Spinach is a very healthful leafy green vegetable that most of us are familiar with. We add them to smoothies, salads, egg dishes, casseroles, soups, juices, and more. But if you’re wondering about spinach and its health benefits, or just looking for ideas for something different to do with this leafy green, look no further! Below is a comprehensive article all about spinach that covers everything from soup to nuts about this wholesome vegetable.
Spinach 101 – The Basics
The leafy green vegetable, spinach, is a member of the chenopod or amaranth family (Chenopodiaceae and Amaranthaceae). Spinach is a cousin to beets (and beet greens) and Swiss chard, also members of the chenopod group. The grains quinoa and amaranth are members of this same plant family.
There are different varieties of spinach, including the most popular savoy, semi-savoy, and flat-leafed varieties. The savoy varieties have curly leaves, unlike the flat-leaf variety that most of us are familiar with. We’re accustomed to spinach being green, but other varieties can have purple or even red colors.
Spinach appears to be native to the Middle East and was cultivated there for over a thousand years. Spinach was eventually taken around the world, after initially being traded with Asian cultures. Today, China grows the most spinach commercially, with the United States, Japan and Turkey falling within the top 10 spinach-producing countries.
Nutrition and Health Benefits of Spinach
Spinach is a very healthful vegetable to eat. It is an excellent source of Vitamin K. One cup of cooked spinach provides a whopping 987% of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin K. That’s a LOT of Vitamin K! That same one cup also provides just over 100% of our daily needs for Vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene), and a lot of our needs for manganese, folate, magnesium, iron, copper, Vitamins B2, B6, E, C, and calcium. It also contains very good amounts of potassium, fiber, phosphorus, Vitamin B1, zinc, protein, and other nutrients as well. Spinach is mostly water, so a 3.5 ounce (100 gram) serving of fresh spinach has only 23 calories. One cup of raw spinach has a mere 7 calories!
Anti-inflammatory Support. Spinach contains a number of flavonoids known to have anti-inflammatory benefits. These benefits have been shown to have distinct effects within the intestinal tract, promoting the release of nitric oxide, due to the nitrate content of spinach. Nitric oxide lowers blood pressure by promoting the relaxation of blood vessels, increasing the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. Increased nitric oxide has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and erectile dysfunction.
Note: Naturally-occurring nitrates in vegetables are different than sodium nitrates used as preservatives in processed meats. The nitrates found in vegetables are harmless, and in fact, they are health promoting. To the contrary, the sodium nitrates used as preservatives in processed meats have been found to promote the formation of compounds (nitrosamines) that can cause cancer. So there is no reason to fear eating spinach because of its nitrate content.
Spinach also is a good source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid. ALA has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, and in some cases, comparable to that of corticosteroids.
Satiety Effects of Spinach. Spinach is high in chlorophyll and other compounds that have been shown to help regulate hunger, satiety, and also blood sugar levels. These compounds delay stomach emptying, helping us to feel full longer and decrease the level of the hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin is the hormone that signals when the stomach is empty sparking the “hunger” feeling, encouraging us to eat. Extracts of these compounds from spinach have been shown to have comparable effects to medications used to control type 2 diabetes.
Cancer Prevention. Spinach contains compounds including antioxidants that may slow cancer growth. One study found that these compounds reduced the growth of cervical tumors. Several studies have linked spinach to a reduced risk of prostate cancer. Other studies found that spinach may also reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Eye Health. Spinach is rich in zeaxanthin and lutein, which are the carotenoids responsible for color in some vegetables. These same compounds help to protect our eyes from sunlight damage. They have also been found to help prevent macular degeneration and cataracts, which are major causes of blindness.
Skin and Hair Health. Spinach contains a lot of beta-carotene, which helps to moderate the amount of oil produced by our skin and hair follicles. The oils help to keep skin and hair healthy. The beta-carotene content of spinach combined with its abundant vitamin and mineral content may also help to promote hair growth and prevent hair loss.
