Feature articles

Discretionary food intake in Australian children and adolescents

flavia.pngDiscretionary foods (DF) represent a significant proportion of the energy intake of children and adolescents. The last National Nutrition Survey (NNS) reported DF foods made up 35% of total energy in this group. Dr Flavia Fayet has investigated NNS DF intake in more detail and we asked her to share what she found.

Dr Flávia Fayet-Moore, (MNutrDiet, RNutr, APD, PhD), founder and director of Nutrition Research Australia, is a registered nutritionist, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, sports nutritionist and Honorary Associate of the University of Sydney. Flavia’s research focuses on the assessment of diet and nutritional status in large population studies and in the field of nutrigenomics.

 1.   How widespread is DF and drink intake?

Virtually all (98%) children consumed DF (discretionary foods and beverages).

2.      Are there any groups that tend to consume more DF and drinks than others?

Once DF serves was adjusted for energy intake, we found no differences by sex, age or SES. The best predictor of how many DF serves a child ate was their daily energy intake. The higher the energy intake in the diet, the higher their DF serves.

3.      What are the most popular DF and drinks in children and adolescents?

The most popular foods and drinks based on the number of children and adolescents consuming DF and drinks were sweet biscuits, soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters, sugar, honey and syrups - all the sweet things!

The most popular based on contribution to total energy were: cakes, sweet biscuits, pastries (like croissants, pies), fried potatoes, and ice cream- this time a mixture of sweet and savoury foods.

4.      Are children eating DF and drinks too often, or are the portions too large, or both?

It’s a mixture of frequency and portion size. Discretionary food intake was frequent and proportional to the energy consumed. So when kids ate something, over the half the time it tended to have some sort of discretionary component.

Foods that were the largest contributors to discretionary energy tended to be larger portion sizes, or those that typically exceed a DF serve (600kJ). For example, a typical piece of cake or pizza is 3 DF serves (1800kJ). From an intervention perspective, it’s important to consider the risk of over consumption of foods with an inherently large portion size.

Not all portions were large. Foods that are generally consumed in smaller portion sizes - like a biscuit - were consumed in smaller portions. The average serve of sweet biscuits was 33g.

5.     Are DF and drinks most prevalent at meals or snacks?

A ‘snack’ (as described by the child/parent) was the top contributor to discretionary energy at 23.9% of daily intake. The top 3 foods consumed as a ‘snack’ were all sweet (chocolate, sweet biscuits, cakes).

Dinner closely followed at 23.8% of energy, with savoury foods DFs making the top 3: fried potatoes, sausages and pizza/burgers.  Lunch came in third at 19.6% of discretionary kilojoules.  

Over 40% of discretionary energy came from lunch and dinner and over 40% from all snacking type  occasions combined (snack, morning and afternoon tea, supper and beverage).

6.      Are there particularly problematic DF and drinks in different age groups?

The top discretionary food by contribution to energy intake differed by age group. The most popular among 2-3 year olds was sweet biscuits, whereas in 14-18 year olds it was soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters. Teens are the highest consumers of sweetened beverages.

7.      What DF and drinks are the biggest sources of added sugars?

We were unable to analyse added sugars at the time of this research as it hadn’t been released by the ABS. However, using total sugars as a proxy for added sugars shows 3 of the top 5 contributors were beverages: soft drinks & flavoured mineral waters, cakes, fruit and vegetables juices and drinks, ice cream and cordials.

8.      What are the biggest discretionary sources of saturated fat and sodium?

The biggest sources of sodium were processed meat, sausages, pastries (savoury and sweet), pizza/burgers/tacos, gravies/sauces (i.e. tomato sauce).

The biggest sources of saturated fat were cakes, ice cream, chocolate, pastries, and sweet biscuits.

9.      Are there food/drink categories that represent the best target for intervention to reduce nutrients of public health concern?

Overall, virtually all children need to reduce their discretionary intake. A good start would be to aim for discretionary-free meals and snacks, switch to core foods at those meals and snacks, and perhaps target the most popular foods at a population level.  For example, switching from biscuits to bread in toddlers, and switching from sweetened beverages to water or milk in teens.

NEXT: Sugar in Australian Breakfast Cereals 

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