When Popeye underwent a muscle-busting transformation whenever he scented a whiff of spinach most people laughed at the artistic license, but it looks like the effect was based on fact, not fiction. A team at Rutgers University led by Ilya Raskin has found that spinach contains steroid-like compounds that boost the growth of muscle cells.
Writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the team explain how they extracted chemicals called phytoecdysteroids from the plant and then treated muscle cells in the dish and even live rats with them. The muscle cells speeded up their growth by about 20%, and the rats became stronger.
Although a human would have to eat over a kilo of spinach each day to obtain enough of the chemical to achieve any kind of body-building effect, these plant-steroids are exciting for another reason: they seem to be able to exert their growth-promoting effects but without binding to the chemical docking stations normally exploited by anabolic steroids. This means that they could be able to achieve beneficial effects in the body but without the side effects associated with anabolic steroid use - including voice changes, acne, hairiness, mood disturbances and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.