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Digestive biscuit

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Digestive biscuit
Alternative namesWheaten, sweet-meal biscuit
Place of originScotland
Region or stateForres
Associated cuisineBritish
Main ingredientsWheat flour, sugar, malt extract, butter (or in cheaper recipes or for vegans or those who are lactose intolerant: vegetable oil), wholemeal, leavening agents (usually sodium bicarbonate, tartaric acid and malic acid), salt

A digestive biscuit, sometimes described as a sweet-meal biscuit, is a semi-sweet biscuit that originated in Scotland. The digestive was first developed in 1839 by two doctors to aid digestion. The term digestive is derived from the belief that they had antacid properties around the time the biscuit was first introduced due to the use of sodium bicarbonate as an ingredient.[1] Historically, some producers used diastatic malt extract to "digest" some of the starch that existed in flour prior to baking.[2][3]

First manufactured by McVitie's in 1892 to a secret recipe developed by Sir Alexander Grant, their digestive is the best-selling biscuit in the United Kingdom.[4] In 2009, the digestive was ranked the fourth most popular biscuit for "dunking" into tea among the British public, with the chocolate digestive (produced by McVitie's since 1925) coming in at number one.[5] The chocolate variant from McVitie's is routinely ranked the UK's favourite snack.[6][7][8]


Early 20th century McVitie & Price's Digestive tin box, located in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1839, digestives were developed in the United Kingdom by two Scottish doctors to aid digestion.[5][9] In an 1851 issue of The Lancet, London's advertising section offered brown meal digestive biscuits.[10] At the time, it was asserted that grain millers knew only of bran and endosperm.[11] After 10% of the whole grain's coarser outer-bran coat was removed, and because the innermost 70% of pure endosperm was reserved for other uses, brown meal, representing only 20% of the whole grain, remained, consisting of about 15% fine bran and 85% white flour.[12] By 1912, it was more widely known that brown meal included the germ, which lent a characteristic sweetness.[13]

Digestives featured in advertisements for the Berkshire-based biscuit company Huntley & Palmers in 1876, with digestives sold by chemists alongside indigestion powder.[14] Rival biscuit company, Edinburgh-based McVitie's, has Golden-baked their best-selling digestives to a secret recipe developed by Sir Alexander Grant since 1892.[14] A recipe was given in Cassell's New Universal Cookery Book of 1894. In 1889, John Montgomerie of Scotland filed a U.S. patent application, which was granted in 1890. This patent asserted a prior patent existed in England dated 1886. The U.S. patent, titled Making Malted Bread, included instructions for the manufacture of digestive biscuits. Montgomerie claimed this saccharification process would make "nourishing food for people of weak digestion".[15] Despite rumours that it is illegal for them to be sold under their usual name in the US,[16] they are, in fact, widely available in the imported food sections of grocery stores and by mail order.[17][18][19]


The typical digestive biscuit contains coarse brown wheat flour (which gives it its distinctive texture and flavour), sugar, malt extract, vegetable oil, wholemeal, raising agents (usually sodium bicarbonate, tartaric acid and malic acid), and salt.[20] Some varieties also contain dried whey, oatmeal, cultured skimmed milk, and emulsifiers such as DATEM.

A digestive biscuit averages around 70 calories, although this varies according to the factors involved in its production.


Plain digestive biscuits with tea, jam and cakes on a serving tray.

Digestive biscuits are frequently eaten with tea or coffee. Sometimes, the biscuit is dunked into the tea and eaten quickly due to the biscuit's tendency to disintegrate when wet. Digestive biscuits are one of the top 10 biscuits in the UK for dunking in tea.[5] The digestive biscuit is also used as a cracker with cheeses, and is often included in "cracker selection" packets.

In the UK, McVitie's digestive is the best selling biscuit, with 80 million packs sold annually,[1] though there are many other popular brands (such as Cadbury’s) as well as supermarkets' own versions.[8] Digestives are also popular in food preparation for making into bases for cheesecakes and similar desserts.[21]

Chocolate digestives[edit]

The coated side of a McVitie's milk chocolate digestive biscuit

Digestive biscuits with a chocolate coating on one side are also available. The coating can consist of dark, white, or milk chocolate, although white chocolate digestives are quite rare. The chocolate digestive was originally produced by McVitie's in 1925 as the Chocolate Homewheat Digestive. Other varieties include the basic biscuit with chocolate shavings throughout (chocolate "chips" in the biscuit mix) or a layer of caramel, mint chocolate, orange-flavoured chocolate,[22] or plain chocolate. They are manufactured at McVitie's Harlesden factory in London.[23] American travel writer Bill Bryson described the chocolate digestive as "a British masterpiece".[24]

In 2009, the McVitie's chocolate digestive was named as the most popular biscuit in the UK to dunk into tea.[5] The chocolate variant from McVitie's is routinely ranked the UK's favourite snack.[6][7][8] A YouGov poll saw Cadbury’s digestive ranked the second most popular biscuit in the UK after McVitie's.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

McVitie's digestive biscuits have become known among fans of the Beatles because they were the cause of an argument between George Harrison and John Lennon during a recording session for the group's 1969 album Abbey Road. The incident was recounted by recording engineer Geoff Emerick in his book Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles.[25] According to Emerick, Lennon's wife Yoko Ono was in the recording studio and at one point helped herself to Harrison's box of McVitie's while the Beatles were in the control room listening to a playback of the song they had just recorded. Harrison became angry at Ono, and his subsequent outburst caused Lennon to lose his temper in response.[26]

