What you see isn’t always what you get: dual food quality in Europe

Photo: Juliet Ferguson

There were serious allegations: that the EU’s new Member States in Central and Eastern Europe were being sold lower quality food than in the West. 

In 2011, the Slovak Consumer Association did laboratory tests on baskets of food products — including soft drinks, chocolate and instant coffee — that were purchased in eight EU countries. The results showed quality differences in most of the compared products.

Since then, there have been several surveys, studies and tests done by food inspection authorities and consumer organisations in EU countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Evidence started piling up.

The governments of Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary raised the issue in Brussels. Czech agriculture minister Marian Jurečka said that the East was tired of being “Europe’s garbage can”. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov accused the EU of “food apartheid”.

After a heated public debate about this difference in food quality, in 2017, the European Commission promised that the situation would change.

In his annual State of the European Union address, Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said that “in a union of equals, there can be no second class consumers”.

“I cannot accept that in some parts of Europe, in Central and Eastern Europe, people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical,” he said. “Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers. Hungarians less meat in their meals. Czechs less cacao in their chocolate. EU law outlaws such practises already.”

Four years later, we at Investigate Europe — together with other journalistic outlets — went shopping in order to find out if Slovaks now have equal amounts of fish in their fish sticks and the Czechs as much cocoa in their chocolate. 

We compared a basket of 24 food items in 15 European countries, in both the East and the West. Some of the products were bought in supermarkets. For others, the nutritional information was gathered from the websites of online grocery shops. We selected popular products that we expected to be easily found in many European countries: jams, ice creams, frozen pizza, biscuits, sauces and chocolates. We also compared the ingredients and nutritional details for five popular soft drinks, with information that we requested from the manufacturers.

In total, we compared 29 products. Some of them have already been tested by the EU’s research branch, the Joint Research Center, and others by local consumer organisations.

IE’s shopping list

What products did we compare, and in which countries? Click here to find out.

What we discovered was that many of the products sold by the same producer and under the same brand, do indeed vary in composition in different European countries. And sometimes, quite a lot. But there is no consistent East-West pattern across all the compared products.

However, there are two ingredients that stood out. They were found more frequently in the food sold in the newer and relatively poorer EU member states. They are palm oil and glucose syrup — cheaper alternatives to rapeseed oil or other vegetable oils, and sugar, respectively.

Palm oil

In Investigate Europe’s comparison between the baskets of goods, there are some examples of palm oil being used in food sold in some Eastern European markets.

For instance, the Leibniz chocolate biscuit sold in Bulgaria lists palm oil among its ingredients. But the ingredient is absent in all the other five countries where the biscuits were bought. The ice cream Cornetto classic is made with coconut oil and sunflower oil in eight out of nine sampled countries, both in the East and West. Only in Poland does the ice cream have palm oil and coconut oil.

Representatives of Unilever (which owns the Cornetto brand) did not respond to Investigate Europe’s inquiries.

Palm oil is by far the cheapest vegetable oil available. It is also more practical, because it is in a fixed form at room temperature, so it can be likened to butter, says Björn Bernhardson, manager and co-founder of the Swedish NGO Äkta Vara, which promotes food without additives.

“We can grow rapeseed oil here [in Europe], but we transport palm oil from the other side of the globe, and it is still cheaper,” he says.

Will the Cornetto ice cream that contains palm oil in Poland taste different to the Cornetto ice cream in other countries? Probably not, says Bernhardson, because the oil will be processed to remove all original taste.

“You first make everything as tasteless as possible and then you add the flavours you want. They could probably do a blind test without people noticing the difference,” he says.

Palm oil is criticised both for health and environmental reasons. Palm oil and coconut oil has much more saturated fat than other vegetable oils (saturated fats raise so-called bad cholesterol, which is linked heart disease). Saturated fat as a share of the total fat in palm oil is 49%, which is four or five times more than in rapeseed oil, sunflower oil or corn oil. 

Many European food agencies recommend a reduction of saturated fat intake The reason is that saturated fat has been linked to an increase in cardiovascular disease. There is another possible health concern with palm oil. The European Food Safety Authority, Efsa, has assessed the risk to public health of substances formed during the refining of vegetable oils at high temperatures of around 200°C and above. The highest levels of harmful substances were found in the processing of palm oil. 

There are EU-wide concerns about the use of palm oil, which is why food manufacturers will be forced to review the composition of their products with regard to the use of palm oil. The first example is the Ferrero company. One of its flagship products, Nutella — which is a fat and sugar cream with hazelnut pulp — contains 32% palm oil in its composition, and the manufacturer’s marketing efforts are primarily aimed at children.

