Popeye Propaganda: Kids Strong to the Finish Because They Eat Their Spinach

Filed under: Nutrition: Health, Weird But True

Popeye promotes eating spinach

Forget the protein bars -- this man wants a can of spinach. Credit: Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP / Getty Images

"I'm Popeye the sailor man! (Toot! Toot!) I'm Popeye the sailor man! (Toot! Toot!) I'm strong to the finish 'cause I eats me spinach. I'm Popeye the sailor man!"

Talk about your product placement.

You would almost swear animators Max and Dave Fleischer were in the spinach industry's back pocket when they produced 109 Popeye animated shorts between 1933 and 1942.

Even at the risk of enlarged forearms and that unfortunate tooting, a lot of kids still believe spinach will make battleships magically appear on their biceps and give them the strength to dispatch bullies twice their size.

At the very least, they are inspired to try something green and leafy.

Researchers at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, actually looked into what might be called the Popeye Effect. The Daily Telegraph in London reports they found kids who regularly watch Popeye cartoons are more than twice as likely to eat spinach.

And not just spinach.

They doubled their intake of all vegetables -- reckoning, perhaps, that Bluto could be just as easily defeated by a mouthful of asparagus and broccoli as Popeye's veggie of choice.

Professor Chutima Sirikulchayanonta, who led the research, tells the Telegraph kids ages 4 and 5 ate an average of two portions of vegetables before being exposed to Popeye cartoons. After watching Popeye beat the, uh, stuffing out of Bluto, the kids went up to four portions.

Being a vegetarian can cut your risk of cancer in half, Sirikulchayanonta tells the newspaper. So Olive Oyl isn't the only one these days proclaiming, "Ooooh, Popeye! My herooo!"

"We got the children planting vegetable seeds, taking part in fruit and vegetable tasting parties, cooking vegetable soup and watching Popeye cartoons," he tells the Telegraph.

What the world needs now is a fruit-eating hero. Sirikulchayanonta tells the paper Popeye didn't influence kids to eat more apples and oranges. Then again, he adds, most of them already had a lot of fruit in their diet.

Researchers' findings are published in the journal Nutrition & Dietetics.

The Telegraph reports tinned spinach, like the kind Popeye pops open, rose by 24 percent last year to become one of Britain's fastest-selling canned vegetables.

The Fleischers could not have created a more effective propaganda campaign if they had tried. The cartoons are almost 80 years old, yet they continue to push spinach in a way that makes modern marketing execs green with envy.

There was no collusion between Fleischer Studios and spinach growers, either.

Popeye was created by Elzie Crisler Segar for the comic strip "Thimble Theatre." The strip started in 1919 and had been around for 10 years when the character of Popeye was introduced in 1929. Popeye quickly became the dominant character in what had been an ensemble strip.

He first began gaining unusual strength from spinach in the comic strip in 1932. However, when the Fleischers started making animated shorts the following year, spinach gave the one-eyed sailor strength to rival Superman (who also starred in a series of Fleischer cartoons).

Kids have been snarfing their spinach ever since. Popeye himself -- typically modest -- would take no credit for this. He would just shrug and say, "I yam what I yam."

No word from English teachers yet, by the way, on Popeye's effect on grammar and pronunciation.

Related: Spinach: Popeye's Magical Food

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.