Croatia’s food is the second most expensive in Europe when judged next to average household income. Only in Romania do people spend a larger percentage of their monthly wage on food and non-alcoholic drinks. In the EU, the average household spends on food takes up 7% of their earnings. In Croatia, it is almost double that amount – 13%. That the average monthly wage in Croatia is a third lower than the EU average accounts for some of this disparity. Though the other reason is simply that Croatia’s food is really, really expensive.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw the prices of food after I got to England,” Split-based nutritionist Iva Tokić tells TCN. Having studied for her Bachelor’s degree in nutrition at the University in Split, she transferred to Oxford Brookes University in England where she earned her Master’s degree in the subject. “I expected food to be much more expensive, because life, in general, is so much more expensive in the UK than it is here. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the prices of the UK’s food are almost exactly the same as Croatia’s food, except that in England some things like avocado, salmon (losos) and smoked salmon is so much cheaper than it is in Croatia. Insane!”
Iva Tokić, who has her own independent practice as a nutritionist and works as a nutritional educator and consultant for other polyclinics and sports professionals back in her hometown of Split. She has a Master’s degree in nutrition
Food shopping in the UK is a very different experience to that in Croatia. You would struggle to understand fully just how different it is unless you’d actually done both. There simply isn’t enough farmland in the UK to feed all of its inhabitants. Most food is imported. Where in Croatia, you can still experience the authentic experience of eating a varied diet based on the seasons, in the UK that simply doesn’t exist. Everything is in season somewhere in the world. And that’s where they’ll take it from. Everything is available. All of the time.
What the UK loses in this set-up – seasonal eating and the varied diet this creates – it makes up for with the offer available and price. Food and flavours from all over the world can be bought in any of the competing supermarkets. International cuisine is incredibly popular. And, just as the supermarkets compete to lower prices, so do producers – it isn’t only salmon and avocado that is cheaper in the UK.
The lamb produced in the lush, green hills of Wales or on the moors of northern England and southern Scotland is comparable in extremely high quality to the very best you could buy from Pag or anywhere else in Croatia. Except in the UK, the animals’ diets are unrestricted – the lambs grow much bigger. Though much of this premium product is exported (British lamb is a highly prized delicacy across much of western Europe, particularly France), a lot of it is still sold in the UK. Its price is kept down by huge amounts of imported New Zealand lamb which competes against the domestic lamb in price. In Croatia, lamb is an expensive treat – in the UK, it’s an everyday meat. And it is much cheaper than it is in Croatia.
Although the lamb meat produced in the UK is of comparable quality to that produced in Croatia, the meats form a very different part of the diet in the two countries. In Croatia, lamb is an expensive treat. In the UK, lamb is much cheaper and viewed as an everyday meal
Within this one example we can sharply see the disparity between the premium food produced in Croatia and the general diet of the everyday citizen. Croatia is now known well for its cuisine and produce. TCN was pleased to report over recent weeks the success of food and agricultural exports from Croatia. However, the finest prsut, olive oil, seabass (brancin), bream (orada) and red wine for which Croatia is famous do not make up standard everyday Croatian meal. These luxuries are often exported. Pasteta (meat paste) on bread and cheap wine made palatable with cola are more likely to be the elements of Croatia’s food found in any student kitchen in the country.
The pekara (bakery) is a fast, inexpensive and very popular choice for both breakfast and lunch in Croatia, but is it the healthiest thing to eat every day? © Mlinar
“We really don’t eat enough fish. It’s so disappointing because we live right next to the sea!” says Iva, who now works in her own independent practice, and as a nutritional educator and consultant back in her hometown of Split. “But, we don’t eat enough of it because it’s way too expensive for a lot of us to eat regularly. We also don’t eat enough vegetables and fruit. We eat meat. We eat a lot of meat. We eat a lot of pekara (bakery) too. It’s often the cheapest and the most convenient. If you want to save money and grab something fast, get breakfast in pekara. Students and older people in particular, they all eat in pekara. That’s not good because that food is high in trans fatty acids and saturated fats. Saturated fats are a problem because it’s a big cause of cardiovascular disease. Too much meat and pekara, not enough fish, fruit and vegetables – those are definitely the biggest problems with the Croatian diet.”
“Per capita consumption of fish and seafood in Croatia is estimated at 8 kg. Total consumption of fish and fish products per capita is significantly lower than in other Mediterranean countries. Fish is consumed mostly at home, traditionally once a week (on Friday) and during some holidays. The consumption of fish is higher in coastal areas than inland. Most fish is sold at traditional fish markets where the availability and freshness of fish products is considered very good. Only 3% of Croatia’s population eat fish every day, with the average person spending just 840 kuna (110 euros) a year on fish. In Croatia the most popular fish eaten are the cheaper varieties such as sardines and anchovies, followed by hake, mackerel and bonito. Croatia exports a big part of its quality fresh fish from the Adriatic, such as scampi and red mullet, whilst restaurants along the coast will often serve farmed fish or cheaper imported varieties.” December 2016 Flanders investment and trade market survey of the Croatian Fishing sector, undertaken by the Trade Office of the Embassy of Belgium
The problems of the diet created by Croatia’s food habits have been observed for quite some time. And, according to the 2020 Global Nutrition Report, they are not getting better. Another report, one on childhood obesity published in just 2018 by the Croatian Institute of Public Health, stated that “every third child, i.e. 34.9% is overweight or obese. There are more overweight (21.5%) than obese (17.2%) boys. 67.3% of girls have a normal body mass index, 20.3% are overweight and 10.7% obese.” These figures are not improving, despite physical education being mandatory in Croatian schools.
