Cartoon character, Popeye, may be right all along. German scientists say spinach has a steroid-like chemical that should be added to the doping list.

In every Popeye cartoon, the sailor is invariably put into what seems like a hopeless situation, upon which (usually after a beating), a can of spinach becomes available, and Popeye quickly opens the can and consumes its contents. Upon swallowing the spinach, Popeye’s physical strength immediately becomes superhuman, and he is easily able to save the day.

A new study, conducted by Freie Universität Berlin (a German University), has suggested that the cartoon’s caricature of spinach may not be too far-fetched after all. It found that ecdysterone, a chemical found in spinach, has a potent effect on performance when concentrated.

Ecdysteroids were first discovered in insects, and later their presence was confirmed in many plant species. Medical researchers say they have a tremendous potential in the most modern therapy. Ecdysteroids occur in plants such as spinach together with several other types of natural compounds.

For their study, the German researchers gave athletes a capsule of a said chemical, which falls into the category of an ecdysteroid, to a series of athletes each day to see how their performance was affected compared to that of a group on a placebo. They found that those on ecdysterone developed more muscle mass, and had up to three times the strength gains as the placebo group.

The medical researchers wrote in their abstract: “Even more relevant with respect to sports performance, significantly more pronounced increases in one-repetition bench press performance were observed. These data underline the effectivity of an ecdysterone supplementation with respect to sports performance.”

Although previous research in other countries has drawn similar conclusions, the recent study is the first in Germany to prove the link between spinach’s ecdysterone and significantly improved physical performance.

“Our hypothesis was that we would see an increase in performance, but we didn’t expect it to be that big,” one of the researchers, Maria Parr, said in an interview with European broadcasters.

The researchers added that the results meant ecdysterone belonged on the list of banned substances for sports, and recommended to World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) in their report that the substance be added to the doping list.

“We think that if it increases performance, then that unfair advantage should be eliminated.”

Maria Parr

The study was partly funded by WADA, but the decision would be left up to an expert body at the agency, Any ban on the substance will only likely happen after further investigation into how many athletes use the supplement. Parr emphasized that ecdysterone can currently be bought legally as a dietary supplement.


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