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By Peta Martin David Cox Gilly Hendrie Danielle Baird 20 April 2022 4 min read

Research shows[Link will open in a new window] the average Australian adult consumes more than twice the 2.5 daily recommended serves of discretionary foods[Link will open in a new window] per day. Discretionary foods, while high in energy, often lack a variety of nutrients. When your diet contains too many discretionary treats, it’s often at the cost of foods that meet your nutritional needs.  

The problem is we don’t always make our food choices based on our nutritional needs. What we choose to eat is often driven by our likes and wants[Link will open in a new window]. Discretionary foods have those all-important sensory properties that we love. Like those sweet and salty flavours and satisfying fatty mouthfeel, that readily come to mind when we ponder what to have as an afternoon or even at mealtimes. And there’s a reason for that.  

 Wired for satisfying desire

There’s evidence we’re physiologically hardwired to seek out, and satiate hunger, with energy-dense foods. Reward pathways in the brain are geared towards gratification for consuming energy-rich foods. And we instinctively know which foods are high in energy because of their taste and mouthfeel. It feels good to consume those sweet, salty, and fatty foods because the brain rewards us through the release of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine.

It’s an ancestral hangover from our food scarce roots. Our distant ancestors may have survived food scarcity because of their preference for high energy foods, when available. But today we live in a world where energy-dense food is convenient and abundant. The mismatch has implications for our diet-related health. Rather than rewire the human brain, our researchers have come up with an innovative approach to trick your brain into eating healthy.

When you have a hankering for baked goods like muffins, a mandarin has a similar sweet hit and mouthfeel without added sugars.

Trick your senses for a win/win

 In a bid to satisfy our desire-driven choices and meet our nutritional needs we have identified and designed a way to use nutrient-rich, sensory matched, food swaps. The team have identified core foods that are matched to similar sensory profiles of the discretionary foods we love. Using the swaps, you can trick your mouth and your mind with the same taste and feel. Satisfying your sensory hankerings while improving the quality of your diet.

The team used data from a panel of trained sensory experts, who assessed and rated the sensory characteristics of hundreds of discretionary foods and healthier core foods. They then matched that data to information in the latest national nutrition survey,[Link will open in a new window] which reports the discretionary foods Australians eat. The team then found healthier swaps, based upon similar salty, sweet, or fatty mouthfeel, for the discretionary foods we often eat.

Take a look at some swaps:

Discretionary option  Core match  
Apple muffin (no icing) Mandarin
Soft drink Flavoured milk
Processed deli meat (like turkey slices)Canned tuna in oil, drained
Milk chocolate, with dried fruits and nutsMuesli with dry fruit, toasted or natural
Potato crisps or chipsRice cracker plain/biscuit savoury
Lamington filled with jam and creamDate dried
Muesli bar with fruit and nutsApple dried
Deep-fried potato chipsEdam cheese
For more sensory swaps to help trick your brain into eating healthy visit Table 2 in the study.[Link will open in a new window]

Fruits, such as mandarins and watermelon, offer an equal but natural sweet taste sensation.

A research-driven approach to healthy eating

In a world first, we have modelled the nutritional gains that come from implementing the scientifically devised swaps. Our research shows when you switch out discretionary foods for the sensory matched, core foods the macronutrients and micronutrients in your diet improve. 

For the average Aussie, this was what resulted from using the swaps:

  • Total energy coming from protein increases by 8.7 per cent
  • Dietary fibre increases by 7.3 per cent  
  • Calcium intake increases by 50.2 per cent 
  • Potassium intake increases by 9.9 per cent
  • Zinc consumption increases by 17.4 per cent 
  • Vitamin C also increases, by 23.2 per cent

Whereas decreases were seen in ‘bad' fats and sugars :

  • A 46 per cent reduction in energy coming from added sugars
  • Total energy from carbohydrates decreases by 2.3 per cent  
  • Total energy from fat decreases by 2.4 per cent  

The aim of the research was to improve, and quantify the improvements, in diet quality through the swaps, rather than reduce average energy intake. And the modelling revealed a small, 3.6 per cent, increase in energy intake.  

The improvements in nutrient profile came from a big increase in fruit consumption, grains, and proteins (such as dairy) but not from vegetables. What’s interesting is that vegetables appear to have their own specific sensory properties that aren’t often similarly matched to many of your discretionary favourites.

If you’ve missed the boat on loving the taste and feel of veg, it's not too late for your children! Our research discovered if you introduce a variety of veg to children at a young age, they’re more likely to become accustomed to them[Link will open in a new window] and learn to love them. In fact, preferences for discretionary foods and eating patterns are set at a young age, so why not also try some swaps out with your children today.

Our researchers are hoping to extend their food swap modelling and undertake a new study inviting people to record data while following the swaps. Continued work on sensory swaps could contribute to new healthy eating programs and further investigation of improving dietary recommendations through the application of sensory science.

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