Real sugar, new recipes, and how Finns are the real gourmands
Iceland’s MS Dairies began exporting skyr to the US’s high-end grocery store Whole Foods in 2006, following the yogurt-like product’s success in Scandinavia and Switzerland. The arrival of this “real” skyr stateside was big news for American Icelandophiles and those for whom the more prominent, New York-produced “Icelandic-style yogurt” simply didn’t compare. But there was rumour of a rather nefarious con-skyracy circulating among imported dairy enthusiasts, namely that the MS Skyr sold in the US was not the same as the skyr that many have come to know and love in Iceland. This obviously called for some serious investigative journalism.
I posted a message on Facebook looking for someone who would be willing to surreptitiously photograph the ingredient label on an MS Skyr package in the US. It was obviously a mystery preying on multiple minds: in less than twenty minutes, I had five American volunteers—one requesting to undertake the assignment while wearing “a trench coat, cool hat and sunglasses”—and even an offer to send pictures of a label in Denmark. I had the photographic evidence I needed within an hour.
A comparison of single-serving MS-brand portion sizes of vanilla skyr proved that while the Icelandic label specifically boasts that it is “sugar-free,” the American version contained a whopping 19 grams of sugar. (For reference, different flavours have different sugar quantities—a single serving of US blueberry contains 22 grams of sugar, while there’s only seven grams in a single serving of plain US skyr. But the protein allotment stays roughly the same between the two countries’ products—16–19 grams in each serving.) “Fat Americans,” my mother sighed when I shared my discovery.
Many Americans I spoke to voiced this suspicion: MS must simply be pandering to our notorious weakness for adding sugar to literally everything. Later that week, however, sitting in the inviting, airy office of Heimir Már Helgason, MS Iceland Dairies’s export manager, the mystery was immediately—and somewhat anticlimactically—cleared up. “Whole Foods was not so keen on sucralose,” he said. “When they started talking about carrying skyr, they came with specifications.” In fact, both of the artificial sweeteners that are used in the Icelandic recipe—sucralose and acesulfame-K—are on Whole Foods’ list of “Unacceptable Ingredients for Food.” (Both of these additives are on the EU’s list of “authorised sweeteners” and are clearly listed on Icelandic skyr labels.)
Given Whole Food’s objections, MS worked with the store to come up with a new recipe that utilised real sugar but was, in all other respects, identical to the Icelandic recipe. Now, the dairy factory in Selfoss, South Iceland, has separate vats for the skyr that is flown over to the US on a weekly basis. “It’s tricky,” Heimir laughed.
Six Things You (Maybe) Don’t Know About Skyr
So, it turns out that there’s no outrageous plot behind the two different skyr recipes. Americans love their sugar, and Icelanders nearly as much—we just differ about which of the artificial varieties are acceptable (Americans tend toward wholesome high fructose corn syrup, while there are strict quotas on this ingredient’s usage in the EU.) Nevertheless, my meeting with Heimir did reveal some unexpected fun facts about this much-beloved “high-protein, virtually fat-free delight”:
1. Icelanders Are Only Sorta Into Skyr
Although skyr is firmly entrenched in the psyches of many foreigners as something uniquely and popularly Icelandic, Heimir says that “the local market is actually quite stagnant” and has been for some time. The demand for local dairy products dropped so significantly in past years that a term was created—smjörfjall, or “butter mountain”—for excess dairy products languishing on Icelandic shelves. And the surplus continued long enough that local dairy farmers set about actively reducing their dairy cow stock.
2. Foreigners, However, Love Skyr
Although MS’s research shows that Icelanders’ demand for skyr basically never changes, in recent years the local market has grown, which Heimir attributes to the rising number of tourists. Skyr sales to restaurants and hotels are “booming” he notes, and also points out that the popularity of low-carb, high protein diets have made it “okay again to eat more butter and fat.” This, of course, has meant that those farmers who reduced their stocks are now scrambling to meet the increasing demand (it takes at least three years for a young calf to reach milking maturity).
3. And Finns Love Skyr More Than Anyone
In the last five years, skyr sales within Scandinavia have increased “tenfold,” and are expected to generate 35 million Euro in sales (over 10,000 tonnes of skyr) during 2014. Last year, more than 1,000 tonnes of skyr were consumed in Finland alone, an already staggering quantity that is only expected to increase. And Finns aren’t satisfied with the typical array of strawberry, blueberry and vanilla offerings, either—“every three or four months they push us for new flavours,” says Heimir. These have included black currant, mango, blood orange, and baked apple. The latter has just made its way into Icelandic markets, but if you have a hankering for any of the other types, you’ll have to hop a plane to Helsinki.
4. “Traditional Skyr” Is Not As Popular
Responding to a downtrend in sales in 2000, MS turned away from a more traditional skyr production method which utilised a dairy centrifuge. (Hand-powered dairy centrifuges have been in use since the 1860s, and their commercial counterparts are still widely used in dairies today. In fact, the centrifugal method is still employed by Siggi’s brand skyr in the US.) Seeking to produce a creamier skyr, MS began to use an ultrafiltration method that concentrates whey proteins while still thickening the skyr. This new-fangled method gives it the “velvety texture” which has proved more popular among consumers.
5. There Are Two Major Brands, But Only One Company
MS Dairies—a cooperative of about 700 family farms around Iceland—has a default monopoly over skyr production in the country, having merged with Norðurmjólk, the only other dairy that produced skyr, in 2007. Before the merger, the Akureyri-based Norðurmjólk produced KEA brand skyr. KEA was made with a different production method and was particularly favoured by people in Northern Iceland. So, in recognition of this popularity, KEA skyr is still produced and sold in its original packaging, even though its manufacturer no longer exists. All MS skyr is now made in Selfoss, in the south, while the former Norðurmjólk factories are being converted for cheese production.
6. Not All Skyr Is Vegetarian
This mind-blower was actually uncovered by a former Grapeviner several years ago, but is worth reiterating. Traditionally, skyr is made from ‘undanrenna’ (“skim milk”) that has been heated, curdled with ‘ostahleypir’ (“rennet”), and then condensed when the whey proteins are separated. (Rennet, for those not familiar, is an enzyme produced in the stomachs of baby mammals, and is extracted once the animal is dead. It’s a common dairy coagulant that is often used in cheese-making.) MS thickens its (MS brand) skyr using ultrafiltration (see Fun Fact #4), and so a coagulant such as rennet is not needed or used. But its KEA brand skyr (Fun Fact #5) is still curdled with rennet, meaning that this dairy treat is not actually vegetarian. However, most consumers would have no way of knowing this without contacting the company directly: in Iceland, it’s not required that rennet be listed on food labels.
Perhaps most pertinent to those “real” skyr enthusiasts, however, was the discovery that Icelandic skyr need not actually be made in Iceland. Following successful licensee arrangements in several Scandinavian countries, MS is currently seeking an American partner to produce its skyr in the US (all that flying back and forth is expensive, and is presumably not great carbon footprint-wise). “Our licensees are using our recipe, getting our technical know-how and using our special Icelandic skyr cultures, which are based on the very old skyr-making tradition, and not accessible to other manufacturers,” Heimir says. In the notable instance of Finland—whose demand for skyr was simply too great to be met by Icelandic producers—all of its skyr is actually produced at a Danish dairy. “We’ve tried the Danish skyr and we can’t tell the difference,” says Heimir, “which is kind of sad, really. Because then what makes it Icelandic? The recipe? The cultures?” Whatever it is, it’s delicious.