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Nordic and Mediterranean countries can make more of healthy cuisine: WHO

A new World Health Organization Europe report looks into the health-promoting properties of the Mediterranean and the Nordic diet, which have won acclaim for helping to prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Nordic and Mediterranean countries can make more of healthy cuisine: WHO
A starter served at an Italian restaurant in Copenhagen. File photo: Anne Bæk/Ritzau Scanpix

The report analyses which country policies and interventions have been inspired by the basic principles of the Mediterranean and Nordic diets, while also examining whether there is evidence of effectiveness in reducing disease.

The traditional Mediterranean diet, originating in the olive-growing areas of southern Europe, is characterized by a high intake of plant-based foods (fruit, vegetables, nuts and cereals) and olive oil; a moderate intake of fish and poultry; and a low intake of dairy products (principally yoghurt and cheese), red meat, processed meats and sweets (for which fresh fruit is often substituted).

Social and cultural factors closely associated with the traditional Mediterranean diet, including shared eating practices, post-meal siestas (afternoon naps) and lengthy meal times, are also thought to contribute to the attributed positive health effects recorded in the Mediterranean region, according to WHO.

The New Nordic diet shares many characteristics with the Mediterranean diet but comprises foods traditionally sourced in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Staple components of the New Nordic diet include berries and fruits, fatty fish (herring, mackerel and salmon), lean fish, legumes, vegetables (cabbage and root vegetables) and whole grain cereals (barley, oats and rye).

That provides the basis for healthier eating patterns after decades in which meat-heavy and low vegetable diets, which were also high in salt and saturated fat, dominated Scandinavian dinner tables.

READ ALSO: No one buys more organic food than the Danes: report

Expanding our understanding of how to promote these healthy dietary patterns is an urgent priority, says João Breda, head of the WHO European Centre for control and prevention of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).

“The latest data continues to indicate that diets in both the Nordic and Mediterranean regions largely do not comply with recommendations. Worryingly, the diets of younger generations increasingly fail to adhere to the Mediterranean diet pattern and several Mediterranean countries are now the countries in Europe with the highest rates of children with obesity,” Breda said in a press statement.

“We would like to underline the importance of better diets for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases as well as obesity. Traditional diets, notably the Nordic and Mediterranean, can have a positive impact on health, environment and well being,” Breda added in a written comment to The Local.

WHO launched its report on Monday at its Regional Office for Europe in Copenhagen, with a one-day symposium jointly organized with the Nordic Council of Ministers. Experts from the Mediterranean and Nordic parts of Europe were present to exchange experience.

The event, which focused on food culture and identity, also involved leading chefs who are often major food influencers and important allies in promoting health diets.

To capitalize on the new awareness and reap the health benefits at population level, countries can collaborate and introduce changes such as nutrition labeling and healthy school lunches, the WHO says on the basis of the report.

Policy makers can also promote work across sectors that will bring opportunities for tourism, agriculture and sustainability, focusing on seasonal, local products.

“Healthier diets have also be found to be better from a climate and environmental perspective, meaning there can be great win-wins in tackling negative dietary patterns,” Mads Frederik Fischer-Møller of the Nordic Council of Ministers' Nordic Food Policy Lab said via WHO's press release.

Only fifteen countries in the WHO European Region currently recommend or implement policies based on the New Nordic and Mediterranean diets emphasizing the health benefits and – in some cases – the cultural significance of these diets, WHO writes in a press release.

Worryingly, the diets in Nordic and Mediterranean countries increasingly fail to adhere to the traditional diet pattern, particularly the younger generations, according to the organization’s report.

“Countries are not using the principles of these diets as much as they could for policy making. As such, we would like to work together with countries and other partners in the development of modern health promotion programs which would be well evaluated and fully inspired by the Mediterranean and Nordic diets,” Breda told The Local.

“Other countries which are not in the Nordic area or the Mediterranean basin could be motivated by these findings and really look for positive elements of their food culture that are healthy and deserve to be promoted,” he added.

READ ALSO: Falling in love with Copenhagen’s food scene: an English speaker's guide

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FOOD & DRINK

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Do you know your biskvi from your bakelse? Your chokladboll from your kanelbulle? Here's a guide guaranteed to get your mouth watering.

