Widespread Iodine Deficiency as Diets Change with Times

Fish Shop Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir

Icelanders have stopped consuming the large quantities of fish and milk that they used to, leading to widespread iodine deficiencies. RÚV reports that the situation has nutritionists concerned, as iodine deficiencies in pregnant people can lead to developmental delays in children.

Both fish and dairy are integral sources of iodine for people in industrialized countries. Nutritionists stress the importance of iodine intake during pregnancy, as children who do not receive enough iodine during this time tend to score low on developmental scales. In some countries, iodine-fortified salt is used in the production of baked goods as a way of introducing iodine into a wider diet when fish and milk consumption is low. This is an option that is currently under consideration in Iceland, but could create its own problems. If iodine was introduced into baked goods and breads, for instance, young children would be at risk of ingesting too much.

A brief history of the modern Icelandic diet

The typical Icelandic diet was first examined in 1939, when Professor Júlíus Sigurjónsson concluded that where people lived naturally had a significant effect on what they consumed. At the time, Júlíus found that Icelanders who lived close to the sea tended to eat a great deal of fish, while those who lived inland tended to drink large quantities of milk.

No further studies on the Icelandic diet were conducted until just over half a century later, in 1990. By that point, Icelanders’ lifestyle had undergone incredible change and their diets attested to that. Nearly all of the energy Icelanders consumed in the 90s came from protein and fat, with the average Icelander consuming roughly half a kilo [2.2 lbs] of dairy and four slices of bread a day. Water was only the fourth most-consumed beverage in the country, after coffee (an average of four cups a day), milk, and sugary soft drinks. Cholesterol was high and coronary artery disease was common. But at the same time, Icelanders ate the most fish of any nation in Europe, proportionally speaking.

2002 – 2010

A study in 2002 revealed more dramatic dietary shifts. By that point, fish, milk, and potatoes had been replaced by vegetables, cereal, and pasta in the diet of most Icelanders. The nation had also developed a taste for pork and chicken, neither of which had been consumed in great quantity in the past. Young boys no longer drank half a litre soda every day, but a full litre.

By 2010, however, it seemed Icelandic dietary habits were moving in the right direction. People were eating more fruit, vegetables, unprocessed bread and fish oil. Protein drinks became a major source of protein. Sugary soda consumption went down, although consumption of sugar-free soda remained high. Milk consumption went down.

2019 – 2021

The most recent survey, conducted over the years 2019 – 2021, found that fruit consumption is down among Icelanders, while consumption of saturated fat is on the rise. The Directorate of Health advises that people should only get a maximum of 10% of their energy from saturated fat, but according to this study, only 2% of Icelanders abide by that advice. Wholegrain bread has only recently become widely available in the country. Nutritionists say that Icelanders now have the opportunity to increase their consumption of not only whole grains, but also beans, nuts, and seeds. Low fibre intake is a broad cause for concern.

“If we look at what is causing most premature deaths around the world, a lack of fibre is one of the things that makes the biggest difference,” remarked Jóhanna Eyrún Torfadóttir, a nutritionist with the Directorate of Health. “Lack of fibre is causing premature death.” If the pattern of high consumption of saturated fat, low consumption of fibre continues, says Jóhanna Eyrún, there will be an increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: “[O]ur biggest, long-term illnesses that are causing the most deaths.”

Icelandic diets are more diverse than ever

Today, Icelandic diets are far more diverse than they were in the past. More Icelanders are vegans and vegetarians, and more people are on low-carb and other special diets. This has made it difficult for the Directorate of Health to issue broad nutritional advisories like it once did.

In general, however, the Directorate has simple advice: Each a varied diet of moderate portions. People are advised to eat lots of vegetables and fruits, more whole than processed grains, fish two to three times a week, and meat in moderation. Low-fat dairy products and soft fats are preferable over saturated fats. Salt and sugar should be consumed in moderation and vitamin D is important.

Beef Production in Iceland Reaches All-Time High

Eyjafjöll - Undir Eyjafjöllum Kýr á beit

Icelandic farmers produced nearly five tonnes of beef last year, an all-time record for the country. The most-produced meat was lamb, at 9,388 tonnes, with poultry a close second, at 9,294 tonnes. The data on meat production for the year 2021 was recently published by Statistics Iceland.

Beef production in March of this year was 4% higher than in March 2021. However, pork production was 8% lower than a year ago and poultry 3% lower. Incubation of broilers (chicken raised for meat production) was 10% lower in March 2022 than in March 2021.

Lamb production has been steadily decreasing since 2017, when 10,619 tonnes were produced in Iceland. Poultry production, on the other hand, grew by 200 tonnes between 2020 and 2021. Pork production has fluctuated, though overall increased, over the past decade, with local farmers producing 6,580 tonnes of pork last year.

Horse meat production has been slowly declining since 2012, with 831 tonnes produced last year.