“Everyone that comes to see me, everyone that seeks the help of a nutritionist, they all have high cholesterol levels, history of heart disease or they are obese,” says Iva. “The last one is becoming more of a problem. One third of children in Croatia are now obese. It’s really quite pronounced. If you look at the statistics, obesity has actually been decreasing over recent years in developed countries. But, in Croatia, it is increasing.”
“Here, you can see the difference clearly between the UK and Croatia. In the UK, obesity was recognised as an issue and you can see the response throughout society. In the UK, you have taxes on sugary drinks. We don’t have that here. The price of fruit and vegetables in the UK has actually been decreasing in recent years compared to average income. Here, it has only increased. At the supermarket checkout in the UK, it is now forbidden to have those tempting large racks advertising chocolates. From this year, that marketing is banned there, in the same way that advertising tobacco products is banned. Everything from the politics and the law to the school system is engaged in addressing the issue. We are not so much a developed country like the UK, so there is little promotion of physical activity here and no wider engagement of the issue. In the UK you even see signs suggesting “Why not takes the stairs instead of the elevator?” There’s an effort to make everyone in society conscious of the issue.”
For a country famous for its international sports stars and the beach bodies that visitors see on the coast every summer, who would have thought that beneath the surface, Croatia’s food and exercise habits were creating such a problem for the population? However, while a lack of exercise can be attributed to poor education and motivation, it is clear that economics has a significant impact on Croatia’s food intake. In many cases, the poorer you are, the poorer you eat.
While eastern Croatia contains some of the country’s economically weakest areas, many residents of Slavonia have land beside their houses where they grow vegetables, fruits and nuts. Despite this, they are still over-reliant on pork meat © Croatian National Tourist Board
“In the more rural parts of our country, they eat much more seasonal fruits and vegetables,” says Iva. “They eat more vegetables in general – they grow it themselves and eat what they grow. Although, in many rural areas, there is still an over-reliance on meat. Especially the cheapest meat – pork.”
A 2008 study called Regional Differences in Dietary Habits of Adult Croatian Population conducted by researchers at the Andrija Stampar School of Public Health, School of Medicine, University of Zagreb concluded that the people in the poorest areas of Croatia had the poorest diets. Those regions were central Croatia and eastern Croatia (Slavonia).
Croatia’s food. A map showing the unhealthiest Croatian diets by region, produced for a study undertaken by researchers from the Andrija Stampar School of Public Health, School of Medicine, University of Zagreb. People who live in the poorest regions – central and eastern Croatia – have the least healthy diets. The diet of those who live in Zagreb, which has the country’s highest wages, is very good
In these regions of higher unemployment and lower opportunities, people relied more heavily on a diet of red meat, preserved meats and smoked meats than anywhere else in the country. They also used more butter, pork lard and other kinds of animal fat in food preparation and more salt. While tradition and geographical location do play a part in forming these menus, it is incredibly naive to think that economics is not the key factor – there are river fish available all over Slavonia. This is not simply a question of a healthy Mediterranean diet in comparison to an unhealthy continental one – the City of Zagreb was shown in the study to consume an incredibly healthy diet of Croatia’s food. The reason? It may be continental, but it has the highest wages in the country.
The Croatian diet is heavily reliant on unhealthy pork meat. Unless you go to a specialist or high-quality outlet, you will find cheap pork meat in almost every mixed/minced meat dish – in cevapi, in lasagne, in bakery snacks, in beefburgers and cheeseburgers (yes, really, they put pork their burgers – sometimes you can even find cheap chicken meat mixed into Croatian burgers. True story) and even in the mixed kebab meat. They preserve pork as the highly prized prsut/prosciutto, in sausages like kobasica and kulen, eat the pig’s blood in a sausage called krvavica and fry the pig rind to make a crunchy but hardly healthy snack called cvarci. Croatia also has the best bacon in the world.
“Sometimes the most difficult obstacle to good health facing those here who really need to change their diet is the cost of Croatia’s food,” agrees Iva. “It’s easy to say “you must eat more fish, fruit and vegetables”, but it’s not always easy to do. Many people simply can’t afford it. So, what I try to do in those cases is to look for the cheapest foods available which are still the right options. For example, sardines here are really not so expensive. They are high in Vitamin D and Omega 3, which is very important for cardiovascular health. I also recommend eggs, which are high in Omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamin D. I recommend changing to milk and cheese which have a lower fat content. You can find good food which is not that expensive. You might have to search, but you can find it. I recommend people to go and see what is in the discount section. There are lots of us looking to address these problems. On the Instagram page of different.hr each week they advertise what foods are on discount in every Croatian supermarket. That’s a really useful resource. It’s also great to grow something of your own. You don’t need a huge Slavonian back garden to do it – you can even grow some things just on your balcony.”