Popeye was right. If you want to be healthy, eat your spinach.

“Spinach is an excellent source of several important vitamins and minerals,” says Teddy Morelock, a professor in the University of Arkansas horticulture department who has headed the UA spinach breeding program since 1985. A serving provides vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber and folate, a form of B vitamin that is very important in the prevention of birth defects and anemia.

Spinach is also high in a class of antioxidants known as phytochemicals. These compounds have been shown to be very beneficial to humans in protecting cells from damage and in preventing disease, especially degenerative, age-related diseases.

Two of these phytochemicals commonly found in spinach are lutein, which has been associated with the prevention of cancer and macular degeneration, and beta-carotene, which acts as an immune stimulant and is used by the body to produce vitamin A.

Morelock, horticulture professor Brad Murphy, and food science professor Luke Howard have been screening different spinach varieties to measure the levels of phytochemicals they contain. They found that two varieties developed by the UA breeding program, Fall Green and F380, have higher than average levels of both lutein and beta carotene.

“We can use this information in our breeding program to further increase the levels of antioxidants in the varieties we develop,” Morelock says.

The UA spinach breeding program began some 35 years ago under the direction of professors John Bowers and Jack Goode and today remains the only public sector spinach breeding program in the country. It was created with the primary goal of developing varieties with resistance to white rust, a disease that is a significant problem to spinach growers east of the Rockies.

Ozarka and Greenvalley, released by the program in 1980, were the first resistant varieties. Since then the UA has continued to pioneer the development and improvement of white rust-resistant spinach lines. “Nearly all commercial varieties with white rust resistance contain some Arkansas genetics,” Morelock says.

Morelock continues to work to improve disease resistance and breed ever better horticultural types, releasing a new variety every five to six years.

Together, the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University host a bi-annual symposium known as the National Spinach Conference. The conference attracts breeders and researchers from several states and foreign countries. It showcases the latest advances in the field of spinach production with presentations of scientific papers, discussions of ongoing research, and a tour of research plots.

This year's event is scheduled for Nov. 20-21 at the County Extension Office at the UA Division of Agriculture's Research and Extension Center in Fayetteville, Ark., and Vegetable Substation near Alma, Ark.

Spinach traces its origins to the Middle East, specifically the area of Persia. It was exported to China during the Seventh century, but it took an additional 400 or so years before it found its way to Europe.

Spinach maintained a fairly low profile in the vegetable spectrum until the 1920s and 30s when the USDA began to promote it as a rich source of vitamin A.


P.J. Hirschey, University of Arkansas Department of Horticulture, phirsch@uark.edu