Oxalates. Spinach has a high oxalate (also called oxalic acid) content. Oxalates are naturally occurring organic acids found in a variety of foods. Oxalates in themselves are not harmful, but in some people with certain medical conditions (such as being prone to developing kidney stones), dietary oxalates must be highly restricted. Therefore, spinach may not be good for such individuals. The oxalates in spinach can be reduced by boiling the spinach (leaching the oxalates into the cooking water), or by combining spinach with foods rich in calcium, such as milk products. In the latter case, the calcium from calcium-rich foods binds with the spinach oxalates in the intestinal tract, reducing the availability of the oxalates.
Vitamin K. Spinach is extremely high in Vitamin K, an important vitamin used in our blood clotting function. Individuals taking blood thinning medications, such as Warfarin, must control their intake of Vitamin K so it does not interfere with their medication. If you take such a medication, it is important to consult with your physician before increasing your intake of spinach or any other high source of Vitamin K because of the potential interaction with your medication.
How to Select Fresh Spinach
Choose fresh spinach with bright green leaves and stems and no signs of yellowing. The leaves should look fresh and tender and have no signs of bruising or wilting. Avoid any with a slimy coating because that indicates the spinach is old and decayed.
How to Store Fresh Spinach
Keep your fresh spinach UNWASHED in a plastic bag or tub in the refrigerator. If there are signs of moisture in the bag or tub, place a paper towel on top of the spinach (in a tub), or roll the leaves up in a long strip of paper towel or a clean, dry cloth (when storing it in a plastic bag) to absorb moisture that forms during storage. Store it wrapped and in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Most spinach in bags or tubs will have a best by date stamped on it. Try to use it no later than that day for best quality.
To see a demonstration on how to store fresh spinach, watch my video “Spinach 101 – Best Way to Store Spinach” …
How to Prepare Fresh Spinach
Do not wash your fresh spinach until you are ready to use it. Wash it well by swishing the spinach in a bowl of water. This will remove any sand or debris that was clinging to the leaves. Remove the leaves, empty the bowl, and repeat the process until the water is clean after rinsing the leaves. Spinach may be spun dry or placed in a colander and gently shaken to remove excess water.
Fresh vs Frozen Spinach
Fresh. Fresh spinach is available year-round in most American grocery stores. It has a mild flavor and can be used in salads or included in fresh juices or smoothies. It is versatile, since it can also be cooked or included in any dish that calls for spinach. It is important to note that a tub of fresh spinach can go a long way when used in its fresh, raw state. But when cooked, it quickly dwindles down to seemingly very little, so a little bit of cooked spinach can actually represent a lot of the fresh version.
Frozen. Frozen spinach has been quickly blanched then frozen and bagged. It is a convenient food to have on-hand when a recipe calls for adding spinach to a dish. Frozen spinach cannot take the place of fresh spinach in salads because the texture is entirely different. However, it adds a nice color and nutritional boost to any cooked dish that includes spinach. The flavor of frozen and cooked spinach is stronger than that of fresh, raw spinach. So, if it’s too strong for your taste preferences, it may be good to include it as a component in a mixed food of some sort rather than eating it as a solo side dish.
Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Spinach
If you want to use more spinach in your meals, but are not quite sure where to get started, here are some ideas…
* Add layers of fresh spinach when making a pan of lasagna.
* A fresh spinach salad with dried cranberries, nuts, and your favorite salad dressing is a nutritious and easy side dish.
* To retain the nutrients in spinach as much as possible, steam it (traditionally), or stir-steam or sauté it for as little time as possible, using as little water as possible.
* Add fresh or frozen spinach to your favorite smoothie.
* Add fresh or frozen spinach to add color and a nutritional boost to any soup. Add it toward the end of cooking since it needs little cooking time.
* The flavor of spinach blends well with eggs. So add a little fresh or frozen spinach to your favorite egg dish or casserole. It adds color, texture and nutrients.
* Add some fresh or frozen spinach at the end of cooking when making a stir-fry.
* Make savory pancakes by adding spinach to the batter. Top them with yogurt, sour cream or cashew cream.
* Toss some fresh or frozen spinach into your favorite pasta dish.
* Stir-steam some fresh spinach with mushrooms and garlic for a fast, easy side dish. Use vegetable stock instead of water for more flavor. Only 2 or 3 tablespoons is enough to do the job.