Chocolate digestives were part of the technical challenge to the bakers in series 13, episode 6 of The Great British Bake Off. They were also the technical challenge to the bakers in episode 2, season 2 of The Great Canadian Baking Show.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "United Biscuits — McVitie's Brand History". Archived from the original on 15 February 2015.[citation needed]
  2. ^ Chamber's encyclopaedia: a dictionary of universal knowledge, Volume 2. J.B. Lippencott Company. 1888. p. 182. Retrieved 7 April 2011. Digestive biscuits are prepared in such a manner that they may contain diastase, the nitrogenous transforming matter of malt; but whatever quantity of this substance they may contain in the condition of dough is destroyed in the process of baking.
  3. ^ "The Annual Museum of the British Medical Association". Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions. Third. XVII. London: 156. 1887. Retrieved 8 April 2011. A new competitor in this field was Paterson's Extract of Malt, exhibited by the Phoenix Chemical Works, Glasgow; the odour and flavour of this was excellent, and it is said to be rich in diastasic power. Prepared from it was exhibited a series of digestive biscuits, rusks and bread by John Montgomerie, of Glasgow. In making these part of the starch of the flour is changed by being mixed with the malt extract and water and kept for some time at a suitable temperature; the yeast being probably added to another portion of flour and water, to form dough to mix with the above before baking. These biscuits seemed to be appreciated by visitors. Messrs. Hill and Son also exhibited some malted nursery biscuits. Benger's well known digestive ferments were well displayed, together with an essence of rennet recently introduced.
  4. ^ "Biscuits: Taste for nostalgia grows biccies". The Grocer. Retrieved 22 August 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d "Chocolate digestive is nation's favourite dunking biscuit". The Telegraph. 2 May 2009
  6. ^ a b "McVitie's chocolate digestives voted the most popular snack for people working from home". Wales Online. Retrieved 19 August 2021.
  7. ^ a b "Britain's top 20 biscuits ranked as Chocolate Digestives named greatest of all". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 19 August 2021.
  8. ^ a b c d "Britain's top five biscuits revealed". YouGov. Retrieved 19 August 2021. YouGov Ratings data shows McVities, Cadbury's and Walkers products dominate the list of Britain's favourite biscuits
  9. ^ "History Cook: the rise of the chocolate biscuit". Financial Times. Archived from the original on 10 December 2022. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
  10. ^ Thomas Wakely, ed. (31 July 1851). The Lancet [A Journal of British and Foreign medicine, Physiology, Surgery, Chemistry, Criticism, Literature, and News]. Vol. 2. London: George Churchill. pp. 24(IA2)-24(IA3). Retrieved 1 April 2011.
  11. ^ John Saunders, ed. (1848). The People's journal. Vol. IV. London: The People's Journal Office. p. 42(IA1). Retrieved 15 April 2011. Professor Johnston remarks that -- "The grain of wheat consists of two parts, with which the miller is familiar -- the inner grain and the skin that covers it. The inner grain gives the pure wheat flour; the skin when separated, forms the bran."
  12. ^ Bell, Jacob, ed. (1857–1858). The Pharmaceutical journal and Transactions. Vol. XVII. John Churchill. pp. 276–277. The Parisian white bread is prepared with the finest flour (1re marque), which does not contain any bran. If 100 parts wheat yield 70 parts of this flour, the remainder will consist of 10 parts bran and 20 parts coarse brown meal, this latter consisting of 3 parts fine bran and 17 parts white flour.
  13. ^ Percy A. Amos (1912). Processes of flour manufacture. Longman, Green, and Co. p. 14. By allowing the germ and all but the outer, coarser layers of broad bran to mix in with the flour, we get the sweet-tasting brown meal producing the brown bread so much in favour amongst sections of the community.
  14. ^ a b "National Biscuit Day: a chequered history of McVitie's Digestives". The Telegraph. Retrieved 20 August 2022. Huntley and Palmers, a rival bakery, launched its own digestive biscuit in 1876
  15. ^ U.S. patent 423,263
  16. ^ QI, Season B, Episode 7, "Biscuits", In America it is illegal to call them "digestives"
  17. ^ Cost Plus World Market: Product listing for retail and mail order availability in the United States
  18. ^ Smith, Andrew (2013). The Oxford encyclopedia of food and drink in America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-19-973496-2. Retrieved 28 December 2013. Digestive biscuits, semi-sweet and made with brown meal, can no longer be made under that name in the United States, but the English version is widely available.
  19. ^ Luther, Carol. "What are Digestive Biscuits?". Livestrong.com. Retrieved 10 December 2011.
  20. ^ Young, Linda; Cauvain, Stanley P. (2006). Baked Products: Science, Technology and Practice. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 62. ISBN 1-4051-2702-3. Retrieved 8 April 2011.
  21. ^ "Waitrose: Banoffee Pie". waitrose.com. Archived from the original on 3 March 2007. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  22. ^ EnglishTeaStore.com: McVities Milk Chocolate & Orange Digestives 300g Accessed 5 January 2008
  23. ^ "See how chocolate digestives are made at a London biscuit factory". Time Out. Retrieved 16 August 2022.
  24. ^ Bryson, Bill. (1996). Notes from a Small Island; William Morrow, ISBN 0-688-14725-9
  25. ^ Emerick, Geoff; Massey, Howard (2006). Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles. New York, NY: Penguin. ISBN 1-59240-179-1. Gotham Books, ISBN 1-59240-179-1
  26. ^ Emerick, Geoff; Massey, Howard (16 March 2006). Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles. Penguin. ISBN 9781101218242. Retrieved 21 March 2018 – via Google Books.
  27. ^ "Season 2, Episode 2: Biscuits and Bars Week". CBC. Retrieved 19 August 2021.

General and cited references[edit]

  • Emerick, Geoff; Massey, Howard (2006). Here, There and Everywhere My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-1-59240-179-6.

External links[edit]