The History of Spinach Leaves
Spinach is a member of the Amaranthaceae-Chenopodiaceae family of vegetables, along with swiss chard and beets. The fresh leaves have a slightly sweet, mild flavor, which develops into a more intense, acidic green when cooked. Spinach leaves can be classified into three different varieties – savoy spinach, which is a dark jade color, and crinkly in texture; flat or smooth leaf spinach which includes baby spinach; and semi-savoy spinach leaves, which are a hybrid of the two.
Although spinach is the most prevalent dark leafy green in America, it is a native vegetable of ancient Persia. It was first introduced to China in the seventh century, and then to Europe in the eleventh century. It is unknown exactly when this green vegetable reached the American continent, although it is assumed to have been brought over by the colonists. Today, the United States and the Netherlands are two of the biggest producers of spinach leaves.
Spinach and Health
Due to both the densely packed phytochemical content and the nutritional value of spinach, its health benefits are endless. By eating one cup of cooked spinach you are essentially taking a multivitamin, but one that is easily absorbed by the body coming from a whole food source. The nutrition in spinach includes vitamins A, C, E, K, and B-complex vitamins, magnesium, manganese, iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, copper, phosphorous, fiber, and omega-3 essential fatty acids. All of this for about five calories.
For healthy bones well into old-age, spinach leaves are an ideal daily food. One serving provides over one thousand percent the daily requirement of vitamin K, a nutrient that helps retain calcium in the bones, and prevents bone decay. A lack of vitamin K in the diet is possibly a cause of osteoporosis. The magnesium and calcium found in spinach also help to build strong bones, although because of other chemicals found in this green, very little calcium is absorbed.
The nutrition in spinach helps to protect the heart. Vitamin A and C, work together as fat-soluble and water-soluble antioxidants, preventing free radical damage, including the oxidation of cholesterol. Oxidized cholesterol would bind to artery walls, causing plaque build-up in blood vessels, making the heart work harder and raising blood pressure. Magnesium also helps to regulate blood pressure, and folate helps to control homocysteine levels (homocysteine is an amino acid associated with heart disease).
Aside from the great nutritional value of spinach, this vegetable provides a significant amount of beneficial phytochemicals. Spinach leaves are a rich source of cleansing, energizing chlorophyll. Researchers have also discovered thirteen definite flavonoid compounds in spinach leaves, acting as powerful antioxidants and helping to prevent different types of cancer. The carotenoid, neoxanthan, has been shown to prevent prostate cancer. Spinach is the best food source of alpha-lipoic acid, which acts as an antioxidant and slows the natural process of mental decline that takes place as we age.
New research may put spinach leaves in the category of weight loss foods. Already, fresh spinach is packed with nutrients, with almost no calories. It also appears that the tylakoids in spinach extract suppress feelings of hunger and encourage weight loss. An enormous amount of fresh spinach would have to be consumed to have a clear effect from the tylakoids, but there is great potential for spinach extract in helping to deal with obesity.
One thing to keep in mind with spinach is the oxalic acid content. Oxalic acid is not beneficial – in fact it binds with both calcium and iron, limiting the amount of these minerals that can be absorbed. Also, people with kidney or gallbladder problems should consider avoiding large quantities of spinach as the oxalates can be harmful.
Ideas for Eating Fresh Spinach
Spinach is only slightly bitter, and does in fact have a pleasing flavor served raw. Fresh spinach salads, tossed with simple olive oil vinaigrette and freshly grated cheese are a wonderful way to satisfy the body’s need for green leafy vegetables. Baby spinach also works well in salad dishes as it is more tender.
You will still get some of the nutrition in spinach when the greens are cooked. Try boiling the leaves on a high heat for one to two minutes. This actually helps to reduce the oxalic acid content. Serve with salt, pepper, lemon juice, and olive oil. Spinach leaves can also be integrated into a number of dishes – toss lightly cooked leaves with fresh pasta, fold into scrambled eggs, or add to hearty soups.
Enjoy the health benefits of spinach and other dark leafy greens as a healthy salad once a day. This single addition to your diet will completely revolutionize the state of your health.
photo credit: Plat
This post is part of the series: What’s in Your Salad?
- Beyond Lettuce: A Guide to Healthy Salad Greens
- Health Benefits of Arugula
- Different Types of Salad Greens: Frisee Lettuce and Nutrition
- Health Benefits of Spinach