The Rise of Nordic Cuisine: Where It Comes From and Where It’s Heading

By Suzy Badaracco, Foodable Industry Expert

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Food, flavor, and health trends are oftentimes born outside the food industry. So, by only looking at restaurants, food magazines, casual dining, and manufacturers’ movements, you can easily miss a trend’s birth or miscalculate its impact or time of death. There are several different birth paths and parents that can cause a trend to emerge. One of many birth types is called a Courier, which acts to shuttle a trend in from a neighboring industry or focus. Travel often acts as a Courier to the food industry. Simply put, consumers travel, experience the local cuisine, and return home seeking to replicate their food experiences. The Nordic cuisine trend’s parent is Travel, resulting from a Courier birth.

Arctic travel began in 2011 and continues in 2016 representing courage, adventure, excitement, isolation (signaling confidence), exploration, and shows consumers are making a turn away from crisis and toward recovery. Denmark, Norway, and Scandinavia are acting as poster children for travel and are also the leading ladies representing Nordic foods entering this country. More isolated countries such as Iceland, Finland, Antarctica, Nepal, Siberia, and Greenland are also top destinations under the Arctic umbrella due to their exotic nature. Their appearance signals exploration and movement away from the familiar — a strong sign of an economic recovery. Arctic travel is paralleling the swing back to more adventurous eating experiences and signals a return to individualism, risk taking, and leaving the pack. It is a move away from fear. This change is translated into food and flavors as more experimental and adventurous foods. 

From Travel to Food

After birthing in travel, Arctic food made a splash in media with the opening of the restaurant Acme in New York City, which came from Noma fame. It then moved to the bar and cocktail scene with the launch of Bacardi’s Arctic berry rum. It moved next to the family-casual scene with the national launch of Arctic bowls by Joe’s Crab Shack. Where it is strongest, however, is in the bakery category with the upper Midwest being home base. Why? Because that is where the United State’s largest “Arctic” population calls home — Norwegian, Scandinavian, etc.

Meeting in Copenhagen in 2005, the Nordic Council's agricultural and food ministers from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and dependent territories launched the "new Nordic Food Programme.” They wanted to emphasize "purity, simplicity, and freshness" and increase use of seasonal foods. New Nordic cuisines explore the region’s fish, game, and produce from the Arctic tundra to the Norwegian fjords, and utilize more contemporary approaches to cooking. Restaurants were encouraged to develop traditional dishes using ingredients from the local region’s climate, water, and soil. The diet is rich in foods including apples berries, roots, cabbages, rye, oats, barley, grainy bread, low-fat milk products, rapeseed oil, nuts, fish, and wild game,

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The Nordic Diet

The Nordic diet is being compared to the Mediterranean diet due to its health benefits. Compared with an average Western diet, it contains less sugar, less fat, twice the fiber, and twice the fish and seafood, according to sources like Authority Nutrition. Some berries have been found to contain high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, and diets rich in oily fish can lower cholesterol levels. There is also evidence that cold-pressed rapeseed oil is as healthy as virgin olive oil.

The Nordic diet emphasizes locally grown and sustainable food sources, with a heavy focus on foods considered healthy according to “mainstream” nutrition science. Pulled from Authority Nutrition:

  • Eat often: Fruits, berries, vegetables, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, rye breads, fish, seafood, low-fat dairy, herbs, spices and rapeseed (canola) oil
  • Eat in moderation: Game meats, free-range eggs, cheese and yogurt
  • Eat rarely: Other red meats and animal fats
  • Don’t eat: Sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meats, food additives and refined fast foods

According to the University of Eastern Finland, a healthy Nordic diet had beneficial health effects close to those of Mediterranean diets. A healthy Nordic diet reduced abdominal inflammation.

The Nordic diet was also associated with better physical performance and a decrease in disability risk later in life, according to the National Institute for Health and Welfare, Finland. At the average age of 71 years, participants’ physical performance was measured using the Senior Fitness Test. Women with the highest score had 17 percent better result in the 6-minute walk test, 16 percent better arm curl, and 20 percent better chair stand results compared with those with the lowest score. 

Grains often act as a great interpreter allowing consumers to enter a new flavor trend seamlessly. Some of the poster children for Nordic cuisine can be found in the bakery segment. Scandinavian pastries including the classic Kringle are not to be missed. Grain is also a key element of the øllebrød, a traditional Danish dish of rye bread stewed with beer that has a pudding-like texture. Another standout would be the yogurt called Skyr, which is a new competitor to Greek yogurt.

As long as the Nordic diet has sustained ties to clinical health research and travel, expect more regional specialties to surface and delight.