Food for thought

Palak paneer isn't as nutritious as you think

It may come as a surprise to many, but that's true, says Dr Sweta Dhatwalia Bajaj

Palak paneer, a popular Indian dish, is made by combining pureed spinach and paneer. Spinach is a good source of iron and paneer, a milk product, is rich in calcium. So a combination of both in a single preparation is considered a good source of nutrients, especially for kids. The fact, however, is something different.

Palak paneer provides calcium and very little iron. You may wonder why? Spinach has a high nutritional value and is extremely rich in antioxidants, especially when fresh, steamed, or quickly boiled. It is a rich source of vitamin A (and lutein), vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, folate, iron, vitamin B2, calcium, potassium, vitamin B6, folic acid, copper, protein, phosphorus, zinc, niacin, selenium and omega-3 fatty acids. In recent research, spinach was found to be rich in opioid peptides called rubiscolins. It is a source of folic acid (Vitamin B9), and this vitamin was first purified from spinach. It is better to steam spinach than boil it to enjoy the benefits of folate because boiling for four or more minutes can halve its level.

Also, the bioavailability of iron is dependent on its absorption. Several factors influence this.

Iron enters the body in two forms: non-heme iron and heme iron. All of the iron in grains and vegetables, and about three-fifths of the iron in animal food sources (meats), is non-heme. The much smaller remaining portion from meats is heme iron. The iron in spinach is poorly absorbed by the body unless eaten with vitamin C. The type of iron found in spinach is non-blood (non-heme), a plant iron, which the body does not absorb as efficiently as blood (heme) iron, found in meat. The more significant portion of dietary iron (non-heme) is absorbed slowly in its many food sources, including spinach. The absorption may vary widely depending on the presence of binders such as fiber or enhancers like vitamin C. Therefore, body’s absorption of non-heme iron can be improved by consuming foods that are rich in vitamin C. However, spinach contains iron absorption inhibiting substances, including high levels of oxalate, which can bind to the iron to form ferrous oxalate, which renders iron in spinach useless.

Spinach also has a high calcium content. However, the oxalate content in spinach also binds with calcium decreasing its absorption. Calcium and zinc also limit iron absorption. 

The nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz) of raw spinach is as follows:

Energy 97 kJ (23 kcal)

Carbohydrates 3.6 g

Sugar 0.4 g

Dietary fibre 2.2 g

Fat 0.4 g

Protein 2.2 g

Vitamin A Equiv. 469 μg (52%)

Vitamin A 9400 IU

– beta-carotene 5626 μg (52%)

– lutein and zeaxanthin 12198 μg

Folate (Vit. B9)194 μg (49%)

Vitamin C 28 mg (47%)

Vitamin E 2 mg (13%)

Vitamin K 483 μg (460%)

Calcium 99 mg (10%)

Iron 2.7 mg (22%)

Paneer, on the other hand, is a milk product and contains calcium. The calcium in paneer, in fact, inhibits the iron absorption in spinach further when combined to make palak paneer.

Thus, the spinach in palak paneer provides very little iron. Spinach by itself allows for very little iron due to its calcium and oxalate content. To improve the iron absorption from spinach, adding lemon juice helps to absorb iron of spinach.

In short, we need to give serious thought to palak paneer.
Spinach = iron = will improve anaemia.
Paneer = calcium = will improve bone strength. 
But what we miss to notice that the combination has zero nutritional value. You must be wondering why? The iron of spinach and calcium of paneer don’t get absorbed by the body if combined, making it a lousy deal in combination. 

So I would advise that you cook both separately so that the body can absorb both iron and calcium. 


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