4363.0.55.001 - Australian Health Survey: Users' Guide, 2011-13  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 09/05/2014   
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Contents >> Nutrition >> Discretionary Foods


The Australian Dietary Guidelines describes discretionary foods as being: “foods and drinks not necessary to provide the nutrients the body needs, but that may add variety. However, many of these are high in saturated fats, sugars, salt and/or alcohol, and are therefore described as energy dense. They can be included sometimes in small amounts by those who are physically active, but are not a necessary part of the diet"1.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines Summary lists examples of discretionary choices as including: "most sweet biscuits, cakes, desserts and pastries; processed meats and sausages; ice-cream and other ice confections; confectionary and chocolate; savoury pastries and pies; commercial burgers; commercially fried foods; potato chips, crisps and other fatty and/or salty snack foods; cream, butter and spreads which are high in saturated fats; sugar sweetened soft drinks and cordials, sports and energy drinks and alcoholic drinks".

The Australian Dietary Guidelines Educators Guide adds that “It is recognised that discretionary foods can contribute to the overall enjoyment of eating, often in the context of social activities and family or cultural celebrations. To help avoid gaining excessive weight, most Australians need to be thoughtful about portion sizes of discretionary choices. These foods should always be considered as ‘extras’ in the context of energy requirements and when selecting a healthy eating pattern”.


The main principle used to classify foods as discretionary is that they were specified or inferred in the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines and supporting documents as discretionary. For the most part foods were classified at the minor group level (i.e. the lowest group). For example at the minor group (5-digit code) level:

  • fruit juices are classified as non-discretionary; other juice drinks are classified as discretionary
  • all soft drinks are classified as discretionary, including intense sweetened drinks
  • all confectionery is classified as discretionary.
A second principle was that fortification of the food did not alter whether food was classified as non-discretionary or discretionary. For example, soft drink with added vitamins remained a discretionary food.

In some cases it is not possible to classify foods as discretionary at the 5-digit code level. In particular it is often unclear as to how to apply the main principle to a sub-group that consists of mixed foods. Consequently some additional analysis was applied at the unique food code (8-digit) level.

The following additional criteria based on nutrient profiles were used to help identify foods as non-discretionary or discretionary at the food code level. These criteria are based on cut-offs used in the modelling that supported the Guidelines development2:
  • for breakfast cereals, discretionary foods are defined to be those breakfast cereals with >30 g sugar per 100g or for breakfast cereals with added fruit >35 g sugar/100g
  • for mixed dishes with cereal content (e.g. sandwiches, burgers, wraps, sushi, pizzas) discretionary foods are defined to be those with >5 g sat fat per 100 g3. Use of the 5 g saturated fat/100 g cut-off is consistent with the Dietary Guidelines recommendation. For some of these mixed food types the cut–off is already present in the existing food classification system at the 5 digit code level. Sorting the remaining mixed food groups into non-discretionary or discretionary foods at the 8 digit level recognises the fact that there is a wide variety of nutrient profiles within these sub food groups4
  • all milk based drinks are defined to be non-discretionary, including flavoured milks and those made up from dry powders such as hot chocolate powder
  • tea and coffee beverage products sold with added sugar are flagged as discretionary5
  • all soup dry mixes are flagged as discretionary due to their high sodium content/100g, noting the dry mix can be used in other dishes. Dry soup mix made up with water is non-discretionary as it has similar sodium content to other ready to eat soups.

Note that the system for classifying foods as discretionary or non-discretionary for 2011-12 NNPAS could not take into account the amount consumed, because the same food could have amounts spread across different eating occasions and applying particular threshold amounts would require more complex logic.

The discretionary food classification is used to enable the reporting of the contribution of discretionary foods to total energy and selected nutrient intakes for different population groups.


The ABS would like to acknowledge and thank the following organisations and individuals who assisted in the development of the principles and of listing discretionary foods:
  • Food Standards Australia New Zealand
  • Dietitians Association of Australia
  • Dairy Australia
  • School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University
  • Commonwealth Department of Health
  • Dr Rosemary Stanton, OAM
  • School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Queensland University of Technology
  • School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology
  • School of Molecular Bioscience, the University of Sydney
  • School of Health and Society, University of Wollongong
  • Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services
  • Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council
  • Government of Western Australia, Department of Health
  • Meat & Livestock Australia
  • Nuts for Life
  • Queensland Department of Health
  • Government of South Australia SA Health
  • Department for Health and Ageing, Government of South Australia
  • Australian Avocados
  • Victorian Department of Health
  • Public Health Association of Australia and
  • ACT Health

This approach to listing discretionary foods, particularly the application of the criteria that employ nutrient profiling, was developed specifically for the preliminary analysis of the 2011-12 NNPAS data and may not be suitable for other applications. The list of foods and the ‘discretionary’ flag is available in Excel spreadsheet format on the Downloads page of this product.


1 NHMRC 2013, Australian Dietary Guidelines, Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council, <https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/n55>, Last accessed 05/05/2014. Back
2 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) 2011, A modelling system to inform the revision of the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, NHMRC, Canberra, <http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/publications/n55c_australian_dietary_guidelines_food_modelling.pdf>, Last accessed 02 May 2014. Back
3 There is no reference in the Dietary Guidelines Modelling document to a saturated fat cut-off for any food, however it refers to other cereal dishes with >10 g total fat/100 g that could be used as a cut-off for discretionary mixed foods containing cereal (NHMRC 2011, p143). This option was explored, however the outcome of using a cut-off of >10 g total fat/100 g was very similar to using a cut-off of >5 g saturated fat/100g. This is largely because, in these mixed dishes, roughly half the fat is saturated. The >5 g saturated fat/100g was used previously in the National School Canteen Guidelines (DoHA 2010). Back
4 Pancakes and pikelets are largely coded separately than the fillings such as sugar/cream/jam added to them at the point of serving, so are classified as non-discretionary. Back
5 Most teas and coffees are coded separately in the AHS from the sugar added to them by the survey respondent, so are classified as non-discretionary. Back

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