Scientists of the week: Sveinn Sigurdsson & Ashlan Falleta-Cowden

April West

Scientists of week are juniors Sveinn Sigurdsson and Ashlan Falletta-Cowden. For their joint senior project they are studying the effects of Iceland’s recent modernization on the traditional diet. They began this project last spring term with Professor Mark Jenike as their advisor. Their study began as a nutritional anthropology study of the unique Icelandic diet which, up until recently, consisted mostly of potatoes and meat.
In spite of this seemingly unhealthy diet Iceland’s population has one of the longest life span average in the world, which could also be an effect of socialized medicine. Their initial plan was to study how the Icelandic population obtained all the minerals and nutrients they needed without eating many fruits and vegetables. Iceland only began to modernize about 50 years ago and now finds itself in a unique time, in the midst of becoming globalized. At this point the older Icelanders eat more unique traditional Icelandic foods where as the younger generations are drawn to newer foods like pizza and McDonalds.
Iceland’s modernization occurred so late due to its isolation and previously limited economy as most people either fished or sustenance farmed. When England and the U.S. used Iceland as an army base during World War II, the soldiers’ expectations for electricity and roads sparked the modernization. The presence of the soldiers was also another source of income and cash flow that helped to kick-start modernization.
Sigurdsson, who is a native of Iceland stated, “It is an extremely recent modernization. There have been definite changes that I have seen in my lifetime. My father remembers when the first road was paved and he turns 42 today.”
Iceland’s changes have been concurrent with modernization of other countries. Icelanders have become more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables, sweets, processed foods, and less fatty meats. The average Icelander today eats 3,500 calories which is 1,500 more than what is recommended for the average daily intake for Americans. This is down from the original 5,000 calories a day, due mainly to a lack of central heating and intense physical labor.
In 50 years, traditional food will only exist as a symbol. “It is a really unique time in a country’s development to study,” said Ashlan. Due to modernization there has been a loss of older traditional knowledge such as how to prepare traditional Icelandic dishes and traditional Icelandic methods of cooking, such as burying foods in certain geothermal areas to bake them or burying them in cold areas to freeze them.
“My grandma is still eating the same way she did before. She still bakes bread by burying it in a geothermal area of her backyard and still finds all of her own lichens,” said Sigurdsson.
He and Ashlan decided to study the effects of modernization on the Icelandic diet as well its cultural implications. They began by questioning, will their health get worse after all these changes?
Still, many Icelandic natives are losing sight of traditional cuisine while more fantastical versions of traditional foods are becoming better known. “The younger generations think that it is important to keep that aspect of their culture alive but none of them want to take the time to learn how to prepare these intricate native dishes,” explained Sigurdsson.
To the younger generations, these traditional foods are just a symbol that should not be lost, but to the older generations it is a real loss of food, they do not necessarily see it as a symbol but just see it as a loss of good nutrition.
Ashlan and Sveinn will be presenting their findings this June at the Association for the Study of Food and Society (AFSF) conference in New Orleans with Professor Jenike.
“I have always been interested in other cultures and societies and the ways they are so similar and so different at the same time. People are fascinating. The differences in human variation are fascinating. In terms of diet, people around the world get by eating so many different things,” stated Falleta-Cowden.
“I recommend honors projects if you have the drive and something you really want to study. It’s an example of Lawrence at its best where you can study something you really want to and work one on one with a professor,” added Sigurdsson.