In addition to the potential health risks, the growing production and widespread use of palm oil have huge environmental costs. The low price of oil produced by large corporations is achieved by expanding the area under oil palm cultivation by burning tropical forests. 

When Investigate Europe compared food baskets across Europe, there were indications that producers used to have palm oil in some other products sold in the Eastern markets. But now, they are phasing them out in online grocery shops in both Hungary and Estonia, the ingredients list and the nutritional information for Oreo cookies don’t correspond to the information that is now found on the cookie package in the physical shops. The former have more palm oil and twice as much saturated fat as the latter. The latter has the same nutrition information as the cookies found in other European countries.

Food company Mondelez confirms that the Oreo cookies sold in Hungary and Estonia now do not include palm oil.

“Oreo went under reformulation which was completed in late 2020. We reduced palm oil and introduced rapeseed oil. This is reflected in the packaging. Due to this change, we are in progress updating retail stores on the changes in product information which is displayed for consumers during the purchase moment,” a company spokesperson writes.

The story is similar to Dorito’s cheese flavoured nacho chips, produced by the multinational Pepsico and sold across the European continent. The crisps are fried in either corn, rapeseed or sunflower oil, or a mix of the three.

But in Estonia, the packet of crisps bought in one shop states that the crisps are fried in corn oil. But in two of the main grocery chains, the online information lists palm oil, while a third store says corn oil.

Photo: Juliet Ferguson

Pepsico Estonia says that they have been importing Dorito’s crisps from the same Turkish factory since 2018. They add that the product does not contain palm oil and that they don’t have an explanation for the differing information on the grocery stores’ webshops.

“Our Dorito’s Nachos Cheese product for Estonia is made using corn oil and has a similar nutritional profile to the brand in other markets in the region. Over the last few years, we have been reformulating our products across the European Union to transition to vegetable oils lower in saturated fat, such as corn oil,” said a company spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the ingredient list for the frozen ham pizza sold under the name ‘Dr Oetker Ristorante Prosciutto’ — which was in the IE food basket — was shown to be more or less the same in the 11 countries where it was found, both in the East and the West.

But another of Dr Oetker’s frozen pizzas, ‘Feliciana Prosciutto and Pesto’, which was bought in Bulgaria, differs from the ‘Ristorante Prosciutto’ in more than just the pesto topping. While the former pizza has olive oil, the latter has palm oil. The Feliciana pizza is only sold in Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Russia.

The Dr Oetker company explains that it uses palm oil for “technological reasons (e.g. processing of the dough, crispiness)” and that palm oil is included in some of its other pizza ranges, such as Casa di Mama and Big Americans. These two pizzas can also be found in Western markets.

Producers: we adapt to consumers

Producers of food with double standards generally deny and disagree with accusations that they deliberately mislead consumers. They explain their practices by calling them an effort to adapt their offer to cultural differences and other consumer preferences in individual countries. While this may hold true with regards to sugar, the oils are reduced to tastelessness before flavours are added.

The companies also point to the specificity of local demand in the markets of Eastern EU Member States, where they can also source local raw materials.

Representatives of food corporations that apply dual quality standards question the validity of Member States’ complaints and try to downplay the problem, citing a lack of direct impact on consumers’ health. They also draw attention to the issue of choosing the right methodology in product testing and the related comparability of results.

Alicja Michałowska, a lawyer from the Warsaw-based food law chancellery criticises the difference in ingredients. “I think the question of replacing rapeseed oil with palm oil is a change in quality which should not be introduced. Because it is not something that consumers can choose,” she says. “I have not seen a study in which consumers praised or preferred the taste of palm oil over other oils. This is, in the eyes of the law, a change in quality.”
Joanna Wosinska, of the Pro-Test Foundation from Warsaw (which carries out independent product tests), says that the EU’s directive on dual quality products has not been successful.  “There was a lot of lobbying by producers by the time the Commission took up this issue,” she says. “There is a loophole in the directive, which means that there can still be differences between the same products with the same names and labels in different countries. The downside of this directive is that the consumer must prove that she or he has been misled by a dual quality product. It is clear that no one is going to fight court battles over a packet of biscuits. “

In the case of food, consumer preferences are repeated by manufacturers like a mantra, adds Wosinkska. “But it is hard to imagine that Poles or Czechs want to have inferior ingredients in their products. This is not what consumer preferences are about.”

Isabel Januário, from the University of Lisbon’s Department of Sciences, Biosystems and Engineering, doesn’t believe the difference in products sold across Europe is only because companies cater to the local taste. “I think the main reason for these differences is economic. Companies try to make a profit with the difference between the cost of ingredients and the price of the final product,” she says.

