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Thoughts about food culture and patterns of eating in Norway

Interview with Dr. Unni Kjærnes, senior researcher at SIFO, the National Institute for Consumer research, Oslo, Norway
Considérations sur la culture de l’alimentation et les modèles alimentaires en Norvège: interview de Dr. Unni Kjærnes, Institut National sur les Consommations, Oslo, Norvège
Virginie Amilien

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The research of Unni Kjærnes (PhD in sociology, Cand.real in nutrition) has focused on how social, cultural, political, and economic conditions vary and change, producing highly diverse conditions for consumer actions. She has studied how these conditions affect trust, ethical, and sustainability issues, as well as traditional food issues such as nutrition and safety. She has published a number of journal articles and books, including “Trust in Food. A Social and Comparative Analysis” (co-authored by M. Harvey and A. Warde), “Eating Patterns A day in the lives of Nordic peoples” (editor), and “Regulating Markets, Regulating People: On Food and Nutrition Policy”. Kjærnes has coordinated a long series of European, Nordic and Norwegian research projects. Her work has been widely disseminated and acknowledged nationally and internationally. 


1Virginie Amilien: Unni, you have been working with sociological research on food in Norway for 30 years, and you were the project coordinator and editor of the final report “Eating Patterns- A day in the life of Nordic Peoples” in 2001. The comparative approach in this project gave a unique opportunity to study the basic eating structures in the Nordic countries, which are often taken for granted. You recorded when, where, what, and with whom food was taken (for a further description of the study, see Holm et al.’s article in this issue).

2Unni Kjærnes: Actually this should have been published as a proper book. Internationally there is still a demand for this report, which is now circulated as photocopies. However at that time, in 2000, there was little interest among Norwegian publishers for this topic. The Norwegian interest in the topics brought up in the report is larger nowadays, but still moderate. But, let’s speak about the results.

3The most striking result was how different the eating patterns in the four Nordic countries were, considering our close historical and social connections. The Danish eating patterns were more “family centered”, with all family members gathering around the dinner table more often, with meat on their plate. Swedish patterns were, on the other hand, focused on lunch time, which was a well-organized hot meal accompanied by a salad, taken outside the home. Finnish eating was somewhat similar to the Swedish pattern, with lunch outside the home as a key feature, but in Finland there was more traditional cooking at home. Compared to the other three countries, Norwegian patterns seemed more simple, modest, and uniform in structure.

  • 1 The following paragraphs, until the next question, are directly based on the report: KJÆRNES, U., E (...)

4In the report you can read that1 the comparative analyses of the Nordic countries revealed that although they are quite similar in terms of political history, culture etc., their food habits are basically very different, even under the present influence of modern welfare institutions and globalised markets, technologies, and communication. Our idea was to study supposedly traditional national differences as opposed to more general characteristics of modern societies. The findings indicated that the Nordic eating systems clearly have both traditional and modern elements.

5Country of residence is of relevance both for what we have called the ‘institutionalisation of eating’, i.e., various forms of food provision and food policy, and through more general features of social structure and cultural norms. For the factors we have studied, country of residence has larger impact than the respondent’s social position and living situation within each country. The findings seem to indicate a complex interrelation between cultural conventions and institutionalised forms of food provision – through retailing as well as public catering. This was most evident in the solutions to lunch away from home during work/school hours, with open-faced sandwiches brought from home dominating in Denmark and Norway and cooked, hot meals being much more prevalent in Sweden and Finland. Eating out in restaurants, cafés, and fast food outlets played a marginal part in everyday eating patterns in all four countries. Thus, the division between private and public eating, being relevant primarily for eating at work, was influenced mainly by nation-specific institutional solutions.

6VA: We understand that this comparative project has also given you a new and original insight into Norwegian food culture. Would you please tell us what the study told about Norwegian food culture?

7As mentioned earlier, the records pertaining to eating on “the day before” among the Norwegian informants indicated a highly modest way of eating. There was a three meal structure: In the morning, a sandwich-based breakfast was eaten at home, often alone. Lunch was eaten at work, and consisted of a couple of open-faced sandwiches brought from home, while dinner during the work week was an early and quick family meal, requiring quite simple cooking (such as meatballs with potatoes and carrots). Some informants also had a fourth evening meal, based on sandwiches. A demonstration of this simplicity is the limited selection of vegetables that people had for dinner, where one third of the respondents had eaten carrots on the day before.

8There was another peculiarity with regard to vegetable eating: Finnish and Swedish respondents ate more raw vegetables used in salads, while the Danish and Norwegian respondents more often ate vegetables that are normally cooked, such as broccoli, carrots or cauliflower. This East/ West distinction may be explained by the different lunch traditions. The institutionalized hot lunches in Finland and Sweden always included a salad, so people seem to have internalized the use of salad as part of cooked meal. Norway and Denmark, on the other hand, have kept the more traditional way of boiling vegetables.

