Digestive Biscuits in Their Proper Context

We begin our search in the fetid mire of Victorian England.

Recently, Dear Husband brought home a box of iconic food from Great Britain. He helped some wonderful British clients buy a home in the area, and they were so happy to have his expertise in this competitive real estate market that they were generous enough to share the culinary wealth with us. One package really caught my eye. McVitie’s Digestive, it said. New to me.

I can’t think of a less appealing name for a foodstuff, but then the Brits are well known for their questionable food names. Two words: Spotted Dick. Not good enough for you? How about Rumbledethumps, Eton Mess, Mucky Dripping and Toad in the Hole? I can’t give a qualified review of most of these, having only tried Toad in the Hole (which is actually quite good.) But it’s as if the experts in the culinary arts across the pond have a singular goal of making things sound as unappetizing as humanly possible.

Frankly, British food has a bad reputation in general. Don’t believe me? Google it and a lot of articles will pop up. But having only changed planes in that neck of the woods, I can’t really speak with any authority on the subject. And after writing this post, I probably couldn’t make it through customs. They’d most likely spin me around and send me flying back home to McDonald’s.

But let’s get back to the Digestives. At first glance they reminded me of the dietary wafer that my grandmother used to force my mother to eat on her way to school in the 1940’s. My mother said they were disgusting, so she would throw them into the neighbor’s bushes. I have no idea what they were for, but my mother wasn’t having it.

Surely this couldn’t be a similar product, though. How would it have remained popular since 1892 if no one wanted to eat it? And this particular version sitting before me was coated in my Achilles heel: milk chocolate. As far as I’m concerned, anything covered in milk chocolate has got to have some redeeming qualities.

So I decided to give them a try. I wish they had been bad. I really do. But no. I could have eaten the entire sleeve of 16 in one sitting. This is a disaster. At 83 calories per biscuit, I’d weigh 900 pounds in no time. And now I’ll know these delicious things are out there in the world, calling my name, coaxing me to dash upon the rocks of obesity. Fortunately, they’re not as readily available in America, or I’d be doomed.

But why on earth would you name this ambrosia, this food of the Gods, “Digestive”? I had to get to the bottom of this. My research sent me deep into the fetid mire of Victorian England.

I eased my way into the subject by visiting Wikipedia. There, I learned that these biscuits were first invented in Scotland in1839. McVitie’s took up the torch in 1892 and started mass producing them at a time when mass production was very new. To this day, the chocolate covered ones are ranked as the U.K’s favorite snack by a wide variety of sources.

The commonly told story about the name for this devilish treat goes like this: One of the ingredients is sodium bicarbonate, which has antacid properties. I’d hazard a guess that those properties greatly diminish when you bake them into a cookie, but people in the 1800’s didn’t know that.

And that’s it. That’s all most people have to say on the subject. But the era in which they were created has long fascinated me. And after the hundreds of documentaries I’ve seen, I have developed a rather interesting back story for Digestives.

First of all, I’m amazed that humanity survived the Victorian era. The life expectancy in England in 1892 was 45 years. And it ranged between 40 and 50 years from 1852 to 1907. Talk about slow progress.

Disease was rife in Victorian England. Many died of smallpox, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, measles, and influenza. (Three cheers for modern vaccines!)

The first cholera epidemic was in 1831, and it took the Victorians until 1866 to figure out what caused it and successfully combat it. It was cholera that caused them to create boards of health with the goals of regulating clean water supplies, better drainage, and, in the 1870’s, the focus sharpened to combat unsanitary urban living conditions. They were fighting an uphill battle.

The Victorians were rather obsessed with health, probably because it was in short supply in urban slums. They didn’t have cures for any major diseases, and this led to some rather unorthodox treatments. They swore by emetics (which cause vomiting), laxatives, and leeches. There was no such thing as aspirin. They thought arsenic was something you should take for anemia. Asthmatics were instructed to inhale tobacco smoke. In 1899, people were prescribed laxatives for chicken pox. Mind you, this was some 60 years after the industrial revolution. Some sectors of their culture were advancing more quickly than others.

Improper food storage had caused its fair share of illness, or at least it was often blamed for it, right along with “miasmas”. People were streaming into the cities for work, and therefore the need to transport and store food became more urgent. City folk couldn’t eat fresh and local as they used to do on the farm.

The good news is that trains made food much easier to transport, and this was also the era when food with a long shelf life was invented. Thank the Victorians for condensed milk, dried eggs and soups, and bottled sauces. Meat canning started around 1865, causing most middle-class families to obtain can openers, which were first patented in 1855. Refrigerated meat transport started in the 1880’s.

So while people were becoming less worried about obtaining food, they were still worried about their health, and a lot of quack medicine was available. People were willing to try anything.

Snake Oil Linament was actually a thing sold in pharmacies, and it was supposed to cure Rheumatism, Neuralgia, Sciatica, Lame Back, Lumbago, Toothache, Sprains, and Swellings. Obviously it didn’t work. That’s where we get the term “Snake Oil Salesman” for a person who is trying to sell you something bogus.

In a time when cocaine and morphine were often given to children and radium baths were offered in hotels, people really must have dreaded getting sick, so they’d look toward prevention.

From all these bits and pieces, I have a theory about Digestives. You probably wouldn’t want to market your product as a delicious biscuit when bakeries were the place people normally went for such things. So some brilliant marketer probably suggested they should market it, instead, as an aid for digestion. (Who knows? They may have even believed it at the time. But I tend to take a cynical view of marketers.)

Thus, this product was named to target the many people with stomach issues or those wishing to avoid such maladies. Eventually, as life expectancy increased and the need for Digestives decreased, I’m sure that people remembered how delicious these things were. I suspect that’s when this product began a slow transition from being an intestinal cure to being “just” a biscuit as they are viewed today.

So why hasn’t the company changed the name to suit more modern sensibilities? Tradition. Name recognition. Most Brits probably don’t even realize how strange the name is, because strange names quickly become commonplace to our ears. For example, I work with a great guy who goes by the name Skeeter. For about a week and a half, I struggled to call a grown man a cutesy name for a mosquito. But after a while, I became accustomed to it, and now I can’t imagine calling him anything else. If a cookie were delicious enough, I’d buy it even if it were called Skeeter, so why not Digestive?

Now, the challenge becomes finding ways not to order Digestives online. My waistline will thank me if I succeed. But they really are good, so please don’t send me any. I’m serious. Don’t. I would not appreciate the gesture at all. I’m having a hard enough time resisting the urge to dive face first into one of their boxes as it is.


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Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

6 thoughts on “Digestive Biscuits in Their Proper Context”

  1. This is written by a friend of mine. I’ve always wondered about “digestives”…sounds like a tasty way to “settle” your stomach.

  2. Oh, well! At least you know I share your stuff…when I hit the correct button, any way! Love you…

  3. Sodium bicarbonate, the scientific term for baking soda, is used in most cookies, cakes, muffins and some breads, so I guess I can eat a lot more of them and throw out the expensive pills my gastroenterologist insists I take. Since a batch of cookies usually has only one teaspoon of baking soda… I’ll have to eat 6 dozen a day. Now, let’s find a way to make potato chips (crisps) a preventative treatment. Here’s another tasty British food, taken from the Scotts, with a less than promising name… https://amandascookin.com/traditional-english-trifle/
    If they call their cookies biscuits, what do they call their actual biscuits? Geeze, it’s the middle of the night and now you got me hungry.:)

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