Gustav von Bunge: Spinach For Popeye

A discovery made by chemist, physiologist and nutritionist Gustav von Bunge led to generations of children being fed spinach, and Popeye the Sailorman fist-fighting his way to fame as a spinach-devouring muscleman.

Spinach has long been known as the vegetable with the highest iron content – a claim that is often cited as a prime example of faulty reasoning. It all started with a list published in 1901, compiled by chemist, physiologist and nutritionist Gustav von Bunge. The table specifies the iron content per 100 g of foods ranging from sugar (0 mg) to pig’s blood (226 mg). Spinach, at 33–39 mg, comes out ahead of all vegetables, fruits and legumes. The devil, of course, is in the details: Von Bunge’s list clearly states that the numbers refer to 100 g of the substance in dried, powdered form. 100 g of cooked spinach, on the other hand, contains all of 3.3–3.9 mg of iron. While it is certainly a healthy vegetable, it hardly achieves the magical qualities suggested by the Popeye cartoon.

A pioneer in vitamin research

Gustav von Bunge grew up in Dorpat in present-day Estonia. After studying chemistry and medicine in Dorpat, Leipzig and Strasbourg, he was appointed to the University of Basel in 1885, where he stayed until his death despite being offered professorships elsewhere. He was a pioneer in vitamin research and in the study of milk and minerals. Having discovered that milk actually contained very little iron, he was fascinated by the question of how young animals got enough iron for the synthesis of haemoglobin.

The first nutritionist

Von Bunge can be considered one of the first nutritionists: He not only studied the nutritional properties of foodstuffs, but used his findings to make concrete suggestions about what to eat. He was among the first to draw attention to the dangers of industrial sugar, alcohol and nicotine, and was a supporter of the temperance movement. His research concerning the role of iron in nutrition also led him to advocate whole grain bread. The seed coat (the so-called bran), he explained, contains not only most of the grain’s iron, but also other minerals such as calcium:

“Bran bread is four times better than white bread: 1. It contains more iron; 2. It contains more calcium […]; 3. It stimulates peristalsis thanks to its cellulose content […]; 4. It cleans the teeth.”


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