Vivica Kraak, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been awarded a 2017 Fulbright Scholar Award to teach and conduct research on food policy and nutrition in Denmark.
Kraak will spend four months in Copenhagen at the Metropolitan University College, where she will be a visiting professor for the college’s undergraduate global nutrition and health degree. She will also spend her time in the Nordic country researching sodium reduction in the nation’s food supply.
Her research will lead to a collaborative publication that will be shared with Danish policymakers and the World Health Organization in the hopes of extending her findings and recommendations beyond Denmark.
Kraak said Denmark is particularly interesting for its proactive approach to curbing consumption of trans fat, which is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. The Danish government was the first in in the world to ban trans fats in their food supply in 2003. Denmark’s approach to sodium reduction has not been as aggressive, despite warnings from the World Health Organization that, on average, most people consume twice as much as their recommended maximum intake, which can lead to raised blood pressure and an increased risk of a stroke or heart attack.
"No one is really talking in Denmark and the other Nordic countries about sodium reduction, because they love cheese and their cured meats,” said Kraak, who is also an affiliated researcher at the Fralin Life Science Institute. “So I want to know how stakeholders are collaborating to reduce sodium in the food supply in Denmark and how that impacts food policy outcomes.”
Kraak will interview government, industry, and civil society policy actors and stakeholders, gathering their attitudes toward forming voluntary partnerships to reduce sodium in Denmark’s food supply. Previously, Kraak has developed an accountability framework for healthy food environments that can be used to evaluate how effective partnerships are in achieving health-promotion goals.
“Are voluntary partnerships the best policy approach in Denmark, or should the government use other legislative or regulatory approaches to reduce sodium in order to accelerate public health benefits?" Kraak said.
Still, it is not just research that draws Kraak to Denmark: a longtime lover of Danish culture, Kraak studied abroad for a year at the age of 18 in Lund located in southern Sweden. During her gap year, she lived with a Danish family and ventured to Copenhagen often, cementing her love for the city.
Her connection extended further when, in 1996, she befriended a nutrition colleague at a conference in Russia. This colleague was working at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe in Copenhagen, and later founded the global nutrition and health undergraduate degree program at Metropolitan University College, where Kraak will soon begin teaching starting in February.
"We've been trying to find ways to work with each other for 20 years,” Kraak said. “She provided a letter of support for my Fulbright application, and somehow, magic happened."
Established in 1946, the Fulbright Scholar Program grants competitive scholarships for international exchanges on the basis of academic and professional achievement. Kraak’s Fulbright award is jointly funded by the D.C.-based Council for International Education of Scholars and the Denmark-America Foundation and Fulbright Commission.
—Written by Erica Corder