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It's Growing On Us

By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page F01

We've become a nation of Popeyes. We are eating record amounts of spinach -- five times more fresh spinach than we did in the 1970s and the highest levels since the 1950s, when parents urged their kids to eat spinach to be strong, just like the animated cartoon sailor.

The big difference is that Popeye ate his spinach straight from a can to give him strength before he pummeled his nemesis, Bluto. Americans today have all but abandoned the can for fresh spinach.

_____Strong on Flavor_____
Spinach Recipes
The Facts About Spinach

Who eats the most, men or women?

Women generally consume more spinach than men -- 2.53 pounds per capita annually, compared with 2.21 for men. Women eat more fresh and frozen spinach, while men eat more canned, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Who eats the least?

Teenagers. Total spinach per capita consumption was lowest for teens (under a pound a year), with teenage girls eating just half a pound -- the lowest among all age groups.

What's the geographical distribution of spinach eaters?

They love it in the West, but not as much in the Midwest.

According to the USDA, the Northeast and the West eat the most fresh spinach, while the South eats the most canned. The Midwest eats the least spinach in all categories.

How good for you is it?

One cup of spinach has 7 calories, but provides 56 percent of the daily recommended amounts of vitamin C, 14 percent of vitamin A and 5 percent of iron.

Who is Popeye?

The spinach hero is credited with spurring a 33 percent increase in spinach consumption, saving the spinach industry during the 1930s Depression, according to King Features. Popeye first appeared as a comic strip in 1929. In 1933, he made his way to cartoons, where he would eat a can of spinach to give him extra strength before a brawl.

-- Candy Sagon

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, annual consumption of all kinds of spinach -- fresh, frozen and canned -- jumped 66 percent in the decade between 1992 and 2002. Canned spinach slipped to a minuscule portion of the market, but fresh spinach has exploded.

U.S. per capita consumption of spinach has reached 2.4 pounds a year, USDA researchers said in a January 2004 report. This is small compared with some other vegetables -- per capita fresh tomato consumption is almost 18 pounds per person, for example -- but still a huge jump considering that, in the bad ol' days of 1975, we barely choked down 5 ounces of the vitamin-rich, dark green leaves.

What's driving the growth is the popularity of those plastic bags of triple-washed spinach in the supermarket and, in particular, the "explosive growth in . . . baby spinach." Baby spinach increasingly shows up in salads at restaurants, salad bars and at home, says the government.

Spinach has undergone such an extreme makeover that 56 percent of readers surveyed by the food magazine Bon Appetit ranked it as their favorite vegetable, beating out popular choices like asparagus and broccoli. The survey, summarized in the March issue, asked 10,000 readers to rank a dozen vegetables in terms of preference, according to Tanya Steel, New York editor of the magazine.

"This is the seventh time we've done the survey, and spinach, by far, rated as the top favorite. For years, it's been asparagus. We were surprised -- this totally bubbled out of nowhere."

Spinach growers were delighted as well -- but not all that surprised.

Maggie Bezart with Ocean Mist Farms, a major grower of spinach in central California, says the 80-year-old company has seen a steady surge in demand for fresh spinach, particularly in the past five years. "We have increased our spinach production between 7 and 15 percent a year because of the demand for high-quality spinach," she says.

Baby spinach, with its small, flat, tender leaves, was the key to the rebirth, she believes. "Once baby spinach came out, people started eating it fresh, not cooked," Bezart says.

Bags of spinach also have caught on at area farmers markets. Chip and Susan Planck, owners of Wheatland Vegetable Farms in Purcellville, have switched to selling plastic, 8-ounce bags of spinach at the 13 farmers markets where they sell their produce.

"People won't buy it loose if they have to stick their hand into a cold basket and root around in a wet mass," Chip Planck says. "We put it in bags like the supermarket does. Then people will buy a couple bags."

A cool-weather crop, spinach is planted in the late fall and early spring and is harvested until the summer heat sets in, he says. Although California-grown spinach is available year-round in supermarkets, locally grown crops have a shorter season, showing up in farmers markets in late April or early May and lasting through early summer.

Spinach's popularity nationwide began creeping upward in the '80s, with the popularity of salad bars and pre-washed bags of lettuce.

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