Do Danes really eat rugbrød for at least one meal every day?

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
Do Danes really eat rugbrød for at least one meal every day?
The Danish word tandsmør, literally "tooth butter", describes how thick to spread the butter on your rugbrød: you should be able to see tooth marks if you bite into it. Photo: Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix

If you live with or even just share an office with Danes, you'll soon realise that barely a day goes by without them eating at least one meal based around rugbrød. What's going on, and can it possibly be healthy?


What is Danish rugbrød? 

Danish rugbrød is a very dense, very dark rye bread made with wholemeal rye flour and often sourdough (sometimes with the addition of wheat and/or seeds like sunflower, pumpkin, and linseed).

"In general, most Danes prefer a dark, dense and bitter slice of ryebread. Swedish, German, but also Danish variations contain more wheat and sugar in order to make the bread sweeter and more “easy” to eat," Danish TV nutritionist Christian Bitz told The Local. "But the 'real' Danish ryebread is made of sourdough, full of grains and rich in taste!"

A dirty, Danish secret is that the bread's colour more often than not comes from food colouring, or kulør. It's the same stuff Danes use to brown meat sauces. Sometimes home bakers use black coffee, which also adds an extra level of bitterness. Another frequent darkening agent is malt, or malt syrup. 

What's the historical reason for the Danes eating so much rye bread?

Danes have eaten ryebread since the time of the Vikings, 1000 years ago, probably because rye is easier to grow than wheat in colder climates, creating the “ryebread border” stretching across Europe. 

Do Danes really eat a meal based around it every day? 

Yes, most do. 

"We Danes loves our ryebread for lunch, as an open sandwich (smørrebrød) with all kind of toppings," Bitz said, pointing out that Danish schoolchildren traditionally get packed lunches of smørrebrød, topped with a variety of tasty treats. 


"I remember from my school how exciting it was when all my classmates were opening their boxes, revealing so many different open sandwiches." 

According to the annual surveys carried out by Madkulturen, a food promotion agency led by the Danish food and agriculture ministry, rugbrød was the most common evening meal in Denmark both in 2015 when the first survey was done, and in follow-up surveys in 2018, 2019 and 2021.

It came in third place to chicken and then pizza in 2020 and second place in 2022, when chicken with potatoes and vegetables came top. 

Indeed, for Danes, the bread is such an essential part of their diet that rather than go without for a few days on holiday, they will pack a couple of loaves. 

"Many Danes – including myself – even bring ryebread in their suitcases when we go on vacation abroad!" Bitz said. 


How do Danes eat rugbrød? 

Rugbrød can be eaten very informally -- just a slice smeared with butter and gobbled down on the go. 

But it's more commonly eaten as smørrebrød, which literally means "butter and bread". This Danish open-face sandwich is less a dish than a whole way of eating, analogous with sushi in Japan or tapas in Spain. 

The Danish word tandsmør, literally means "tooth butter", which describes how thick to spread the butter: you should be able to see tooth marks if you bite into it.

Popular toppings are leverpostej (liver paté), with fried mushrooms and bacon, herring with lettuce, boiled egg, and pickled onion, roast pork with sweet and sour cabbage, and smoked salmon topped with shrimps, dill and lemon.

According to Hans Kjelstrup, who makes rugbrød every week for the members of the Svanholm community near Frederikssund, when you make smørrebrød you should barely be able to make out the bread underneath. 

"My mum has this story she loves to tell of eating with me and my brother. Suddenly one of us was like, ‘What? there’s ryebread underneath! I think that’s the concept of smørrebrød. It needs to be overloaded." 


Can smørrebrød be a posh dinner? 

It's not just a quick, easy, everyday dinner. At upmarket Copenhagen restaurants such as Aamanns 1921 or Schønnemann, smørrebrød is turned into a kind of art form, and you pay accordingly. 

The lunchtime smørrebrød menu at Aamanns 1921 costs 340 kroner for three slices, while at Schønnemann's, each slice of bread will cost between about 90 and 150 kroner, depending on what is loaded on top of it (they recommend three or four). 

When Danes celebrate at Christmas or Easter, the table is also not complete without a decent ryebread. 

Can it possibly be healthy to eat rugbrød every day? 

"It’s super healthy – especially compared to other bread types!" Danish TV nutritionist Christian Bitz enthused. "Ryebread is packed with wholegrain, vitamins and minerals. The fibres in wholegrain contribute to a good digestion and prolonged satiety compared to white bread.

The vitamins and minerals also contribute to the general health.

And one last thing, we actually do not eat THAT much ryebread, as an open sandwich is only one slice of thin bread, compared to the traditional sandwiches with two thicker slices of bread," Bitz said.


Is all rye bread the same? Where do you get the healthiest stuff?

When state broadcaster DR visited a supermarket in Denmark for a program on rugbrød in 2018, they found that many of the popular commercial brands were highly processed, did not use wholemeal, had a high wheat content, and had sugar and other additives. Eating this sort of rye bread is only a small step up from the fluffy, white loaves beloved of Brits and Americans. 

"You have to go for wholegrain," Bitz said. "In Denmark we’ve got a label system, so it’s a bit easier for the consumer to pick and choose wholegrain products. Wholegrain means that everything from the grain is present.

In contrast, white wheat bread mostly consists of the centre of the grain, which does not really have a significant level of fibre. In addition, you can choose a bread where the grains are as intact as possible, which also leads to a better digestion and prolonged feeling of satiety.

It’s also important to look how much sugar is in the ryebread as some types – mainly from Sweden – are very sweet due to a higher content of sugar," Bitz added.

Rye is low on the glycaemic index, so eating ryebread does not lead to the sort of blood sugar spikes you experience with British toast bread, and is also less likely to contribute to diabetes.


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