updated 7/24/2006 4:04:25 PM ET 2006-07-24T20:04:25

Cookie lovers seem more likely to eat apples and other fruits than salty snacks, suggests a new study. If true, that finding might be useful in encouraging healthier eating, according to the lead author of the study. In other words, maybe that sweet tooth could be satisfied by fruit instead of sugar.

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A group led by Cornell University marketing professor Brian Wansink looked at the eating habits of thousands of people and concluded the craving for something sweet spans both candy and fruit. The study published in the journal Appetite found people who eat candy, cakes and other sweet snacks eat more fruit than people who prefer salty snacks like nuts and chips.

"I think it shows there is some hope for the typical dieter," he said. "... Maybe you're not just a sugar-eating machine — that there are some redeeming traits to your diet."

The researchers analyzed self-reported eating habits of more than 14,000 Americans contained in U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys. They also relied on information from 405 people who responded to their own mailed survey.

Analysis of the USDA data suggested the link between sugary snacks and fruit while the survey showed that fruit lovers eat more sweets than vegetable lovers.

Wansink said parents and public health officials could use this information to encourage the phase-in of more fruits among kids and other people with a sweet tooth.

"I think it's something that can be done a little bit at a time at the dinner table," he said.

Cynthia Sass, a dietitian with a private practice in Tampa, Fla., said she has been doing exactly that with clients trying to control their sweet tooth. They might use unsweetened applesauce on waffles instead of syrup, or put berries on their cereal instead of spoonfuls of sugar.

"All of these have worked really well for people who come in saying, 'I have trouble controlling my sweet tooth,'" said Sass, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Dr. Beverly Tepper, a professor of food science at Rutgers University who does taste research, criticized the study's execution.

She said it was difficult to interpret the results since the study was vague in defining terms like "fruit lovers" or what specific salty and sweet snacks were considered. She questioned how meaningful the statistical difference was that researchers used to conclude there was a higher connection between eating sweets and fruits compared to salty snacks and fruits.

"I think it's an interesting idea," she said. "But I don't think this is the ideal approach to get at the question."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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