Sugar or fructose-glucose syrup

Producers have been explaining for years that the differences in products in different markets are due to varying needs and tastes. But price, of course, is also a factor.

When it comes to soft drinks, regular Coca-Cola, Fanta and Sprite — produced by the Coca Cola company — use different sweeteners in the West and the East. In the Western countries, the soft drinks include normal sugar, either with or without artificial sweeteners; in the Eastern countries, the sugar is replaced by the cheaper alternative — fructose-glucose syrup.

“The nutritive sweeteners are substitutable as they feature a similar composition, contain almost the same calorie content and are also regulated equally by existing EU legislation,” explains a spokesperson from Coca Cola. 

“The local sweetener we use has been primarily selected due to local considerations such as the regional availability of ingredients. Sourcing our ingredients locally ensures we can both support local supply chains and economies and maintain the affordability and taste of our beverages.”

On the other hand, rival soft drinks Pepsi and 7 Up  — made by Pepsico —use the same sweetener across the East and West.

The ice cream Magnum classic has sugar, glucose syrup and glucose-fructose syrup in 12 out of 13 countries that were compared. But in Poland, the only sweetener used is glucose syrup.

Just like palm oil relative to other vegetable oils, fructose-glucose syrup is cheaper than sugar.

“Ordinary sugar is made from either sugar beet or sugar cane. You can’t cultivate them everywhere. But glucose syrup, on the other hand, is made from corn, potatoes or wheat. You can take any starch, the local starch or the one that currently is the cheapest, and turn it into a kind of sugar,” explains Ivar Nilsson from the Swedish NGO Äkta Vara.

But is it less tasty? There are some claims that it is. In a 2011 study from Michigan State University, a panel of 99 people tasted and evaluated yoghurt that had been sweetened with either sucrose (normal sugar) or fructose-glucose syrup. The one with normal sugar was the preferred option. In general, there is a strong connection between sugar and the prevalence of overweight and obesity. Among children, overweight has become a global pandemic, according to scientists. In EU countries, 17.9% of preschool children were overweight or obese during the period 2006-2016. When it comes to nutrition, however, there is no scientific consensus that either type of sugar — glucose, fructose or sucrose  — is better or worse. But the different sugars do have different degrees of sweetness. Glucose, for example, is only 60% as sweet as sucrose (the “normal” sugar), while fructose is sweeter than sucrose. Depending on the syrup mixture, there needs to be more or less of it to get the same sweetness as normal sugar.

“Our sugar-sweetened drinks can be sweetened with cane sugar, beet sugar, corn-derived sweeteners or a blend of these,” told Coca Cola Investigate Europe. “For example, this applies to Coca-Cola Original Taste which is available in more than 200 countries worldwide. It contains the same mix of ingredients and it can be sweetened with cane sugar, beet sugar, corn-derived sweeteners or a blend. To ensure the same taste “corn-derived sweeteners are used in marginally higher quantities than sugar.”

According to the European lobby for starch producers, Starch Europe, the wider use of glucose-fructose syrup in Eastern European Member States is not an example of dual food quality. Instead, it says that the different choices in sugars for different markets are due to two things: the first is the abundance of maize, from which corn syrup is derived, in Eastern Europe. And secondly,  during the EU’s sugar quota regime, which ended in 2017, Eastern European Member States were allocated higher production quotas for glucose-fructose syrup than their Western counterparts.

Big differences but all over the place

Whether they are quality-based differences or not, there is a clear East-West pattern when it comes to the use of glucose syrup instead of sugar, and a weaker pattern concerning palm oil or other vegetable oils.

There are some indications of other geographical patterns. For instance, products in the food basket that includes chocolate tend to be of higher quality in Portugal than in all other countries. The Cornetto ice cream sold in Portugal is the only one in the nine countries where it was available that contains cocoa butter. And both the chocolate bar Cote d’Or (found in three countries) and the chocolate-dipped biscuits Mikado have more cocoa butter in the versions sold in Portugal, than in four other countries that they are sold.

The soft drink Fanta differs in the amount of orange and lemon juice. These differences follow a North-South divide rather than an East-West one. In the southern European countries Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, the Fanta has a high amount of fruit juice (8-20%), while  Northern/Eastern countries have a lower amount (4-6%).

The Coca Cola company which produces Fanta says that the difference in recipes has to do with meeting local preferences, sourcing some ingredients locally, adhering to local regulation, as well as the company’s efforts to reduce added sugars.

“All our Fanta Orange recipes contain orange juice, and although juice quantities vary due to reasons such as past regulations, they remain in line with comparable local products in each country,” comments the company.