* Add some fresh spinach along with lettuce and tomato on a sandwich.
* Toss a little spinach into your favorite risotto.
* Add some sautéed spinach to a hot cooked grain of choice for added color, texture and nutrients.
* Blend spinach into your favorite pesto.
* Add some fresh spinach to your favorite burritos or quesadillas.
Herbs and Spices That Go Well with Spinach
Allspice, basil, capers, cardamom, cayenne, chervil, chili pepper flakes, cilantro, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry powder, dill, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, lovage, mace, marjoram, mint, mustard, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, pepper, rosemary, sage, salt, sorrel, tarragon, thyme
Foods That Go Well with Spinach
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Almonds, bacon, beans, chicken, chickpeas, eggs, fish, hummus, lentils, nuts (esp. almonds, cashews, pecans, pine nuts, and walnuts), nut butters, peas, seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower), shrimp, tahini, tofu
Vegetables: Artichokes, arugula, asparagus, beets, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, chiles, chives, eggplant, leeks, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, ramps, scallions, shallots, squash (summer), sweet potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini
Fruits: Apples, avocado, dried fruit (esp. cranberries, raisins), figs, lemon, lime, olives, orange, pears, tangerines
Grains and Grain Products: Bread crumbs, grains (in general), polenta, quinoa, rice
Dairy and Non-Dairy: Butter, cheese (esp. cheddar, Feta, goat, Gruyere, mozzarella, Parmesan, ricotta), coconut milk, cream, milk, yogurt
Other Foods: Horseradish, miso, mustard (Dijon), oil (esp. olive, sesame), soy sauce, stock, sugar, tamari, vinegar
Spinach has been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
Burritos, calzones, casseroles, creamed spinach, crepes, curries, dips, egg dishes, falafels, gratins, Greek cuisine, Indian cuisine, Italian cuisine, Japanese cuisine, Mediterranean cuisines, pasta dishes, pestos, pies, pilafs, pizza, purees, quesadillas, risottos, salad dressings, salads, smoothies, soufflés, soups, spreads, stews, stir-fries, veggie burgers
Suggested Flavor Combos Using Spinach
Combine spinach with any of the following combinations…
Almonds + mushrooms + lemon
Avocado + grapefruit + red onions
Beets + fennel + orange + walnuts
Cheese + fruit + nuts
Chili pepper flakes + garlic + olive oil + vinegar
Citrus + pomegranate + onion + walnuts
Dried cranberries + goat cheese + hazelnuts + pears
Fennel + orange + red onions
Garlic + lemon + olive oil + Parmesan cheese + parsley
Garlic + mushrooms + tofu
Garlic + rosemary
Garlic + sesame
Lemon + tahini
Mushrooms + nutmeg + ricotta
Nuts + raisins
Pumpkin seeds + wild rice
Easiest Cooked Spinach Ever (Judi in the Kitchen video) https://youtu.be/G2T1Fznx7KQ
Make a Frittata with Breakfast Potatoes and Spinach (Judi in the Kitchen video) https://youtu.be/BAmwJYqu2Bc
10 Flavorful Ways to Cook Spinach https://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/sensational-ways-to-cook-with-spinach/
38 Ways to Eat Spinach That Aren’t Just another Boring Salad https://www.delish.com/cooking/g2013/spinach/
35 Tasty Ways to Use Frozen Spinach https://www.wisebread.com/35-tasty-ways-to-use-frozen-spinach
Mediterranean Baby Spinach Salad http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=recipe&dbid=315
Figs, Walnuts and Spinach Salad http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=recipe&dbid=194
Golden Spinach and Sweet Potato Healthy Sauté http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=recipe&dbid=186
Indian-Style Lentils http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=recipe&dbid=232
Fast and Easy Steamed Spinach (Judi in the Kitchen video) https://youtu.be/ZWuZHxdPGxg
How to Turn a Bag of Frozen Spinach into Your Kids’ Favorite: Skillet Spinach with Garlic https://foodlets.com/2015/01/30/simple-sides-frozen-spinach-garlic-powder-olive-oil/
57 Superfood Spinach Recipes https://www.tasteofhome.com/collection/superfood-spinach-recipes/
Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.