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Kanelbulle

The most famous of all Swedish cakes outside Sweden, the classic kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) is the symbol of Sweden abroad, no doubt helped by the fact that Swedish furniture giants IKEA stock frozen buns in their food stores for customers to bake off at home.

Forget American tear-apart cinnamon rolls baked in a pan and slathered with cream cheese frosting: a classic Swedish cinnamon bun is baked individually using a yeasted dough spread with cinnamon sugar and butter. The dough is then rolled up, sliced into strips which are then stretched out and knotted into buns, baked, glazed with sugar syrup and sprinkled with pearl sugar.

Home-made varieties skip the stretching and knotting step, rolling the cinnamon-sprinkled dough into a spiral instead which, although less traditional, tastes just as good.

Kanelbullar in Sweden often include a small amount of Sweden’s favourite spice: cardamom. If you’re a fan of cardamom, try ordering the kanelbulle‘s even more Swedish cousin, the kardemummabulle or cardamom bun, which skips the cinnamon entirely and goes all-out on cardamom instead.

Sweden celebrates cinnamon bun day (kanelbullens dag) on October 4th.

Photo: Lieselotte van der Meijs/imagebank.sweden.se

Chokladboll

A great option if you want a smaller cake for your fika, the chokladboll or ‘chocolate ball’ is a perfect accompaniment to coffee – some recipes even call for mixing cold coffee into the batter.

They aren’t baked and are relatively easy to make, meaning they are a popular choice for parents (or grandparents) wanting to involve children in the cake-making process.

Chokladbollar are a simple mix of sugar, oats, melted butter and cocoa powder, with the optional addition of vanilla or coffee, or occasionally rum extract. They are rolled into balls which are then rolled in desiccated coconut (or occasionally pearl sugar), and placed in the fridge to become more solid.

Some bakeries or cafés also offer dadelbollar or rawbollar/råbollar (date or raw balls), a vegan alternative made from dried dates and nuts blended together with cocoa powder.

Chocolate ball day (chokladbollens dag) falls on May 11th.

Photo: Magnus Carlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Prinsesstårta

The lime-green prinsesstårta or ‘princess cake’ may look like a modern invention with it’s brightly-coloured marzipan covering, but it has been around since the beginning of the 1900s, and is named after three Swedish princesses, Margareta, Märta and Astrid, who were supposedly especially fond of the cake.

The cake consists of a sponge bottom spread with jam, crème pâtissière and a dome of whipped cream, covered in green marzipan and some sort of decoration, often a marzipan rose.

Prinsesstårtor can also be served in individual portions, small slices of a log which are then referred to as a prinsessbakelse.

Although the cakes are popular all year round, in the Swedish region of Småland, prinsesstårta is eaten on the first Thursday in March, due to this being the unofficial national day of the Småland region (as the phrase första torsdagen i mars is pronounced fössta tossdan i mass in the Småland dialect).

Since 2004, the Association of Swedish Bakers and Confectioners has designated the last week of September as prinsesstårtans vecka (Princess cake day).

Photo: Sinikka Halme, Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.

Budapestbakelse

Belonging to the more traditional cakes, a Budapestbakelse or “Budapest slice” is a type of rulltårta or “roll cake” similar to a Swiss roll, consisting of a light and crispy cake made from whipped egg whites, sugar and hazelnut, filled with whipped cream and fruit, often chopped conserved peaches, nectarines or mandarines, and rolled into a log.

The log is then sliced into individual portions and drizzled with chocolate, then often topped with whipped cream and a slice of fruit. 

Despite its name, the Budapest slice has nothing to do with the city of Budapest – it was supposedly invented by baker Ingvar Strid in 1926 and received the name due to Strid’s love for the Hungarian capital.

Of course, the Budapestbakelse also has its own day – May 1st.

Kanelbullar (left), chokladbollar (centre) and biskvier (right). Photo: Tuukka Ervasti/imagebank.sweden.se

Biskvi

Another smaller cake, a biskvi (pronounced like the French biscuit), consists of an almond biscuit base, covered in buttercream (usually chocolate flavoured), and dark chocolate.

Different variants of biskvier exist, such as a Sarah Bernhardt, named after the French actress of the same name, which has chocolate truffle instead of buttercream.

You might also spot biskvier with white chocolate, often with a hallon (raspberry) or citron (lemon) filling, or even saffransbiskvier around Christmastime.

Chokladbiskviens dag is celebrated on November 11th.

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