale, we generally still tend to think of it as being better for us. But as the story behind the spinach was itself a myth (which I think makes it a myth squared!) then I am unclear as to who has the last laugh. Perhaps it is all just a cautionary tale about fact-checking. And I for one am glad that I did.

Suffice to say, though, that Popeye is definitely ‘strong to the finish’ – just ask Bluto!

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For more blogs looking at the science behind cartoons, then check out:

The Science of Disney

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Posted in Exploring Science, Maths