Spinach is a leafy member of the amaranth family (Amaranthaceae), which also includes Swiss chard and beets. Native to central and southwest Asia, spinach was a relative latecomer to Europe, arriving sometime during the Middle Ages. It gained popularity rapidly, and was particularly appreciated by the French and Italians.
No one knows when spinach was first cultivated in the United States, but by the early 1800s, seed catalogues offered three varieties, and spinach was an established part of the national cuisine.
Types of Spinach
Spinach is usually classified into three basic types: crinkly savoy spinach, smooth-leaf spinach, and semi-savoy spinach.
Just 1 cup of cooked spinach offers an impressive array of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B6, folate, vitamin C, vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, and iron. Furthermore, spinach is exceptionally rich in the carotenoids beta carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, whose colors are masked by the abundant green pigment chlorophyll.
It’s important to note that the iron—and also calcium—in spinach cannot be completely used by the body because the vegetable also contains a compound called oxalic acid, which limits their absorption.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Spinach in the National Nutrient Database.
Spinach that’s not spinach
There are a number of vegetables in the market today masquerading under the name spinach. While some of these actually look like spinach, others have little resemblance. Moreover, all are members of different botanical families. Keep an eye out for these ringers:
- Chinese spinach (Indian spinach): This is just another name for amaranth leaves.
- Malabar spinach: While this green tastes like spinach, it’s from quite another family and grows as a vine.
- New Zealand spinach: This tender green has fleshy stems and leaves that resemble spinach, but a less astringent taste. Because it grows well in hot summer temperatures and with little watering, it is popular with home gardeners. Like spinach, New Zealand spinach contains oxalic acid, which makes its calcium and iron less available for absorption by the body.
- Water spinach (ong choy): This green vegetable looks like watercress and like that plant, thrives in a watery environment. It’s also called swamp spinach. A common ingredient in Chinese cooking and available in Chinese markets, it probably gets its English name from its mild spinach-like flavor.
11 Recipe Ideas for Spinach
Spinach has a rich, hearty flavor that is delicious either raw or cooked. And it's easy to work with, since both the stems and leaves are edible. Try these tips to add the tasty nutrition of spinach to your meals.
Published September 03, 2015