But for most of the food in our basket, the differences in the composition did not follow any specific geographical pattern.

For example, the amount of fish in Captain Iglo/Findus fish sticks varies between 58 % and 65 % in the seven of the countries they are available in, but there is no evident geographical bias. Nothing indicates that the Slovaks get less fish in their fish sticks than others like Jean-Claude Juncker feared in 2017.

The meat content in Barilla’s bolognese sauce varies between 16 and 19% across fourteen countries, and the amount of hazelnut in Milka’s whole hazelnut chocolate varies between 17 and 20% across eleven countries. But here too, there is no specific geographical pattern.

Photo: Anne Jo Lexander

Sometimes even supermarkets’ own-brand products can have differences. Lidl’s in-house raspberry jam, sold under the name Maribel, which we compared across six markets, is a case in point. The amount of raspberries, sugar and water differs, and some countries’ version of the jam has more additives than others.

When asked about these differences, Lidl told Investigate Europe that the Maribel raspberry jam is, in fact, the same across all markets. When IE sent photos of the jam bought in Belgium, Sweden and Poland, showing the different information on the packaging, Lidl conceded that these jams are in effect, different products.

“The “Maribel raspberry jam extra” has uniformly declared ingredients on the packaging in all tested countries, including Sweden and Poland. However, the jams from Poland and Sweden that you tested are other products from our own brand Maribel,” a company representative answered.

However, all three jams bought were labelled the same: “Maribel raspberry jam”.

Persistent differences

In the food basket that Investigate Europe compared, more than half of the products were clearly different, either using different ingredients, different amounts of the same ingredients or showing differences in nutritional values. Only a handful of the products, such as Heinz tomato ketchup and Nutella hazelnut cream seem identical from the ingredients and nutritional information.

After Jean-Claude Juncker’s speech in 2017, the European Commission requested the EU’s Joint Research Committee (JRC) to compare products across the EU, using a uniform method of testing.

The JRC report came out in 2019. Out of over 100 compared products, the study found that 33% had an identical composition, while the majority of products were, in fact, different. However, the study states that it did not “reveal any consistent pattern of product differentiation for particular geographical regions.” 

Shouldn’t products sold under the same name contain the same ingredients and nutritional values?

“In principle, I would say yes, the same brand should be selling the same exact product in Europe, says Isabel Januário from the University of Lisbon. “I wouldn’t expect that the soft drink I buy in Portugal would have different ingredients and nutritional values in Spain, or France. This is something that makes consumers confused, especially because consumers rarely have access to the comparison of ingredients in different countries.”  

Under the EU directive on unfair commercial practices (UCPD), companies are prohibited from misleading and aggressive commercial practices that harm the consumer’s economic interests. And in the aftermath of the discussion about dual food quality in Europe, this directive was amended in 2019 and a specific provision on dual quality was added.

The EU law now says that it is commercially misleading if a good is marketed as being identical in EU countries, while at the same time having “significantly different composition or characteristics” unless this is “justified by legitimate and objective factors”.

The amendment, which gives some more legal clarity to the issue, will apply across the EU from May 28, 2022, and will make national authorities’ task easier. It is national authorities who can assess, case by case, whether the differences in a food product marketed as identical are significant enough for a consumer to make a different choice if he or she would have known about it.

“EU law generally does not regulate the composition of products. As far as food products are concerned, traders must comply with the strict safety requirements under EU food law. They can adapt their products to local requirements, for example varying production methods or use of raw materials at different production sites. However, they must not market those differentiated products as being the same,” explains a European Commission official.

“The issue at stake is [the] marketing of different products as being identical and not their “quality” as such, which is a largely subjective and legally undefined notion,” says the official.

Biljana Borzan, a Croatian MEP for the Social democrats, who co-authored a European Parliament resolution in 2018 acknowledging and criticising dual food standards, says that it is an issue of consumer trust that different food is sold under the same name in the EU. The consumer expects the same quality from the same brand, regardless of the country of production or purchase, she says.
Like in all EU laws, the devil is in the detail. It will be a matter of interpretation if the Polish Cornetto ice cream made with palm oil is of a “significantly different composition or characteristics” to the Portuguese Cornetto which is made with cocoa butter and cream.

And whether or not the price of sugar and the availability of corn starch is a “legitimate and objective factor” for using glucose-fructose syrup in Hungarian Coca Cola while using sugar in the Austrian soft drink.

Sooner or later these legal provisions will be interpreted — if some consumers pick a fight over over a pack of biscuits.

This story has been published by our media partners in Portugal, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, Norway (in Bergens Tidende and Aftenbladet), Latvia, Poland and Hungary).