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 By that point, fish, milk, and potatoes had been replaced by vegetables, cereal, and pasta in the diet of most Icelanders.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.

Untapped Potential in Vegetable Farming in Iceland

Iceland’s government aims to increase the country’s vegetable production by 25%, but MP Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson says it could easily be boosted by 400%. Icelandic farmers could grow up to 60% of the vegetables Icelanders consume, according to the Chairman of the Farmers Association of Iceland. The opportunities lie both in greenhouse agriculture and outdoors, and could contribute toward both climate goals and economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Funding for the Four-Legged

In a radio interview this morning, Ágúst, an MP for the Social Democratic Alliance, pointed out that the majority of the Icelandic government’s farming subsidies go toward sheep and cattle farming. “[Government] agricultural contracts are based on the four-legged and not the green,” he stated. “Only about 5% goes to horticultural products. Twelve billion [ISK, ($88.7 million/€74.9 million)] go toward sheep farming and cattle farming, so state support for horticultural farmers is far too small.”

Ólafur believes lowering electricity prices for greenhouse farmers and subsidising their transportation costs would support growth in the industry. He added that increasing vegetable production could be a well-formulated government employment policy, rather than just a side project.

Greenhouse Growth

Gunnar Þorgeirsson, Chairman of the Farmers Association of Iceland, says Iceland’s horticultural farmers are ambitious and there is growth in the industry. “I think this is the first time that more than 10,000 square metres [of greenhouse space] have been built in a single summer […] greenhouses are springing up like mushrooms,” Gunnar stated. He credits the government contract with horticultural farmers, renewed last spring until 2026, for the industry’s expansion, though he agrees with Ólafur that subsidised electricity costs would go a long way toward supporting horticultural farmers.

Locally produced vegetables also have a lower carbon footprint than the same products imported from abroad, according to a 2015 study. Gunnar says Icelanders are increasingly seeking out local food and therein lies an opportunity.

Outdoor Opportunities

Gunnar insists, however, that the biggest opportunity in the industry lies outside the glass walls. “First and foremost, we need to strengthen outdoor vegetable cultivation. There we can also be looking at why we can’t be producing onions in Iceland, because that’s quite possible. We just need to find someone who’s up for the project.” Radishes are another vegetable that Gunnar says Icelanders could be growing. “We are importing them like there’s no tomorrow and they grow here almost like a weed. There is an incredible number of species that we can definitely cultivate here in Iceland and we just need to support that and steer men and women in the right direction.”

Year’s First Outdoor-Grown Vegetables Harvested

The year’s first crop of outdoor-cultivated vegetables to has been harvested and will be appearing on local grocery store shelves in abundance by the end of the month, RÚV reports. Major summer crops include cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower.

Outdoor-grown produce in Iceland is naturally subject to the whims of the country’s famously unpredictable weather. Given the local climate and the profusion of geothermal heat, greenhouses are favoured for much of the country’s locally grown produce. There are currently between twenty and thirty farmers who grow potatoes outdoors; roughly the same number cultivate vegetables outside. As a rule, the first summer harvest is in mid-July.

“Cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli, then potatoes—they usually come in the middle of July,” explains Helgi Jóhannesson, a consultant for the Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre. “Then carrots and beets come later. They take longer to grow, so usually, at the beginning of August.”

Imported vegetables still account for the majority of produce on Icelandic shelves, but summertime, particularly after Merchant’s Weekend at the beginning of August, sees a dramatic increase in the availability of locally grown vegetables.

“It’s obviously clear that it’s much better than importing vegetables and people are excited about it—I always find it a rather festive occasion when [Icelandic-grown produce] has finally arrived again,” continues Helgi, who says that this year’s first summer harvest bodes well for the rest of the outdoor growing season.