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Popeye Makes Kids Eat More Vegetables

Remember Popeye? Mr. "I'm strong to the the finish cause I eats my spinach?" The cartoon hasn't aired in the U.S. for several years now, but I bet you know who I'm talking about.Apparently, the classic tough guy can inspire kids to eat their spinach, too. A paper just published in the Australian jo...

Remember Popeye? Mr. "I'm strong to the the finish cause I eats my spinach?" The cartoon hasn't aired in the U.S. for several years now, but I bet you know who I'm talking about.

Popeye brand of canned spinach, courtesy Flickr user

Apparently, the classic tough guy can inspire kids to eat their spinach, too. A paper just published in the Australian journal Nutrition & Dietetics reports that four- and five-year-olds in Bangkok, Thailand doubled their vegetable intake during an eight-week study that involved watching Popeye cartoons. Of course, it's hard to quantify Popeye's influence exactly, because the kids in the study were simultaneously being exposed to hands-on activities like planting, tasting and learning to cook with vegetables. But it's an interesting idea, isn't it? (Hopefully he didn't also inspire them to smoke pipes.)

Back when I was about their age, my family frequented a restaurant called The Ground Round, in Burlington, Vermont, where some brilliant mind had installed a small movie theater in the center of the dining area---the equivalent of a free babysitter. The waitstaff handed out baskets of free popcorn, turned on a reel of old-fashioned-and-thus-hopefully-inoffensive-to-everyone cartoons, and gave the adults a chance to enjoy a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation while their meals were cooking.

That's where I got my first glimpse of Popeye, and I was fascinated. He was always ripping the tops of cans of spinach, chugging them like a soda, and beating up the bad guys with his bulging forearms. The spinach seemed to be magical; imparting its powers indifferently to anyone---or anything---that ate it. One of the episodes that sticks in my mind involves a fly finding its way into Popeye's can of spinach and taking a few bites. Suddenly, the tiny bug acquires super strength, enough to start knocking Popeye himself around! (See Fred Grandinetti's book, Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History, for a comprehensive guide to the spinach-fueled escapades of various characters through the years.)

Now, I don't remember consciously thinking, "I want to eat spinach, too!" but I never objected to it on my plate as a kid, either. (Of course, my mother's fresh spinach salads were a lot tastier than the algae-like glop Popeye tossed back.) On some level, maybe Popeye did influence my tastes. It wouldn't have been the first time: He's often credited with boosting American spinach consumption by 33 percent during the 1930s. (Although as this paper points out, coincidental factors probably played a role, too.)

Did Popeye have any effect on your eating habits? How about any other cartoon characters--Bugs Bunny and carrots, Garfield and lasagna, etc.?
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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