Verbraucherzentrale has been tracking product composition since 2009 and, using this archived information, compared past recipes with current formulations. In some cases, it noted “serious deterioration”.
“Our product archive dates back to the year 2009,” it says. “This has turned out to be a real stroke of luck - we would probably have suspected the downgrading but could not prove it properly.”
The consumer group was first alerted to the practice of so-called ingredient downgrading in November last year when it noticed Ferrero had reduced the amount of cocoa and increased skimmed milk powder in its iconic brand Nutella. Ferrero defended the recipe change, saying it had “fine-tuned” the composition.
In this latest survey, Verbraucherzentrale found Mondelēz had reduced the amount of hazelnuts in its Milka Nussini bar to 9.5% instead of the previous 14% and the hazelnut cream has become a “hazelnut-flavoured” cream.
Dr. Oetker’s Vitalis Fruit Muesli contains more sugared fruit than before, but the amount of whole-grain has shrunk from 52% to 47.5%.
Unilever, meanwhile, swapped rapeseed oil for water in its Rama margarine, with the percentage of the omega-3-containing oil now sitting at 36% instead of 46%.
German retailer REWE cut the honey in its organic puffed spelt cereal by one third, from 30% to 20% but actually changed the name from ‘Spelt Pops’ to ‘Honey Pops' over the same period.
Alpro's Provamel almond drink now has almost one quarter fewer almonds than before, with content falling from 6.5% to 5%, while Kellogg “drastically” reduced the amount of hazelnuts in its cereal Tresor Choco Nut, Verbraucherzentrale said. While the cereal previously contained 4.5% hazelnuts, it now has only 2%. “The proportion of chocolate shrank as well,” the consumer group added.
Dr Oetker said its old fruit muesli was no longer consistent with current taste preferences while REWE said it was "standard industry practice to adjust that recipes, packaging, names and prices."
Unilever said: “Consumers told us they prefer a light and creamy texture, which is why we have adapted our classic Rama spread to reduce fat content while making the spread even creamier."
Alpro said the change in its almond milk was to improve the stability. "Thanks to our intensive research, we have developed a formulation with higher product stability, better flavour profile and more pleasing consistency. In order to clearly point out the recipe change on the packaging, and to avoid misunderstandings, we even added the claim 'improved taste' together with the recipe change and also labelled gellan gum," a spokesperson told FoodNavigator.
Mondelēz, for its part, cited “zeitgeist” as the reason for using less hazelnuts. “We are constantly developing our range of products to offer our consumers taste experiences that go with the times.”
Verbraucherzentrale said the reasons given by manufacturers were "bizarre" or "perhaps half truths".
A spokesperson for the association said: "Some say they get a new texture or better taste with the new recipe. In some cases it is very clear that the companies just wanted to reduce the costs of production. Like in the case of Nussini from Mondelez: They took nearly half of the hazelnuts of the hazelnut bar. This is because hazelnuts are lately very pricey.
There were also cases of downsizing. “In at least five examples of the investigation, manufacturers have not only degraded a product in terms of quality, but also reduced its capacity.”
These were Milka Nussini, Dr Oetker Vitalis fruit muesli, Arko chocolate candies, Kölln chocolate-cherry muesli and Krüger cappuccino powder.
“For the same price, consumers had to pay an average of over 20 % more for these five products, based on the basic price,” the consumer group said.
According to Monique Goyens, director general of European consumer group BEUC, the survey results show that the issue of dual quality can take place over time as well as geographical regions.
The Verbraucherzentrale spokesperson said: "The reactions [of consumers] are split between disappointment and resignation. Some want to boycott these products, others say they will have a closer look on products now."
For a full list of the products, click here (in German).