It’s funny to think that I’ve now spent almost as much time back in the United States as I did in Copenhagen, Denmark when I was studying abroad. And while I have enjoyed returning to a life of In-N-Out and American gluttony, there are some culinary aspects of Denmark that the U.S. just can’t compete with: the Danes eat healthier food.
I don’t mean to make it sound like the Danes only eat romaine lettuce and carrot sticks or anything like that. Believe me, they enjoy making out with a McDouble from McDonalds as much as they enjoy wrapping their lips around a cold Carlsberg beer while waiting for the train.
The key for Denmark is that its people embrace moderation and responsibility. For example, a recent European poll by the EATWELL Project found that the Danes have by far the most positive attitude when it comes to economic interventions within the nutritional arena. To the layman, this means they’re willing to pay more to eat healthier. A whopping 70% of Danes are even willing to pay higher taxes to get healthier food and more information about healthy food choices. In the UK, Italy, Belgium and Poland, only 20% of those polled were willing to do the same.
Aside from cultural foods like pickled herring and a variety of fish that were revolting to my American palette, Danes eat pretty much the same stuff for dinner that Americans do: chicken, red meat, salmon, etc. Maybe their sandwiches are missing a piece of bread on top, but it basically amounts to the same ingredients. Fast food joints and other purveyors of artery-clogging goodness are also widespread. There are some blocks in the heart of Copenhagen where you can literally see three 7-Eleven convenience stores at the same time. And yet I saw only one obese person my entire time living in the country — and for all I know, that could have been an American.
According to one estimate, nearly a third of Americans (30.6%) are considered obese, while fewer than one in ten Danes (9.5%) are. Interestingly, the average life expectancy in both Denmark and the U.S. is the same: 78.3 years.
The answer to why Danes are willing to pay a premium for food is complex, and I am limited by a 20-year-old brain that spent four months pretending it was 21. In my opinion, it comes down to cost. Denmark is an expensive place. Unless you plan on purchasing a few delicious shawarmas from one of the cheap Middle Eastern joints that blanket the city, eating out in Copenhagen is going to set you back the equivalent of $20 dollars, even for a basic meal. If you plan on popping into a 7-Eleven just to buy a Coke, that’s a $4 dollar bottle you’re drinking from. And even if the sugar in that soda is actual sugar and not the high fructose corn syrup concoction we’re used to in the United States, it’s still not worth the expense.
Because of the high cost of eating out, Danes are forced to make their own food the vast majority of the time. And when you’re cooking your own food and dealing with the ingredients yourself, you’re more likely to want the best.
And the Danes can afford it. One woman told me (while criticizing the Danish welfare state) that all Danes, whether they had a job or lived off the government, could afford to own an iPhone. And while I don’t believe there’s any Can-I-Afford-an-iPhone country index I can fact-check this with, the basic thought is probably true. Danes live comfortably, and in a world where eating out frequently isn’t affordable, they are willing to pay a bit more for the best when they eat at home.
Matthew Grant Anson is a junior at Whittier College in Whittier, California. He studied last semester at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark.
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