City Council Considers Cutting Meat from School Cafeterias

Reykjavík Housekeeping School Kitchen

Reykjavík City Council is considering reducing or eliminating meat in the city’s school and municipal cafeterias, RÚV reports. City Councillor Lif Magneudóttir says the move would be in line with the city’s goals to reduce its environmental impact. An open letter from the Icelandic Vegan Society calling for the elimination of animal products on school menus has city councillors, parents, and farmers debating what’s best for the environment – and children’s health.

Vegans call for change

The Icelandic Vegan Society published an open letter last week addressed to Iceland’s Minister for the Environment, as well as the government and local councils across the country calling for eliminating or significantly reducing animal-based products on school menus in light of their impact on the environment. “Agriculture accounts for 13% of Iceland’s emissions,” the letter reads. “About 50% of these agricultural emissions are methane emissions due to animal farming, and methane gas is a greenhouse gas 25 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.”

Council considers

City Councillor Lif Magneudóttir says the council is considering significantly reducing animal-based products in Reykjavík’s primary school cafeterias. Lif, who represents the Left Green Movement, also sits on the City’s School and Leisure Committee, says the move is in line with the city’s climate action plan. “I think it makes sense and I think it’s clear to everyone that we plan to take some action,” Lif stated. “We adopted a food policy last term that we are implementing now and we are going to review the climate action plan and this fits in with that very well.”

Lif says primary schools cafeteria menus were updated a few years ago, and their staples are currently vegetables, fruit, and milk, offering fish twice weekly and meat once or twice per week. “It’s very unanimous in this majority to look at these issues comprehensively and secure the resources needed to truly implement what we have agreed upon and is good for people and the environment.”

Opposition councillor Eyþór Arnalds of the Independence Party does not agree with Lif. In a Facebook post about the matter, he stressed the importance of eating local food and saying “fish and meat in Iceland is in a class of its own. No, if left-wing members of the city council want to lessen their carbon footprint, it would be appropriate for them the start with themselves. But let our children have good and varied food.”

Vegetables and variety

Hólmfríður Þorgeirsdóttir, a nutritional specialist at the Directorate of Health, also emphasised the importance of a varied diet when asked about the menu changes. “It’s quite possible to put together a menu without meat and then increase milk, eggs, and fish. But the more foods are excluded the more difficult this becomes,” she stated. “Increasing plant-based products is positive, both in terms of health and environmental issues and in accordance with the directorate’s recommendations.”

Eleven Tonnes of Mushrooms Per Week Not Enough for Icelanders

Iceland’s sole mushroom farmer produces 11 tonnes of mushrooms per week, but this is still not enough to meet domestic demand for the tasty fungi. Vísir reports that the popularity of keto and vegan diets among Icelanders has led to dramatic increase in the consumption of locally grown mushrooms.

Flúðasveppir (‘Flúðir Mushrooms,’ named for the region in South Iceland in which they are located) is an established company that grows three varieties of mushroom: white, brown chestnut, and portobello. It employs 30 inviduals.

“Yes, there’s a health wave,” remarked owner Georg Ottósson. “We’re well-suited for vegan [diets] and keto as well, such that we’re in fashion right now. It’s fun to be in fashion, because it creates a foundation on which to produce good products that sell well.”

Georg says that there are plans to expand the facilities in Flúðir so that the company will be able to produce enough mushrooms to meet domestic demand.

Keto Diet Embraced by Icelanders

Sviðasulta, a form of jellied sheep's head

The ketogenic diet has been embraced by Icelanders in recent months. The diet aims to reduce carbohydrate consumption in order to get the body to burn fat and proteins rather than carbs. More and more restaurants have started to offer keto-options, and sales of keto related goods are up across the board, RÚV reports.

Import of cauliflower, which is popular among keto followers, has increased by 40% since the turn of the year, according to wholesale firm Bananar ehf. Sales of Ketostix, a strip which measures the amount of ketone in urine, increased by 300% in 2018. Sviðasulta, a form of jellied sheep’s head, sales have increased by 30%, according to the meat producer SS.

The Facebook group Keto Iceland has close to 10,000 members. “There were only a couple of us doing this at first, along with a few Snapchatters, as well as existing groups such as Atkins, but this completely blown up in terms of popularity,” said Viðar Freyr Guðmundsson, one of the group’s founders.

Guðrún Hjördís Baldursdóttir, owner of Skjaldbakan pizzeria in Grandi Mathöll, has witnessed a tremendous increased in pizzas with keto dough. “The reception has been so good that we can hardly keep up with the demand. We’ve just come from a keto shift producing more dough, as we want people to be able to order what they want. We’re basically setting new sales records each passing day,” Guðrún commented.

The IKEA cafeteria in Garðabær also offers keto options. Þórarinn Ævarsson, the former CEO of Ikea in Iceland, expects more and more restaurants to start offering keto options. “I believe the trend will be like with the vegan options, as I think that no restaurant today can live with bypassing vegan options. The same is true for the keto options, and I think that all who wish to attain real success have to offer this,” he commented.

Followers of the ketogenic diet try to limit carbohydrate consumption, instead focusing on foods with a higher fat amount. Oftentimes, the goal is to lose weight as well as attaining a healthier lifestyle. People typically increase meat consumption along with vegetable consumption.