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From as early as 1935 science journalists[1] were making humorous associations between the comic strip character Popeye, Iron and Spinach. In 1981 consultant hematologist T.J. Hamblin published a paper in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) entitled Fake[2] which made the traditional humorous association between Popeye, Iron and Spinach and claimed (without any references to support the story) that a 19th century data error led to a tenfold exaggeration of the iron content of spinach - which was then perpetuated by generations of other scientists who blindly accepted the Victorian data as accurate.

According to Hamblin's 1981 BMJ paper it was not until the 1930's that German scientists discovered the error.

This Spinach Popeye Iron Decimal Error Story (SPIDES) has been recycled many times. Hamblin's SPIDES is re-told by the BBC as "fact" [3] and in numerous websites [4], blogs [5] and academic texts [6]. One paper on the need to fact-check sources in published research papers fails to fact-check the SPIDES and ironically uses it as an example of the importance of fact-checking the research of others [7].

This Spinach Popeye Iron Decimal Error myth was busted in 2010 by Mike Sutton[8] in an article in the Internet journal of criminology. [9] Despite extensive research - which included two-way emails between himself and Hamblin to try to track-down reliable references to validate Hamblin's Spinach, Popeye, Iron Decimal Error story in the BMJ - Sutton found zero evidence of any 19th century error in the iron content of spinach influencing anyone anywhere, and zero evidence of any German scientists discovering any error in the iron content of spinach. Later in 2010 Sutton used findings from turn of the 20th century German research articles and text books to prove beyond doubt that the decimal error story was indeed a myth. Sutton's research reveals that several biochemists, all working independenetly, all used the now discredited Ash Method to deterine the iron content of spinach in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sutton showed how it was this and not a decimal place error that was to blame. http://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/chemistry/biochemistry/the-spinach-popeye-iron-decimal-error-myth-is-finally-busted

Sutton did discover however, from his own extensive research of old biochemistry journal papers, that US biochemists from the University of Wisconsin [10]published a twenty fold exaggeration of the iron content of spinach in the 1930s; an error that was corrected by US (not German) scientist from the University of Wisconsin two years later [11]

Sutton found also, through studying original comic strip cartoons, that Popeye’s creator E.C. Segar chose and quite extensively promoted spinach for its vitamin A content, but never once did Popeye mention anything about spinach containing iron. Sutton's myth busting paper includes the original comic strip where Popeye explains that he eats spinach because it is full of vitamin A—which makes humans strong and healthy.

Sutton's paper concludes that the culturally embedded Spinach, Iron, Decimal Error myth has most probably impacted negatively upon scholarly research into the use of humor in popular culture to influence infant and adult nutritional attitudes.

References Edit

  1. The Science News-Letter. (1935) Spinach Over-Rated as Source of Iron Vol. 28, No. 749. Aug. 17, p. 110
  2. http://www.bmj.com/cgi/pdf_extract/283/6307/1671
  3. BBC (2006) Spinach – The Truth. June 9th: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A11681912
  4. Sound Medicine (2004). Medical Myth: Iron in Spinach. November 14. Indiana University School of Medicine. http://soundmedicine.iu.edu/segment/238/redirect?seg=238
  5. Nutrasource (2009) The believe that spinach contains most iron is a misconception. Jan 10th. http://blog.nutrasourcehk.com/2009/01/10/the-believe-that-spinach-contains-the-most-iron-is-a-misconception/
  6. Coultate, T. (2009) Food the Chemistry of its components. 5th Edition. Cambridge. Royal Society of Chemistry Publishing
  7. Larsson, K.S. (1995) The dissemination of false data through inadequate citation. Journal of Internal Medicine. Vol. 258. No. 5. pp 445-450
  8. http://www.popcenter.org/bios/Sutton
  9. Sutton, M. (2010) Spinach, Iron and Popeye: Ironic lessons from biochemistry and history on the importance of healthy eating, healthy scepticism and adequate citation. Internet Journal of Criminology. http://www.internetjournalofcriminology.com/Sutton_Spinach_Iron_and_Popeye_March_2010.pdf
  10. Sherman, W.C. Elvehjem, C.A. and Hart.E.B. (1934). Further Studies on the Availability of Iron in Biological Materials. The Journal of Biological Chemistry. Vol. 107. N0. 3. pp383-394.
  11. Kohler, G. Elvehjem, C. and Hart, E. (1936) Modifications of the Bibyridine Method for Available Iron. Journal of Biological Chemistry. Vol. 113. pp 49-53.


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