Nitrogen (N) is an essential element for plants and animals. Due to large inputs of mineral fertilizer, crop yields and livestock production in Europe have increased markedly over the last century, but as a consequence losses of reactive N to air, soil and water have intensified as well. Two different models (CAPRI and MITERRA) were used to quantify the N flows in agriculture in the European Union (EU27), at country-level and for EU27 agriculture as a whole, differentiated into 12 main food categories. The results showed that the N footprint, defined as the total N losses to the environment per unit of product, varies widely between different food categories, with substantially higher values for livestock products and the highest values for beef (c. 500 g N/kg beef), as compared to vegetable products. The lowest N footprint of c. 2 g N/kg product was calculated for sugar beet, fruits and vegetables, and potatoes. The losses of reactive N were dominated by N leaching and run-off, and ammonia volatilization, with 0·83 and 0·88 due to consumption of livestock products. The N investment factors, defined as the quantity of new reactive N required to produce one unit of N in the product varied between 1·2 kg N/kg N in product for pulses to 15–20 kg N for beef.