The dairy sections of American grocery stores have seen a massive increase in variety in the past 10 years, particularly when it comes to yogurt. Greek yogurt, characterized by a thick texture and high protein content, has especially surged in popularity. However, a more recent arrival, Icelandic skyr, seems to be making a major dent in the market.
Although skyr (pronounced “skeer”) may be new to most of us, it’s actually been around for more than 1,000 years. There’s mention of the cultured dairy product in several Viking sagas, and it’s been an important staple of Icelandic cuisine throughout the small country’s history.
“Growing up in Iceland, skyr was a food I grew up on,” explains Smári Ásmundsson, founder and CEO of Smári Organics, which has been manufacturing a range of skyr products in the United States since 2013. “It was my breakfast and/or lunch. Going through college, it’s what kept me alive.”
Most Icelandic families buy skyr from the grocery store, but some make their own. It can be eaten for any meal, and is often enjoyed as a dessert as well. “We’d have the pure Icelandic yogurt with some heavy cream and blueberries, and a little sugar,” Ásmundsson notes. “That was my favorite dessert.”
Not quite yogurt
It’s important to note that skyr is technically not yogurt, although it looks and tastes almost exactly the same. Like yogurt, the milk is densely concentrated after the whey is skimmed off, resulting in a thick, creamy texture and mild flavor. However, the active bacterial cultures that are added to ferment the dairy are specific to skyr, and many companies use cultures that have been passed down for generations, much like a sourdough starter.
“We use the historic Icelandic recipe to make our skyr, and the big differentiator is the cultures – the same cultures that have been around for hundreds of years,” says Steve Platt, CEO of Icelandic Provisions, which has been selling skyr in the U.S. since 2016.
Skyr doesn’t necessarily have to be made in Iceland, although the country does manufacture a lot of the product. Both Icelandic Provisions and Smári Organics make their skyr in the U.S. using traditional methods and imported equipment.
Both companies rely on small family-owned farms where the cows are grazed in pastures to emphasize the organic, natural quality of the dairy. It mirrors the way people in Iceland make skyr, since the country is home to just over 300,000 people and therefore has no need for big dairy factories. MS Iceland Dairies, for example, is comprised of more than 700 small farms and focuses on both ethical and humane animal treatment, as well as environmental concerns, when creating its products.
Skyr is notably high in protein and calcium, and low in sugar. When Greek yogurt arrived on the market a decade ago, consumers were mostly focused on fat content – everyone wanted fat-free products, which Greek yogurt could provide. Now the focus has shifted to less sugar and more protein.
Icelandic Provisions’ plain skyr, for instance, has a fairly typical 110 calories, 2 grams of fat, 6 grams of sugar and 17 grams of protein. This means that you’re getting a very healthy dose of protein in a reasonably small package.
“It has high protein,” Ásmundsson notes. “It has a creamier taste and mouthfeel than Greek yogurt. It has less sugar than all the Greek yogurt manufacturers. It has organic ingredients. Those are all things that are important to consumers.”
Skyr in Icelandic culture
Skyr is not only a popular food in Iceland, but it’s actually part of several cultural traditions. Iceland boasts 13 Yule lads, known as Jólasveinar, who are essentially very mischievous Santa Clauses. They each come to town in the early hours of the holiday season, one per day from December 12 until December 24. On the eighth day, Skyrgámur arrives. He’s known as the “skyr gobbler,” and traditionally steals skyr from people’s pantry.
Icelanders have also been known to use skyr in protests. In April 2016, thousands of people showed up in the square outside parliament after the Panama Papers leak, and a few angry locals hurled skyr at the government building. It wasn’t the first time, either. In 2009 protesters smeared skyr all over the election offices of the Social Democratic Alliance, and in 2005 skyr was tossed in an international aluminum conference in Reykjavík at the University of Iceland.
Iceland on the rise
There are numerous culinary reasons for skyr’s growth in the U.S. market, but it’s also safe to say that we might be into skyr because Iceland itself has become such a favored travel destination. In 2016, a record 325,522 American tourists arrived through Keflavik International Airport, according to the Icelandic Tourist Board. Between January and September of 2017, that number went up to 471,404 Americans – an increase of 44.8%.
The country’s pristine and otherworldly natural landscapes are a strong draw, and we often view Iceland as a place of purity. It’s less populated, more untouched, and although it’s not necessarily known for its food, the country reflects an organic vibe. For Ásmundsson, the overall interest in Iceland is very helpful for generating an interest in Icelandic skyr. And vice-versa.
“Iceland is a very unique place,” he says. “People that go there come back and say, ‘It just feels different.’ So I think they both help each other.”