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Was Popeye Right? By Karl Kruszelnicki’s abc.net.au/science 5-24-2001

The cartoon character Popeye is famous for eating spinach. Whenever he breaks open a can of spinach and eats it he gains enormous strength. Popeye was employed by the US Government during World War 2 to promote the idea of eating spinach. Meat was a rarity during war, but spinach appeared to be a great substitute. In the 1890’s German scientists had shown that spinach contains the same amount of iron as meat. And iron of course is one of the essential vitamins in building strength.

But the facts are wrong. The German researchers did prove that spinach contains iron, but when they wrote down their results they put the decimal point in the wrong place. They overestimated the amount of iron in spinach by a factor of 10! Unfortunately, the correction didn’t get across the ocean until after WW2. This episode shows how easily false ideas can quickly become accepted truth.

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