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Food Science


Scientific surprises from spinach and champagne

by Marsha-Ann Watson
October 12, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 40


Spinach as a banned substance

A can of spinach featuring the cartoon character Popeye.
Credit: Shutterstock
Eat up: Superfood spinach might just make you superstrong.

Athletes are always on a quest to be better, faster, and stronger. While some competitors turn to specialized training, vitamins, protein supplements, and amino acids for that extra performance edge, others look toward cutting-edge science trying to keep a step ahead of their competitors.

It now seems athletes, and anyone seeking a little extra oomph, should have listened to Popeye. The heroic sailor always popped open a can of spinach whenever he needed a performance boost to rescue his girl, Olive Oyl. With every gulp his muscles grew stronger, allowing him to win the day.

Researchers from Freie Universität Berlin have discovered that an extract from spinach can boost athletic performance. In a study commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an extract from spinach, ecdysterone, was shown to enhance muscle cells. The 10-week study of 46 male athletes revealed that athletes dosed with ecdysterone showed increased muscle mass and bench-press strength compared with athletes receiving a placebo (Arch. Toxicol.2019, DOI: 10.1007/s00204-019-02490-x). Ecdysterone was even more effective at improving athletic performance than some prohibited anabolic steroids. As a result, the researchers have recommended adding ecdysterone to WADA’s list of banned substances.

While competitive athletes may not ultimately be able to benefit from ecdysterone’s muscle-boosting effects in competition, the rest of us may still take advantage of spinach’s superpowers by taking the extract in a pill or by eating the whole plant. In addition to containing ecdysterone, spinach is a low-calorie source of calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium. But before we all stock up on our spinach, it’s worth noting that to take in the equivalent amount of ecdysterone consumed by the athletes in the study, a person would need to eat about 4 kg of spinach per day.


Pop it like it’s a hot supersonic jet

A Mach disk forms as a champagne cork is released from the bottle neck.
Credit: Sci. Adv.
Cheers! Popping the cork of a champagne bottle releases a celebratory pop of CO2 and water at Mach speed.

Popping bottles of champagne to celebrate momentous occasions is a time-honored tradition. The loud pop, the spray, and the sweet scent of wine filling the air have become synonymous with celebration. But have we ever given thought to how this happens? Gérard Liger-Belair, a professor of chemical physics at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne, did.

Using high-speed video imaging, Liger-Belair and colleagues captured the bottle-popping process (Sci. Adv. 2019, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav5528). They were surprised to observe the formation of a Mach disk, a type of standing wave that forms because of pressure differences in gas expelled from a nozzle and its surrounding air. It’s a phenomenon most often seen in the supersonic exhaust trails of fighter jets. “The conditions needed to create such shock waves are drastic, but in the very first millisecond following cork popping, all the conditions are met,” Liger-Belair says. Bubbling with excitement, the team celebrated the discovery, naturally, by popping a bottle of champagne.

Marsha-Ann Watson wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to



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