Conversations in Management: Popeye

For a source of iron Popeye would have been better off chewing the cans.

T. J. Hamblin

PopeyeSay it isn’t so! If you disembarked on this planet anytime around 1932 forward, you know that Popeye eats a lot of spinach. Why does he do it? He does it because it makes him as strong as iron which is pretty helpful given the many scrapes in which he finds himself. This fondness for spinach was no accident. Though a humble swabbie, it turns out Popeye was an early adopter of the latest nutritional trends. In the nineteenth century, when scientists were busy figuring out the nutritional value of the things we eat, they determined that spinach was so rich in iron that it was a kind of super food. Armed with this information, parents everywhere—who are constantly on the lookout for unpleasant but healthy things for their kids to eat—started buying the stuff by the caseload. Unfortunately, kids enjoy a somewhat more refined palette than their parents and rebelled at even the thought of eating that green mush. A culinary stalemate ensued until parents figured out a clever end run. Recognizing that kids are bored with guys in lab coats but suckers for cartoons, they approached Popeye for an endorsement. It worked. Popeye made eating spinach fashionable with kids. Sales soared and in appreciation, the industry erected a statue to Popeye. And so things went—for a while.

As kids got older they realized that cartoon characters may not be the most authoritative sources of information. They began to check this spinach thing out on their own and in 1981 former kid, Dr. T. J. Hamblin published a shocking exposé in the British Medical Journal. Titled, Fake, Hamblin revealed that a misplaced decimal by a German scientist in 1870 incorrectly identified spinach as having 10 times more iron than it actually has. The error, he stated, wasn’t corrected until the 1930s. Even after the correction, both lazy nutritionists and Popeye kept the super-food myth alive. And so things went—for a while.

In 2010, Dr. Mike Sutton decided to explore the origin of what he dubbed the, “Spinach, Popeye, Iron, Decimal Error Story (SPIDES).” He contacted Hamblin who couldn’t recall the source of his article, but thought he might have read about it in an issue of Reader’s Digest. (Yes, you’re’ reading that right—Reader’s Digest.) With some diligent research, Sutton learned that the whole SPIDES thing was just a myth. There never was a decimal error, spinach is a reliable, though average, source of iron and kids were being force-fed canned spinach long before Popeye came along. And speaking of Popeye, he wasn’t promoting iron at all. He actually said, “Spinach is full of vitamin A an’ tha’s what makes hoomans strong an’ helty’.” SPIDES may be a myth, but it’s a great story and that’s why it remains a resilient part of pop culture today.

As we drive our jalopies down the information superhighway, it’s hard to keep our facts straight. There’s no need to be cynically skeptical about everything. But it’s wise to remain curious about the details. Sort through the clutter and draw your own conclusions. The next time you hear something is common knowledge, settled science, or told, in the words of a popular commercial, “Everybody knows that,” remember these folks might be sourcing their material from Reader’s Digest. No matter how certain something seems, it’s usually worth at least a second look. And so things go….   —Ebert

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