This was the key finding from a study conducted by researchers from the University of South Australia and the University of Sydney.
Australian children and adolescents between the ages of two and 18 get almost 40% of their daily energy consumption from discretionary foods high in saturated fat, sodium and / or added sugars.
The researchers stated that interventions are needed to lower children's and teenagers' intake of discretionary foods and beverages, which are defined by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council as "not needed to meet nutrient requirements".
In order to intervene, accurate discretionary choice targets had to be identified. As such, the study's purpose was to determine the "main discretionary choice contributors to energy and key nutrient intakes" among Australian children and teens aged two to 18.
The researchers used single 24-hour dietary recall data from the 2011-2012 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, involving 2,182 participants.
Sodium, sugar and saturated fats
They then found that foods such as cakes, muffins, sugary biscuits, potato crisps and other similar snacks, as well as processed meats, and drinks containing added sugars, were among the top three to five contributors to per capita energy, sodium, saturated fat and / or added sugars.
In addition, they wrote: "Per consumer intake identified cereal-based takeaway foods, cakes, muffins and slices, meat pies and other savoury pastries, and processed meats as top contributors to energy, saturated fat, and sodium across most age groups."
Sugar intake in particular came mainly from subgroups of sugary cakes, muffins and drinks.
Despite minor differences between the different age groups surveyed, the same food groups were the top contributors to nutrient and energy intakes.
Children's consumption of discretionary foods were observed to be well above the recommended intake — a pattern recorded since 2007.
Urgent intervention needed
The researchers noted that interventions were "urgently needed" to successfully reduce discretionary food intake, adding that targeting the discretionary choices highlighted in the study was likely to lead to lowered risk of obesity, diabetes, dental cavities, hypertension and heart disease.
They concluded: "Australian children and adolescents aged two to 18 years continue to source nearly 40% of their daily energy intake from discretionary foods that are high in saturated fat, sodium, and / or added sugars.
"Cakes and biscuits, cereal-based takeaway foods, dishes containing processed meats, and sugary drinks are the optimal targets for interventions to reduce discretionary choices intake.
"These food targets are likely to have the biggest impact to moderate energy intake, while also reducing intakes of saturated fat, sodium, and / or added sugars."
"Contribution of Discretionary Foods and Drinks to Australian Children’s Intake of Energy, Saturated Fat, Added Sugars and Salt"
Authors: Brittany J. Johnson, et al.