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Nordic and Mediterranean countries can make more of healthy cuisine: WHO

A new World Health Organization Europe report looks into the health-promoting properties of the Mediterranean and the Nordic diet, which have won acclaim for helping to prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Nordic and Mediterranean countries can make more of healthy cuisine: WHO
A starter served at an Italian restaurant in Copenhagen. File photo: Anne Bæk/Ritzau Scanpix

The report analyses which country policies and interventions have been inspired by the basic principles of the Mediterranean and Nordic diets, while also examining whether there is evidence of effectiveness in reducing disease.

The traditional Mediterranean diet, originating in the olive-growing areas of southern Europe, is characterized by a high intake of plant-based foods (fruit, vegetables, nuts and cereals) and olive oil; a moderate intake of fish and poultry; and a low intake of dairy products (principally yoghurt and cheese), red meat, processed meats and sweets (for which fresh fruit is often substituted).

Social and cultural factors closely associated with the traditional Mediterranean diet, including shared eating practices, post-meal siestas (afternoon naps) and lengthy meal times, are also thought to contribute to the attributed positive health effects recorded in the Mediterranean region, according to WHO.

The New Nordic diet shares many characteristics with the Mediterranean diet but comprises foods traditionally sourced in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Staple components of the New Nordic diet include berries and fruits, fatty fish (herring, mackerel and salmon), lean fish, legumes, vegetables (cabbage and root vegetables) and whole grain cereals (barley, oats and rye).

That provides the basis for healthier eating patterns after decades in which meat-heavy and low vegetable diets, which were also high in salt and saturated fat, dominated Scandinavian dinner tables.

READ ALSO: No one buys more organic food than the Danes: report

Expanding our understanding of how to promote these healthy dietary patterns is an urgent priority, says João Breda, head of the WHO European Centre for control and prevention of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).

“The latest data continues to indicate that diets in both the Nordic and Mediterranean regions largely do not comply with recommendations. Worryingly, the diets of younger generations increasingly fail to adhere to the Mediterranean diet pattern and several Mediterranean countries are now the countries in Europe with the highest rates of children with obesity,” Breda said in a press statement.

“We would like to underline the importance of better diets for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases as well as obesity. Traditional diets, notably the Nordic and Mediterranean, can have a positive impact on health, environment and well being,” Breda added in a written comment to The Local.

WHO launched its report on Monday at its Regional Office for Europe in Copenhagen, with a one-day symposium jointly organized with the Nordic Council of Ministers. Experts from the Mediterranean and Nordic parts of Europe were present to exchange experience.

The event, which focused on food culture and identity, also involved leading chefs who are often major food influencers and important allies in promoting health diets.

To capitalize on the new awareness and reap the health benefits at population level, countries can collaborate and introduce changes such as nutrition labeling and healthy school lunches, the WHO says on the basis of the report.

Policy makers can also promote work across sectors that will bring opportunities for tourism, agriculture and sustainability, focusing on seasonal, local products.

“Healthier diets have also be found to be better from a climate and environmental perspective, meaning there can be great win-wins in tackling negative dietary patterns,” Mads Frederik Fischer-Møller of the Nordic Council of Ministers' Nordic Food Policy Lab said via WHO's press release.

Only fifteen countries in the WHO European Region currently recommend or implement policies based on the New Nordic and Mediterranean diets emphasizing the health benefits and – in some cases – the cultural significance of these diets, WHO writes in a press release.

Worryingly, the diets in Nordic and Mediterranean countries increasingly fail to adhere to the traditional diet pattern, particularly the younger generations, according to the organization’s report.

“Countries are not using the principles of these diets as much as they could for policy making. As such, we would like to work together with countries and other partners in the development of modern health promotion programs which would be well evaluated and fully inspired by the Mediterranean and Nordic diets,” Breda told The Local.

“Other countries which are not in the Nordic area or the Mediterranean basin could be motivated by these findings and really look for positive elements of their food culture that are healthy and deserve to be promoted,” he added.

READ ALSO: Falling in love with Copenhagen’s food scene: an English speaker's guide

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FOOD & DRINK

How does food qualify as organic in Denmark?

Denmark was the first country in the world to get its own organic law and the “Ø-label”, stating that food is organic, can be seen on around 13 percent of products across Denmark's supermarkets. But what does it mean about the food you're eating?

How does food qualify as organic in Denmark?

If you go to a Danish supermarket, you will notice many food products marked with a red “Ø” label. This organic label, which stands for økologisk (“organic”), was introduced in Denmark in 1990 and is “a very special stamp from Denmark,” according to Per Jensen, Organic consultant at agricultural advice company VKST.

