Discretionary choices (a.k.a. junk food)

Discretionary choices, discretionary foods, non-core foods, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods are some of the names given to junk food. These are foods that should not represent a large part of a person’s food intake.

Nutrient profile

These foods typically contain a high amount of saturated fat, added salt, added sugar and/or alcohol (1). As a general rule, processed foods tend to fall into this category. Some of these foods may contain essential nutrients and even health claims in the packaging, but are not necessarily healthy as a whole.

The foods

In general, most people recognise what a “not so healthy food” is, however it is always useful to have a yes/no list to refer to. Several organisations and individuals worked hard to categorise food groups and items for the Australian Health Survey 2011-13. Below is a summary from the official list (2).

Non-alcoholic beverages

  • Chai latte, milkshake, bubble tea
  • Coffee-based mixes
  • Fruit/vegetable drinks
  • Cordials
  • Soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters
  • Sports/energy drinks
  • Fortified bottled water
  • Beverage flavourings

Cereals and cereal products

  • Some breads: savoury filled or topped breads, sweet breads/buns/scrolls iced and/or filled
  • Some breakfast cereals, such as frosted flakes, puffed or popped rice with cocoa coating, with honey or extruded
  • Sweet biscuits
  • Some savoury biscuits: those with >1800 kJ per 100 g
  • Cakes, muffins, scones, cake-type desserts (except for plain ones or with added fruit of vegetables only)
  • Pastries
  • Some pizza, sandwiches, burgers, taco and tortilla-based dishes, savoury pasta/noodle and sauce dishes, savoury rice-based dishes: those with >5 g saturated fat per 100 g
  • Some batter-based products: waffles, batters and batter puddings, donuts

Fats and oils

  • Butter
  • Dairy blends
  • Cooking margarine
  • Solid fats

Fish and seafood products and dishes

  • Battered or crumbed fish, crustacea, molluscs, fish and seafood products, either homemade or takeaway

Egg products and dishes

  • Sweet egg dishes

Meat, poultry and game products and dishes

  • Some sausages: those with saturated fat content >5 g/100g
  • Processed meat
  • Some mixed dishes: fast food cheeseburger without roll, fast food rissole or beef patty, crumbed lamb cutlet, sausage curry, batter and deep-fried saveloy

Milk products and dishes

  • Sweetened condensed milk
  • Cream
  • Frozen milk products such as ice cream, frozen yoghurt and other frozen dairy desserts

Other dishes where milk or a milk product is the major component

  • Dairy desserts, smooth or gelatin-based dairy desserts
  • Other milk, cheese or cream-based desserts

Dairy & meat substitutes

  • Soy-based ice confection

Soup

  • Dry soup mix

Savoury sauces and condiments

  • All savoury sauces except homemade tomato based ones
  • Pickles, chutneys and relishes
  • Salad dressings (except vinegar)
  • Stuffings
  • Dips

Vegetable products and dishes

  • Potato products

Controversial items

There are some items that are considered “core foods” (i.e. not junk) that I would still call discretionary choices:

  • Scones and rock cakes as long as they are plain or with added fruit or vegetables only
  • Pizza, sandwiches, burgers, taco and tortilla-based dishes, savoury pasta/noodle and sauce dishes, savoury rice-based dishes as long as they contain <=5 g saturated fat per 100 g
  • Yoghurt, flavoured or with added fruit and/or cereal, which most of the times contain added sugars
  • Custard
  • Flavoured milks and milkshakes

The dairy products in this list are included just because they contain calcium.

Conversely, I disagree with “pickles, chutneys and relishes” and “dips” being in the discretionary category. I mean… Gherkins? Hummus? Really?

The guidelines

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend to limit discretionary choices. Only people with increased energy needs (such as highly active individuals) may use discretionary foods to meet energy requirements (1).

Even though the list of discretionary choices is fixed, the guidelines are quite ambiguous regarding quantity and frequency of intake. The actual wording is “sometimes and in small amounts”, which unfortunately many people misinterpret as “a few times per day”.

The rationale

Intake of discretionary foods is associated with increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. High saturated fat intake is associated with unfavourable blood lipids and excess energy consumption. Excess sodium (which typically comes from processed foods) tends to elevate blood pressure. Added sugars may lead to dental caries and weight gain (1).

How much are we eating?

Based on the aforementioned classification of what constitutes core vs discretionary foods and the stats from the 2011-2013 nutrition survey (2), Australian get 35.4% of their energy intake from discretionary choices. This proportion varies according to age group, with children and teenagers 9-18 years old consuming the most of these foods. Not surprisingly, men tend to have a slightly higher proportion of discretionary food intake than women. See graphs below for more details.

The food group with the highest percentage of energy coming from discretionary choices is, by far, cereal-based products and dishes, i.e. cakes, pastries, breads, etc.

References

  1. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council; 2013.
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014, Australian Health Survey: Users’ Guide, 2011-13, ‘Australian Health Survey – Discretionary Food List’, data cube: Excel spreadsheet, cat. no. 43630DO005_20112013, viewed 20 November 2018, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/subscriber.nsf/log?openagent&Discretionary%20food%20list.xls&4363.0.55.001&Data%20Cubes&C38E7117796E8066CA257CD200147FE1&0&2011-13&13.05.2014&Latest
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014, Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results – Foods and Nutrients, 2011–12, ‘Table 9: Proportion of Energy from discretionary foods’, data cube: Excel spreadsheet, cat. no. 43640DO009_20112012, viewed 20 November 2018, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/log?openagent&Table%209%20Proportion%20of%20energy%20from%20discretionary%20foods%20.xls&4364.0.55.007&Data%20Cubes&2952897404C6E62BCA257CD200146F61&0&2011-12&09.05.2014&Latest

[Photo by Christopher Flowers on Unsplash]

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