The first post in my “Life in Denmark” series (which can be read here) focused on the freshness, seasonality, and availability of organic food in Copenhagen. This second post is also related to food. I know, more food! We’ll talk about packaged foods in Denmark, shelf space dedicated to packaged foods, and a bit about food prices. Then I’ll give you a peak inside the food section of a Copenhagen convenience store. We’ll wrap up by talking about sugar and how much LESS sugar there is in everything in Denmark than in the U.S.
What are the Danish packaged foods like?
When I look at what Denmark offers in terms of packaged, non-refrigerated items on supermarket shelves (meaning NOT fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy) I find the packaged shelf items to be quite healthy! It feels similar to walking through the health food section of a U.S. grocery store, except it’s even better. And by “better”, I’m not suggesting that there are more food options. There are less options, in fact. By “better”, I mean that the options are healthier and contain real ingredients, and often less ingredients.
When walking through the cereal section in a Danish food store, you’ll find cereals made with nuts, seeds and oats. Cereals aren’t loaded up with sugar, corn syrup, additives, and colors. You can find a box or two of their versions of sugary cereals, but the selection is nothing like what you’d find in the U.S. And if you look closely in the picture, the sugary cereals are American! (Nesquick, Cocopops, Frosties)
Half of the cereal aisle is cereal and half is muesli. Here’s a close up of the muesli, which is mostly oats, nuts, and dried fruits.
The Danes have something called “knækbrød”, which is a crispbread made from rye with other additions such as spelt, pumpkin seeds, and chia seeds, to name a few. This is the aisle dedicated to the knækbrød.
Knækbrød is sort of like a big cracker and can be topped with things like homemade jam or butter. Here’s a close up. I remember the day I took this picture. The person stocking the shelves was looking at me like, “Why is this girl so oddly fascinated by the knækbrød and more importantly, why is she taking pictures of it?” I took the pictures because I thought it was great they they have healthy crackers and there’s nothing resembling a Ritz or Cheese-It on the shelf. This needs to be seen! Maybe if Americans stopped buying crackers with artificial ingredients, preservatives, and colors, we’d start seeing even more quality products taking up space on our shelves in the U.S. It’s an interesting thought and one worth thinking about, in my opinion.
Danes also offer what Americans would classify as a traditional cracker. These crackers sit in the chips section and you’ll see that later in this post. But here’s a close-up of the crackers, which are made in Italy. These are offered in several flavors that distinguish one kind of cracker from another, using real ingredients like sesame seeds, basil, rosemary, parsley, olives, olive oil, and real cheese!
I found the Danish shelf items to be overwhelmingly healthier than what you’d find on the shelves of a U.S. supermarket shelf. BY FAR. It’s a frightening and embarrassing comparison, if I am to be completely honest.
How much shelf space is taken up by packaged goods?
What was particularly striking to me was how little space the items we classify as non-refrigerated “packaged” food are taking up on Danish shelves. Very little! I’m using cookies, chips, crackers, and soda for my comparison.
Let me start off my saying that Danish food stores are not gargantuan like Walmart. They’re more like the size of a medium-sized Whole Foods or a Trader Joes. Here’s the cookie aisle at our local supermarket in Copenhagen. It’s more like a cookie “section” rather than an “aisle”. This is an very small cookie section, relative to the size of the store.
I don’t drink soda, but let’s talk about it for a minute. This is it for the Danish beverage aisle. I outlined the flavored waters likes Pellegrino and flavored fizzy water in pink. The blue outline indicates soda. The white outline indicates water. Compare this to the soda “aisle” in the U.S. that spans most stores from front to back with soda bottles and cans by the case.Lets move on to chips. Chips can take up an entire aisle in American supermarkets. As we know, the aisles are big and the bags are massive. The chips section is not big in Denmark and they have less variety. But so what? Do Americans really need a selection of chips flavors ranging from mac and cheese, biscuits and gravy, barbeque, honey barbeque, sour cream, sour cream and onion, cheddar and sour cream, salt and vinegar, dill pickle, jalapeno, ranch, wasabi ginger, sea salt, sea salt and cracked pepper? Do the chip bags really need to be the size of a child’s backpack?
All of the nuts and chips (plus the Italian crackers) are in the same section. This is it. You are looking at the snacks!
Here’s the chips section in the same supermarket chain, just in another location about one mile away. I observed that the plain chips were the only ones being bought that day.
My conclusion is that the packaged foods in Denmark are significantly healthier and of better quality than what you will find in the U.S. In general, I would call a large percentage of American packaged food “crappy”, unless you’re seeking out healthier options at a health food store, in health food section of a store, at healthier food stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, or from online stores like Vitacost and Thrive Market. And even still, these stores sell their fair share of packaged items that are pumped full of unnecessary ingredients and sweeteners.
