For centuries, hunting, fishing and foraging sustained Iceland. The island, just south of the Arctic Circle, is so remote, and its growing season so short, that people would take whatever they could from the land and the sea, surviving on puffin jerky and (ammonia-reeking) fermented shark. Today, Iceland's geographic isolation—plus strict government environmental regulations—helps it produce some of the purest foods on the planet. Grass-fed cows with a lineage that goes back to the Norwegian herds brought by the Vikings in 874 AD make milk that's high in beta carotene, creating exceptional butter and cheese as well as the yogurt-like skyr. Family farms sell tender meat from lambs that have grazed in the mountains all summer on moss, scrub and wildflowers. Fish farmers raise arctic char without chemicals or antibiotics in eco-friendly saltwater tanks.
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"Our food doesn't come from industrial farms, it comes from family farms," says Icelandic chef Siggi Hall, an outspoken promoter of his country's ingredients. Now that those ingredients are coming to the U.S.—Whole Foods is the exclusive importer of many of them—it's become easier for Americans to eat more like Icelanders. And there are compelling reasons to do so: The Icelandic diet may be the secret to its citizens' impressive health and happiness. Icelanders' average life span (81) is among the longest in the world. And, despite its recent economic collapse, Iceland was ranked number one on the most recent European Happy Planet Index—factoring in everything from carbon footprint to depression.