9Another observation of cultural differences, causing or caused by the disparate lunch traditions, is the different status of sandwiches in Nordic countries: they are regarded as a snack in Finland and Sweden, and as a proper meal in Norway and Denmark.

10VA: Is this an indication that people in Norway are eating less than in other Nordic countries?

11UK: There is always a methodological difficulty in recording what people actually are eating. This is not only matter of remembering, or a moral issue about what you want to reveal about your eating patterns, but it is also a conceptual issue in terms of what informants mean by a “breakfast”, or a “snack” or even by “eating” or “food”. In the analyses, we distinguished between five types of eating events, depending on the food components and cooking. These types represent a sort of hierarchy in terms of complexity:

121) a snack event (an ice-cream or an apple , 2) a cake event (a cake, pastry, etc.; may also include a snack), 3) cold food eating events – a cold meal (sandwich, cold cuts, a salad; may also include a snack and/or a cake), 4) breakfast, i.e., the first eating event of the day (often cold foods, like sandwiches or breakfast cereals, but may also involve cooked dishes like porridge) and finally 5) a hot meal (hot indicates that cooking has been involved and that the food is eaten hot).

13We found that Norwegian respondents reported fewer eating events of the “snacking” type, compared to the other Nordic countries. I wanted to check this observation with other types of data. I collected sales data on food items typically eaten as snacks, such as sweetened soft drinks, chocolate, and salty snacks. The results were revealing: while our records showed that Norwegian respondents ate less those items on the day before, the Norwegian sales data on consumption per capita were the highest of all Nordic countries. This disparity could be translated in moral terms, saying that Norwegians “make” their diet “more proper” (but why would Swedes be less moral than Norwegians?). However, we can also interpret the findings within a wider, cultural framework. Our colleague, Runar Døving, has suggested that in Norway the concepts of “food” and “eating” are reserved for proper meals only. In this perspective, food eaten outside this context is not regarded as “food”, but perhaps linked to “cosy situations” (“kos” in Norwegian) or a treat. So snack type items would not be regarded as relevant for a record of eating on the day before.

14VA: That was really interesting! But this study was conducted 15 years ago, as described in your common article in this issue (Holm et. al.). Do you think we have the same patterns today, or is there any difference?

15Some patterns are linked to basic structures in our societies which are usually quite stable, linked to family patterns, everyday time tables, and economic inequalities. Other aspects are more flexible, such as the selection of food products. A new survey, coordinated by Professor Lotte Holm at Copenhagen University, was conducted this year, and we will explore this in details. Fifteen years is a long time and we don’t know.

16VA: Wonderful. So I hope that you will present an article with new results to Anthropology of Food in a couple of years?? But before we conclude this interview, would you say a few words about what we, in this issue, called “Norwegian food culture”?

17UK: “Food culture” is a wide and flexible concept. Actually there is not “one” discourse on food culture in Norway. We already noticed it when we worked on the anthology called “Den kultiverte maten” [the “cultivated food” from 2007, Amilien et al. (eds)]. In general, there has not been that much research about food and culture. Research at our own institution, The National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO), represents a certain continuity, where the first food social scientific projects were introduced in the 1980’s. It was SIFO that brought the concept of food culture into the national academic debate. But in parallel people from various disciplines , such as ethnologists and socio-anthropologists, have addressed topics related to food culture. Courses on food culture are seldom at the university level, but in the recent years we have seen an increasing interest in food culture programs at university colleges around Norway. In addition, there are occasional individual contributions with little cross-referencing, for example the recent book Mat/Viten [ “Food/ knowledge” from 2010, Uglevik (eds.)]. In Norway there is a striking contrast between the limited research on food culture and food as a political issue, which has been an ongoing scientific debate for decades, addressing primarily production and health issues.

18VA: Yes, there is a striking contrast, not only within the research community but also in public discourse. But don’t you think that those discourses are embedded in each other?

19UK: I definitely agree. Public discourse directs attention primarily to health politics or agricultural politics, whereas the food culture issues that are brought up are mainly relegated to the occasional recipes, travel, etc. I think it’s important to distinguish between food culture in public discourse and food culture as an academic field. Funding of research on food culture is often based on political motivations, such as the promotion of food of Norwegian origin (as shown in Atle Hegnes article in this issue) or healthy eating (as illustrated by Anita Borch and Gun Roos or Silje Skuland and Siv Elin Ånestad in this issue too.) The emphasis has been on products and product development, much less on culinary practices the social or cultural meanings of everyday food and eating outside commercial contexts.

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1 The following paragraphs, until the next question, are directly based on the report: KJÆRNES, U., EKSTRÖM, M.P., GRONOW, J., HOLM, L. & MÄKELÄ, J. (2001) Eating Patterns: A Day in the Lives of Nordic Peoples, SIFO scientific report 7 , [Oslo].

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Electronic reference

Virginie Amilien, « Thoughts about food culture and patterns of eating in Norway », Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 10 January 2013, connection on 16 December 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/aof.7106

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Virginie Amilien

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