I was reminded of this while shopping in one of the food stores in Copenhagen that has a portion of an aisle dedicated to “American” products. I recall the first time I saw this aisle. I was embarrassed and frustrated that this is what Americans might be known for in terms of food!
maple syrup, pancake mix, frosting, and fluff…
Pop tarts and peanut butter… sugar is the second ingredient in this American peanut butter, which also contains corn syrup.
McDonald’s mustard and ketchup…
boxed cake mix…
Every time I went into this store, it looked like these product barely sold. There’s sugar in all of these products—and lots of it.
You won’t find products loaded up with sugar in Denmark, and for that I’m grateful. It made grocery shopping a truly joyful experience because I could browse and buy much of what I saw. I could try things without worrying about added sugar and unhealthy ingredients. Being back in the U.S. and grocery shopping has been an adjustment for me. Healthy items are available, but it’s most certainly not the majority of what’s for sale.
While not a supermarket, check out this convenience store, which further makes the point that Americans have a lot of work to do regarding food offerings. You’d have a hard time even making an unhealthy choice in this convenience store. You’ll find salads, fruits, and fruit juice that’s actually JUST fruit. They make it easy to eat healthy on the go. Note that their bananas don’t look like they got thrown down a flight of stairs.
Here’s a close up of the salads. You have to see them. I would have bought one, but it was 7:45am when I took this picture. So fresh and beautiful. Those spinach leaves are not wilted whatsoever!
And if you eat paleo, they even had a paleo sandwich! The sign (med kylling, laks, eller oksekød) means “with chicken, salmon, or beef”.
Do you recognize this store? It’s a 7-11 in Copenhagen and there’s not a Slurpee in sight!
Most things in Denmark are more expensive than in the U.S., and food is no exception. Just to give you an idea of cost, check out these eggs. Organic eggs (medium/large) at our local store in Copenhagen were 46 cents per egg. All eggs are from antibiotic free animals. Denmark stopped the widespread use of antibiotics prior to 2000 and only uses them sparingly only if an animal is sick. Organic Eggs that are antibiotic free in the U.S. average around 40¢ cents per large egg.
Regardless of price, the Danish eggs were the best I’ve ever had anywhere. They’re even better than the organic, pasture-raised eggs (anti-biotic and hormone free) in the U.S. The whites of the Danish eggs have a far superior consistency and taste, with a yolk that is a bright yellow/orange. Once fried in a pan, they require a fork and knife to cut them. The white of U.S eggs are often thin, runny, and appearing “watered down”. You can see the Danish eggs here. I don’t use Photoshop. I just had good results taking photos with the help of that lovely Danish sun!
Organic Blueberries at our local store were 4¢ cents per blueberry. This teeny 4.4 oz container was $4.22. Not cheap. That’s 95¢ per oz. The blueberries I saw most recently in U.S. were 6 oz container for $4.99, which is 83¢ per oz. Again, there’s not a huge price difference, but it’s there. And it’s worth it in my opinion.
Regarding organic products, I noticed the difference in price between organic and non-organic food in Denmark was smaller than the difference between organic and non-organic in the U.S. The price difference between organic and non-organic in the U.S seems to be more significant.
I also found that organic products were more readily available in Denmark than in the U.S. So it was great shopping there for these reasons— easy access to organic food with a reasonable price premium!
Part of the reason for the higher prices is the 25% tax on all food items, which is likely used to help pay for Denmark’s social welfare system. But another reason is likely the quality of the food. When you read the Danish labels, you see fewer ingredients and ingredients that are “real” food, rather than a laundry list of cheaply and chemically manufactured ingredients things like cheese flavor and yellow #5. You get what you pay for.
Things are significantly less sweet in Denmark. Adults and children will turn their nose up at things that are too sweet. Children will not finish cake or will not even touch certain candies. It’s true! I started to scale back on the sweetness of my dessert recipes significantly when I realized that things might be too sweet for our diplomatic counterparts! This was important to know, as we hosted events at our home in Denmark many times.
Living in Denmark changed my personal taste for sweet things. It’s affected my cooking and baking. For that reason and reasons related to my health, I now use as little added sweetness as possible. Lately I’ve been using honey, maple syrup, and fruit as a sweetener and have been busy at work writing recipes that are sugar-free, dairy-free, grain-free, paleo, SCD-friendly, and low FODMAPS-friendly.
I’m not against sugar. I think every person’s body and ability to digest food is different. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a nice birthday cake or an occasional cookie containing sugar if you can tolerate it. But I think there’s sugar in too many foods in the U.S. and the amount of sugar in those items is too much.
If you’ve lived in or visited another country, I’d love to hear what you learned from that experience…whether related to food or anything else. Please feel free to leave a comment!
Stay tuned for my next “Life in Denmark” post, which will focus on Physical Activity and Movement. This is a fascinating one with lot of pictures and explanations how strikingly different the Danes live. The Danes like to move and walk! They just GO!
Thanks for reading!