The traditional diet in Southern Europe is rich in fruit and vegetables, olives, fish and lamb. It has been linked to a host of health benefits, including heart health, cognitive health and weight management. Dubbed the Mediterranean diet, it has been exported internationally – both as actual food products and in awareness of their benefits.
Ingredients local to Nordic countries, such as cabbage, fish, wild native berries, oats and rye, also incredibly healthy but they do not form the basis of the everyday diet.
Rather, modern eating habits are heavily based around French, Italian and US influences, Claus Meyertold FoodNavigator.com.
Meyer, who is co-owner of renowned Danish restaurant Noma, and his colleagues at LIFE Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, are looking to turn this around. As part of a five-year research project led by Prof Arne Astrup they are developing a food concept called the New Nordic Diet, which is built around local ingredients and culture.
The project has received funding of DKK100m (c €13.3m) from the Nordea Foundation. It is expected to contribute to research on solutions to the obesity epidemic, life-style related diseases, and learning difficulties in children.
The diet has its roots in the New Nordic Cuisine movement and Noma, which combine a pleasurable eating experience with regional eating principles. These inspired the New Nordic Manifesto, which is intended as a guide on regional choices and priorities.
The approach has attracted the interest of nutritionists, who saw an opportunity to re-frame the hedonistic basis of the cuisine around health benefits and make it accessible to everyone - not just restaurant diners.
The New Nordic Diet part of the research programme will take a year and a half, and in June experts from the nutrition, gastronomy, consumer, sociology and economics spheres with gather to decide on the cornerstones of the New Nordic Diet.
Meyer said that cabbage is almost certain to be included, as are wild native berries and fish. Oats, rye and barley could be promoted in place of rice and pasta. “Especially when grown in a cold climate, they have interesting secondary compounds," said Meyer.
The diet will be used in an intervention study in schools and will involve some 1600 children. But rather than just publishing the results in a scientific journal, the aim is to encourage adoption in the community at large.
The idea is to “invite all levels of society to fall in love with this project, to share ideas and distribute ownership. If we do this correctly, we have a tremendous chance to re-define what people eat," said Meyer.
To this end, the research team is inviting the top 100 chefs to contribute their recipe ideas – and will work with 1000 families to test them out in the home environment and to receive their feedback.
The new Med diet
The cuisine movement has led nutritionists to ask “whether the New Nordic Cuisine should be to the 21st century what the Mediterranean diet was to the 20th,” according to Meyer.
But it is not necessarily to make Nordic eating an international trend, on a par with the Mediterranean diet.
On the one hand, Meyer is not anti-trade. If the benefits of a certain Italian olive oil are established, “let’s have some of that in Denmark”. Likewise, he is not against exporting the health benefits of Nordic ingredients to Italy.
But on the other, he believes that foods native to every region in the world carry health potential – be it in Nigeria, Thailand, Eastern Europe or anywhere.
There is potential to look at local diets from a health and cultural point of view, working towards “a post-modern era with well-defined regional cuisines to challenge the McDonalds and Burger Kings”.