Welcome Back Fat: The Booming Low-Carb Trend in Scandinavia

At the end of 2011, the low-carbohydrate high-fat (LCHF) diet suddenly became the hottest food topic in Scandinavia, surprising even industry players and experts. The latest manifestation of this trend has been the extensive media coverage devoted to a general shortage of butter in the build-up to Christmas, particularly in Norway. Beyond the somewhat amusing headlines, however, the LCHF phenomenon is currently shaping parts of the Scandinavian food industry in unexpected ways.

Butter shortage dominates Norwegian headlines in late 2011

Nobody reading Norwegian or other Scandinavian newspapers towards the end of 2011 could avoid a partly absurd, yet partly serious, news story – The country which tops the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, Norway, was seriously in danger of running out of such a basic commodity as butter.

The local press was full of articles talking about empty shelves, people selling butter online and butter smugglers being caught at the border. The trade press also reported on grocery retailers located on the Swedish side of the Norwegian-Swedish border seeing their sales of butter skyrocket just before Christmas, the peak baking season.

Earlier in 2011, a butter shortage had already been reported in Sweden and Finland but the situation in Norway was perhaps more extreme. A quick solution could not be found by way of importing more butter as Norway, being outside the EU, can – for better or for worse – protect its agricultural produce better than its Scandinavian neighbours. In this instance, increasing butter imports proved challenging as a result of what critics claim is a protectionist trade policy.

Consumers prefer more fat as part of a natural diet

That a rich country like Norway cannot provide its citizens with enough butter is merely a novel footnote. More importantly, what the Norwegian case signifies is a rather interesting, and quite sudden, reversal in Scandinavian eating habits.

For a couple of years now, there have been signs, particularly in Sweden and Finland, that instead of opting for low-calorie foods, more and more consumers are turning to foods that are locally sourced and presumed to be ‘natural’, essentially avoiding anything they think a food item should not contain.

For example, in Finland, the consumption of butter continually declined over a period of decades from its peak in the 1960s but then started to increase again a couple of years ago. Even with the sudden drastic increase, however, what cannot be forgotten is that per capita consumption remains just a fifth or sixth of what it was two generations ago.

That butter became so popular at the end of 2011 was also due in part to factors such as press and media coverage. In Sweden, for example, the celebrity chef Leila Lindholm has been credited by many with helping support greater consumption of butter at the expense of margarine and vegetable-based spreadable oils and fats, many of which have a low-calorie positioning.

In dairy, the increased consumer interest in fuller-fat food options has also become apparent in cheese, yoghurt and drinking milk. After a couple of years of bubbling under the surface, the trend suddenly exploded in the second part of 2011, exceeding any preliminary 2011 growth forecasts.

In turn, this helped to depress local production of butter across much of Scandinavia as supplies of cream became increasingly stretched in the face of generally falling production levels. According to the Swedish Dairy Association, there has been a 15% drop in milk production in Sweden over the past 20 years.

LCHF debate boils over in Finland

The Finnish word for a low-carb diet, karppaus, became such a household term in 2011 that the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland decided to include it in its forthcoming 2012 edition of Kielitoimiston sanakirja, the Dictionary of Modern Finnish.

Other features of the current trend include the January 2012 launch of a special low-carb magazine in Finland, LCHF topping Google’s list of the fastest growing food searches in Sweden and a heated debate in Finland.

On one side of the debate, the authorities continue to promote a traditionally defined ‘healthy diet’. On the other side, low-carb fanatics are even accusing supporters of a diet traditionally regarded as healthy as being part of a nutritional conspiracy. According to the local press, some traditional experts no longer even want to take part in the debate using their own names.

All that said, while LCHF has become a household term in Finland, according to a 2011 survey, only 6% of Finns follow such a diet. As such, while extremely vocal, advocates of the diet are very much in the minority.

Low-carb alternatives enter baked goods and ready meals

The ability of such a vocal minority to have a significant impact on the Finnish food industry, however, became more and more apparent as 2011 progressed. There are reports, for example, that bread sales have been suffering as a significant proportion of the population reduces its consumption.

To counteract this downward trend, the bakery Perheleipurit launched its low-carb bread Karppinen – a Finnish name but also linked to the term karppaus – in mid-June 2011. Sales had reportedly exceeded one million units by the end of October 2011, making the product a rather unique success. Today, the Karppinen product family consists of four different variants while the larger rival bakery Vaasan has launched Vaasan Minihiilari (mini carbohydrate) bread in an effort to better compete.

Low-carb alternatives are also being launched in ready meals in Finland, of which overall per capita consumption in Finland is already very high. Snellmanin Kokkikartano launched low-carb ready meals in 2011 while the leading companies Saarioinen and HK Ruokatalo are planning to do the same in early 2012. At the same time, sales of eggs are reportedly also increasing while meat consumption in Finland reached an all-time high in 2011. This is quite a remarkable achievement in a country with an increasing number of vegetarians.

Experts disagree on the long-term impact

How long the LCHF diet will remain in the spotlight across Scandinavia is debatable. Some experts view LCHF as a passing trend, and emphasise the potentially harmful impact of consuming too much fat. On the other hand, a leading local industry player has expressed the opinion that the trend is now at its peak but it might have a longer-term impact after the initial hype fades, particularly among men.

While food trends (not least the Atkins high-protein diet so popular in the US a decade ago) come and go, what remains clear from Euromonitor International research is that the winners will be those companies which actively listen to consumers and adapt their product portfolios the quickest to changing dietary trends and preferences. A good example of this is the innovative launch of low-carb bread from Perheleipurit. 2012 is sure to see more packaged food companies jumping onto the LCHF bandwagon across Scandinavia.