It means the food you are eating has passed the Danish government’s regulations for organic produce; a law that was introduced in 1987 as the first organic law in the world and a law that has just raised the bar on how organic food is produced in Denmark.

The standards Danish organic farmers have to meet is higher than the regulations set out by the EU, which were first introduced in 1991.

“Organic essentially means no fertiliser,” Per Jensen told The Local. 

“However, you can use manure from farms that use fertiliser. The organic Danish farmers’ unions have pushed to change the rules so that from the 1st August 2022, no more than 45kg of nitrogen per hectare of manure can be used from farms using fertiliser that isn’t organic,” Jensen said.

Nitrogen is essential for plant growth but its supply can be limited, which is why it’s often applied as a fertiliser. There can however be some negative impacts on using fertiliser, such as polluting groundwater, which is why organic farmers don’t use it. But in Denmark, the country’s organic law goes further than many countries to eliminate traces of nitrogen. 

“On an organic farm in Denmark you need 20 percent of clover-like plants sewn in your field every year. These plants, like peas and horse beans connect nitrogen from the air, into the soil, so you don’t need to rely so much on manure. Some farmer don’t use manure at all and rely on clover plants,” Jensen explained to The Local.

There’s also a law that states 50 percent of crops in organic farms must make the soil rich in carbon, as well as a time limit of 8 hours on how long live animals can be transported.

This organic law is set and checked by the Danish government each year, on top of the regular EU checks. It results in food being given the prestigious Ø label and red crown and when exported, or bought in Danish supermarkets, consumers are “getting something special – there are no pesticides or herbicides in these products and they have a high level of credibility,” Jensen reiterated.

How much food is organic in Denmark?

In 2021, 11 percent of total farmland in Denmark was organic, which is roughly 312, 000 hectares. 

Organic food made up roughly 13 percent of the total retail food market in 2020 and proportionally, the organic market in Denmark is the biggest in the world, according to the Danish Agriculture and Food Council.

It states that the most popular organic products are eggs, (30 percent of total egg production is organic) oatmeal, wheat flour, carrots and bananas. One in three litres of milk bought by Danish consumers is organic and half of milk in Danish schools is organic.

In 2015, the Danish government announced “the world’s most ambitious” organic plan. It included doubling the amount of land dedicated to organic farming by 2020 compared to 2007 and serving more organic food in the nation’s public institutions.

According to a 2021 report by the University of Copenhagen, 22 percent of the food served in Denmark’s canteens, kindergartens and other public sector workplaces was organic. That compares to 39 percent in Sweden and just 1 percent in Norway.

In 2016 the City of Copenhagen announced that  88 percent of all food served in the city’s public institutions was organic, which was believed to be the highest percentage of organic food anywhere in the world.

However Jensen, organic consultant at agricultural advice company VKST, told The Local the ambitions to expand organic farmland had not yet been fulfilled. 

“Due to the war in Ukraine, the cost of manure is very expensive. So don’t expect a big increase in organic food at the moment,” Jensen said.

“Some farmers will stay as organic farmers no matter what. But others will change depending on the price. Sometimes being organic will be better money for the farmer but other times it won’t so, they’ll change to non-organic to grow for the best economical result,” he added.

Is organic food healthier?

A group of Danish researchers and academics presented a 136-page report to the Norwegian Food Directorate in 2021, which could not agree on whether organic food was healthier to eat than non-organic food.

“When it comes to nutrients it’s exactly the same as non-organic,” Karin Østergaard senior lecturer of Food Science and Nutrition at VIA University College, Aarhus, told The Local.

“The pesticides disintegrate into the soil quickly and you can’t use pesticides at all just before harvesting so you won’t find them when you eat the food,”  Østergaard said. She added that the limits set on pesticide use, plus all examinations on the food and health research means you shouldn’t be worried.

“The level of traceable pesticides on food in Denmark is very low compared to the EU in general and certainly outside the EU. So if you buy Danish products that are non-organic, you are still getting a very good product,” she added.

There was alarm in 2019 when traces of pesticides were found in drinking water in Denmark. Østergaard explained that these were aggressive pesticides that were banned many years ago that took a long time to reach the ground water. “The pesticides used today are not such a problem”, she said.

Despite the debate, organic food remains popular in Denmark.

“I think it’s because people today are beginning to think more of what they’re eating and they want a better product and that’s why they go to organic because they know it’s not been sprayed with fertiliser and the product is not a lot more expensive than non organic,” Jensen said.

But he predicts a drop in the number of people buying it.

“Right now there are other things that influence what people are buying, such as the rising cost of living so then you just have to buy the cheapest product.” 
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