OBJECTIVE: To describe the diversity in dietary patterns existing across centres/regions participating in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). DESIGN AND SETTING: Single 24-hour dietary recall measurements were obtained by means of standardised face-to-face interviews using the EPIC-SOFT software. These have been used to present a graphic multi-dimensional comparison of the adjusted mean consumption of 22 food groups. SUBJECTS: In total, 35 955 men and women, aged 35-74 years, participating in the EPIC nested calibration study. RESULTS: Although wide differences were observed across centres, the countries participating in EPIC are characterised by specific dietary patterns. Overall, Italy and Greece have a dietary pattern characterised by plant foods (except potatoes) and a lower consumption of animal and processed foods, compared with the other EPIC countries. France and particularly Spain have more heterogeneous dietary patterns, with a relatively high consumption of both plant foods and animal products. Apart from characteristics specific to vegetarian groups, the UK 'health-conscious' group shares with the UK general population a relatively high consumption of tea, sauces, cakes, soft drinks (women), margarine and butter. In contrast, the diet in the Nordic countries, The Netherlands, Germany and the UK general population is relatively high in potatoes and animal, processed and sweetened/refined foods, with proportions varying across countries/centres. In these countries, consumption of vegetables and fruit is similar to, or below, the overall EPIC means, and is low for legumes and vegetable oils. Overall, dietary patterns were similar for men and women, although there were large gender differences for certain food groups. CONCLUSIONS: There are considerable differences in food group consumption and dietary patterns among the EPIC study populations. This large heterogeneity should be an advantage when investigating the relationship between diet and cancer and formulating new aetiological hypotheses related to dietary patterns and disease.