Why Spinach Shrinks To the Point of No Return

Words: Crush

Spinach is the Houdini of vegetables – you could dump an entire bag into the pan and it would still vanish into thin air. While its diminishing return can mostly be attributed to its high water content, there’s another reason why spinach shrinks when cooked – it also boils down to the antinutrient, oxalic acid.

When sautéing spinach, make sure to keep the lid off to avoid the oxalic acid from leeching back into the spinach.

Honey, I Shrunk the Spinach!

More is less when it comes to spinach. Sure, it might shrivel once it comes into contact with heat, but this impressive leafy green retains a bushel of nutrients. Part of the Amaranthaceae family, spinach is surprisingly related to beetroot and amaranth.

In most corners of the world, this leaf vegetable is referred to as ‘spinach,’ but nearly 2000 years ago, it was known as ‘Persian vegetable.’ Its culinary tour would take it around the world, from India to China, and later, Italy, England, and Northern America, earning many other names as more varieties were discovered. True to nature, ‘spinach’ stuck, much like ‘spinach teeth’ – another phenomenon caused by oxalic acid.

Consuming spinach definitely has its benefits; it’s important to note that cooking it can help reduce the oxalate content.

Besides the heaps of sand that come with it, spinach has some other gritty qualities. When cooked, spinach shrinks and decreases in volume – something most home cooks are familiar with. This is largely because spinach comprises about 91% water – just 5% less than cucumber and watermelon – but the fact that this dark green leaf also contains oxalic acid plays a role in further reducing it…


What Is Oxalic Acid?

Oxalic acid or oxalate, is a natural compound in spinach that serves as an antinutrient, meaning it can bind with minerals and reduce their bioavailability. Furthermore, during the cooking process, oxalic acid might contribute to the shrinking of spinach.

When spinach is heated, its high water content begins to evaporate, causing it to wilt and reduce in size. Concurrently, oxalic acid is released and leaches into the water formed as the spinach expels moisture. This acidic environment can weaken the pectin in the cell walls, making them more likely to collapse. Additionally, if the spinach is cooked with a lid on, the condensed water droplets can fall back into the pan, creating a soggy texture and dull appearance as the chlorophyll is impacted. The oxalic acid breaks down further in this process, exacerbating the shrinking effect.

If your spinach appears dull, squeeze lemon juice over the leaves…

The presence of oxalic acid in spinach is a double-edged sword. While it plays a role in the shrinking of spinach when cooked, it also impacts nutrient absorption. High levels of oxalates can bind with calcium and iron in the digestive tract, forming insoluble compounds that the body cannot absorb. This can reduce the nutritional benefit of spinach and other high-oxalate foods. Don’t panic spinach lovers… for most, consuming spinach in moderation as part of a balanced diet poses no significant health risks and still offers many benefits.


Spinach Is Still a Nutrient Powerhouse

Typically, vegetables that are yellow, orange, or red are high in beta-carotene, but this is also true for greens. Apart from carrots, spinach also contains a significant amount of beta-carotene – the scientific term for red-orange pigments and also the Latin word for ‘carrots.’ Once digested, the body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A – something you probably already knew if you grew up watching Popeye. You might recall the popular cartoon sailor man famously bragged, ‘I’m strong to the finich, ‘cause I eats me spinach.’

Spinach is a nutrient-dense leafy green vegetable offering a wide range of health benefits. It is also high in vitamin K, which is essential for blood clotting and bone health. As mentioned, it’s rich in vitamin A, which supports vision, immune function and skin health. Spinach is also high in folate – important for DNA synthesis and repair – and iron, which is crucial for the formation of red blood cells and prevention of anaemia.

Additionally, spinach contains significant amounts of vitamin C – which acts as an antioxidant and supports the immune system – as well as magnesium, which is vital for muscle and nerve function and blood glucose control. If you’re still worried about the presence of oxalic acid, how you cook spinach matters…


Tips for Cooking Spinach

Too much of a good thing can be bad. Consuming spinach definitely has its benefits; it’s important to note that cooking it can help reduce the oxalate content. Furthermore, sprinkling it with a tiny bit of salt just before consumption could also help improve the soggy texture, as salt causes water to be removed from the cells.

The best way to cook it? Make sure you wash it properly; this doesn’t really have anything to do with the oxalate, but mostly the fact that spinach grows in sandy soil, meaning that it usually still contains quite a bit of sand – even the pre-washed varieties at grocery stores. When sautéing spinach, make sure to keep the lid off to avoid the oxalic acid from leeching back into the spinach. This will also make the leaves soggy and dull. Instead, cook it with the lid off, allowing the heat to soften the leaves. If your spinach appears dull, squeeze lemon juice over the leaves – this will make them appear more vibrant, while adding more flavour.

Oxalic acid is a factor to consider, but the benefits of consuming spinach and other high-oxalate vegetables generally outweigh the drawbacks for most people. To mitigate the effects of oxalates, you can pair spinach with calcium-rich foods. Lastly, always consult with a healthcare professional if you have any health concerns related to oxalate consumption.


Spinach Recipes

TARTE FLAMBÉE WITH SPINACH, POTATO AND SMOKED MOZZARELLA

Simple yet satisfying! We can’t imagine this crowd-pleasing flambée without spinach; it compliments the potato and smoked mozzarella.

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SPINACH, RICOTTA & TOMATO-STUFFED CHICKEN WITH PARMESAN CRUST

Meet your new favourite midweek dish. The Parmesan crust makes it extra tasty.

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LOW-CARB CHICKEN & SPINACH PIE

A slightly less indulgent take on the regular chicken pie, yet equally comforting.

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SPINACH, FETA, OLIVE & PINE NUT SPANAKOPITAS

Feta and spinach is a classic combo. The addition of pine nuts adds a lovely texture to this Greek food favourite.

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SPINACH, LAMB & FETA GÖZLEME

You’ll love this Turkish staple – we know we do!

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SPINACH, RED PEPPER & THREE-CHEESE MUFFINS

A tasty savoury muffin that’s great as a midday snack or quick brekkie bite.

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SALMON & SPINACH POKE BOWL

Adding spinach to rice is a great way to increase your nutrient intake.

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GREEN MAMBA SPINACH SMOOTHIE

Don’t like eating your greens? Drink them instead.

GET THE RECIPE

Want more? Learn all about the amazing health benefits of spinach

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