Sweden offers insights into health and wellness-focused consumer foodservice

One of the world’s most well-developed markets for health and wellness products, with a well-informed population in regards to environmental and health issues, Sweden offers a wealth of insights for foodservice operators looking to navigate a shifting health and wellness landscape.

Some of the most important health and wellness trends in Swedish foodservice are simply the same trends seen worldwide, often at a more advanced stage.

Yet others, such as the ongoing conversation rethinking many of the health effects of saturated fat, represent something genuinely new, with many of the trends currently reaching a boil in the Swedish market likely to manifest themselves in one form or another in other developed markets over the next five years.

Local, organic products prosper, whilst a new school of nutrition emerges

Health and wellness-oriented products are highly popular in Sweden, which is currently the world’s number nine market for total per-capita spending on health and wellness products, with Swedes spending on average close to SEK4,000 (US$600) per person annually.

For certain product categories, relative spending is even higher, with Swedish consumers spending around SEK400 (US$60) per capita last year on organics, the third-highest total in the world.

The strong popularity of organic items has gone hand-in-hand with a move towards smaller, more local producers, particularly through foodservice—much as we have seen elsewhere, Swedish fine dining restaurants have largely embraced organic products through a simultaneous embrace of local products, with organic meat, cheese, and vegetables often sourced from small, independent local producers, often employing artisanal methods.

While the trends described above can be seen in any number of developed markets, in some respects Sweden has carved out its own path, most notably in the growing popularity of the low-carbohydrate/high-fat (LCHF) diet popularised by physician and blogger Annika Dahlqvist.

While the LCHF diet recalls the Atkins diet in its promotion of carbohydrate restriction, it is much more explicit in the promotion of fats, particularly saturated fats, as part of a healthy diet, in marked contrast to the prevailing low-fat recommendations made by many national health authorities, Sweden’s included, though in 2009 the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare approved the use of the LCHF diet for people with type-2 diabetes.

While low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets continue to be promoted in other markets, they have yet to make a major impact on consumer purchasing habits following the collapse of the Atkins boom—in Sweden, by contrast, the LCHF movement appears to be gaining critical mass, boosting sales of items like butter, cheese, and full-fat dairy.

Foodservice operators seek a middle path

Despite often-negative publicity regarding unhealthy food within fast food and street stalls/kiosks, sales through these outlets continued to grow in Sweden in 2009. Unquestionably the recession has played a role, with the search for value superseding health concerns among many consumers, yet it must be said that a number of fast food chains have been quite proactive in offering healthy-positioned menu items in recent years.

Burger King, for instance, offers its low-fat King DeLight range, while domestic chain Max launched a range called Max Delifresh. This range includes low-carbohydrate burgers, a GI burger and several healthy alternatives to French fries. McDonald’s Happy Meals now include carrots or apple and organic milk instead of carbonates.

The company has also introduced full meal salads, such as quinoa salad and Caesar salad. Among fine dining restaurants, collaborations with small producers of premium vegetables and meat are increasingly common, combining the attractions of organic food products with a perception of artisanal quality.

The organic trend is also very strong within specialist coffee shops. All leading specialist coffee chains, such as Espresso House, Wayne’s Coffee and Barista Fair Trade, only serve organic and fair trade coffee.

Reflecting a trend seen elsewhere, the foodservice operators who have proven most successful at selling a message of health and wellness have been those able to combine it with a larger emphasis on quality and sustainability—thus, while consumers may appreciate the use of local organic produce in fine dining restaurants, they are likely responding just as much to the image of high quality many local, artisanal producers trade on.

Likewise, while burger fast food chain Max has continued to expand its Delifresh line of healthy-positioned products, it has invested in a major sustainability push, making carbon offsets to its entire supply chain, a move which has resonated with Swedish consumers, for whom global warming remains a key issue.

What lies ahead

In terms of what’s ahead for health and wellness- and sustainability-minded foodservice operators in Sweden, official certification seems to be gaining steam– the environmentally friendly logo Svanen has started to be used also on restaurants.

To obtain a Svanen logo the restaurant must take actions to become environmentally friendly in all of its activities, from use of dishwashing products, energy and using as much organic product as possible in food preparation.

Likewise, the number of restaurants seeking certification from KRAV, Sweden’s leading organic certification organisation continues to expand as consumer awareness of the KRAV label grows.

Given the high degree of awareness among Swedish consumers regarding health and sustainability issues and the well-developed market for health and wellness products that goes along with that, there is real value in using the Swedish market as a guide to the potential future evolution of health and wellness trends on the global level—obviously every market is different, but there are enough similarities between Sweden and other developed markets to make this kind of scenario-mapping worthwhile.

The emergence of the LCHF diet in Sweden, for instance, suggests a number of plausible scenarios regarding the potential evolution of consumer views of a healthy diet—while sugar has almost unanimously been viewed as unhealthy for some time, there has also long been a school of thought suggesting consumption of all carbohydrates should be reduced, a viewpoint which gained global prominence during the Atkins fad yet which has remained present in some quarters ever since.

Similarly, a number of recent studies and meta-analyses have questioned the link between saturated fat and heart disease, challenging one of the key planks of many national health authorities’ recommendations on healthy eating.

While foodservice operators should not take this to mean that bunless hamburgers slathered in butter are set to become hot sellers any time soon, the Swedish experience does suggest that consumers’ views of what is and isn’t healthy remain highly fluid, and continue to evolve.

Serving the health-focused consumer is emphatically not a matter of chasing each and every new trend, nor is it a matter of finding one killer ingredient to add or remove; instead, it is a matter of understanding that consumer views on health are often inextricably bound to a larger idea of sustainability and quality.

For a health-focused presentation to be truly compelling it must be part of an overall positioning of responsibility, in terms of product quality and environmental sustainability as well as a focus on health and wellness.