Lucky Popeye. All the wiry little sailor has to do is eat a can of spinach to transform himself into an agile, hard-hitting dynamo. Lots of athletes have tried to achieve similar effects with steroids, while the rest of us are lured into packing our plates with media-hyped superfoods. Steroids, we know, deliver on their promise, albeit illegally in most circumstances. But the jury’s still out on just how “super” many so-called superfoods really are.
Provided there’s spinach handy, comics icon Popeye can get out of just about any scrape. He transforms into a superhero as soon as he pulls out the can of spinach that always seems to be tucked into his shirt and chows down on the leafy greens. Sometimes he even inhales them through his corncob pipe. The result: instant muscle mass. He can suddenly throw villainous thugs across the room and even stop a train with his fists to impress—and rescue—his girlfriend, the superskinny Olive Oyl.
Paramount Pictures ensured Popeye’s antics were standard fare for moviegoers well into the 1950s, after which the sailor starred in his own television cartoon series. Young viewers love the feisty hero, and a 2010 study done in Thailand, where Popeye cartoons still air, showed that kids actually eat more vegetables after watching them. But legions of athletes have tried to emulate Popeye’s exaggerated muscles and surges of strength with a different magic bullet: steroids and related drugs. Perhaps baseball star Barry Bonds, cyclist Lance Armstrong, sprinter Marion Jones and other accused dopers should have stuck to Popeye’s famous mantra “I’m strong to the finish, ’cause I eats me spinach.”
With his fetish for spinach, Popeye follows a good nutritional regimen. It’s rich in vitamin A, which is good for vision and the immune system, and in vitamin K, which helps blood clot and promotes bone growth. A serving of spinach also delivers iron—more than you get from a beef patty—though unfortunately the oxalic acid in spinach binds to the iron, preventing the body from absorbing much of it.
These days spinach is categorized as a superfood, a media-hyped class of nutrient-rich edibles that allegedly help us lose weight effortlessly and stave off cancer, among many other claims. It’s hard to argue that superfoods aren’t healthful: Eggs pack a lot of protein into a low-calorie package, while apples are a good source of dietary fiber. Among some exotic superfoods that have become wildly popular is the grain quinoa, a great source of protein, fiber and minerals. Even once-humble kale is said to lower cholesterol and fight arthritis. Experts generally agree that superfoods are nutritious, but most of the specific health claims are unsupported and, for the most part, unfettered by government regulation. Many are likely as exaggerated as Popeye’s spinach-powered physique.
The concept of superfoods was already with us by the 1930s. At a time when Americans were struggling through the Great Depression, with more than 25 percent of the workforce unemployed and hungry, the idea of a food that instilled strength and stamina was particularly appealing. Baseball players, jockeys, rodeo performers and big-game hunters crowded the airwaves to testify that Wheaties was the “Breakfast of Champions”—some advertising hyperbole, although the cereal is a good source of fiber, iron, and vitamins A and C. Even Ronald Reagan got on the bandwagon when he was a sportscaster; Wheaties, a regular advertiser, named him announcer of the year in 1937, helping to launch Reagan’s film career…and the rest is history. Meanwhile, Popeye had debuted in 1929, and by 1933 the jaunty, pipe-smoking, spinach-munching hero was delighting theatergoers in Paramount Pictures’ cartoon shorts. Although eating spinach gives Popeye superhuman strength, more realistic is his pronouncement “Spinach is full of vitamin ‘A’ an’ tha’s what makes hoomans strong an’ helty.” He hasn’t appeared on the Wheaties box, but a Quaker Oats commercial once showed Popeye preferring oatmeal to spinach; it generated severe backlash from pacifist Quakers, who objected to Popeye’s reliance upon physical violence.
Professional athletes have been flacking Wheaties cereal almost since the “Breakfast of Champions” first began appearing on kitchen tables, in 1924. Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig was the first sports hero to appear on the box, in 1934, followed a year later by Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a female athlete extraordinaire who was a basketball star, Olympic gold medalist and golf champion. The brand has a good record of nabbing endorsers at the height of their fame. Track star Jesse Owens showed up on Wheaties boxes in 1936, the year he took a gold medal at the Berlin Olympics, and swimmer Michael Phelps was featured after his 2004 and 2012 Olympics wins.
Basketball legend Michael Jordan is one of seven athletes to be named official Wheaties spokespeople. Jordan did double duty as a mouthpiece for Gatorade. In 1991, ads for the popular sports drink began urging consumers to “Be like Mike. Drink Gatorade.” The campaign’s phenomenal popularity suggested that lots of consumers did want to be like Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time. Decades on, they continue to heed Gatorade celebrity endorsers, who have included former Yankees captain Derek Jeter and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning.
Like spinach and other superfoods, Gatorade lives up to at least part of its hype. Research shows that after strenuous exercise of an hour or more, sports drinks can deliver carbohydrates for energy, salt to retain water, and potassium and phosphorus to restore muscle function. No one, though, asserts that Gatorade truly enhances performance—except college basketball coach Bob Knight, who, in a 2009 ESPN interview, clouded the debate on steroid use by calling Gatorade, or “anything with electrolytes,” a performance-enhancing drug.
Steroids infamously do enhance performance, by inducing bone growth and increasing muscle mass and strength. A ban on steroids and other such drugs has led to the suspension of baseball’s Alex Rodriguez and a long lineup of other superstars. Some critics, such as Forbes magazine’s Chris Smith, claim it’s time to legalize PEDs to “help pitchers to throw harder, home runs to go further, cyclists to charge for longer and sprinters to test the very limits of human speed.” That brings to mind the 1988 Saturday Night Live sketch about an “All-Drug Olympics,” wherein a doped-up weight lifter tries to clean-and-jerk 1,500 pounds and rips his arms off.
Gatorade has become increasingly popular outside the gym and off the field as a soda substitute for many people who don’t otherwise behave like athletes. So which drink is better for you: Gatorade or Coca-Cola? While most of us would probably think the former, given its sporty associations and health claims, Gatorade isn’t exactly low-calorie, at 78 per 12-ounce serving—but compare that with 140 calories for a 12-ounce bottle of Coke. (The desire to attract weight watchers prompted the creation of G2, Gatorade’s 30-calorie diet version.) And Harvard Medical School researchers found that over a two-year period, kids gained an average of two extra pounds when drinking a daily can of soda, but an average of 3.5 extra pounds with a daily sports drink, perhaps because they drink heftier portions.
Choosing one over the other may come down to picking the lesser of two evils. The health conscious probably lean in favor of Gatorade; like Coke, it’s loaded with sugar, but it also delivers potassium and phosphorus, minerals that affect everything from heartbeat to muscle contractions and that can become depleted during long bouts of exercise. Coca-Cola, of course, originally included a different stimulant in its ingredient list—cocaine.