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McVitie's History, Digestive Biscuits, and Jaffa Cakes

Updated on March 1, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as the culture and history of food.

Plain, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate digestives
Plain, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate digestives | Source

Traditional Treats

McVitie's biscuits have been popular in Britain since the nineteenth century. I've loved the company's digestive biscuits and Jaffa cakes since my childhood. The digestives are semi-sweet and crumbly. Their wholemeal flour component gives them a distinctive taste. The Jaffa cakes consist of three layers—a chocolate topping, orange flavoured jelly, and a layer of sponge. According to an interesting court case, the delicious treats are indeed cakes. To me they seem half way between biscuits and cakes, though.

McVitie's products are available in some stores in North America, but they may be hard to find. They can also be ordered online. Some translations may be useful for North Americans when they're reading about the products. For example, a biscuit is the same thing as a cookie and wholemeal flour is the same as whole wheat flour.

Some people like to drink biscuits with coffee.
Some people like to drink biscuits with coffee. | Source

A Brief History of McVitie's

Robert McVitie was the founder of the company known today as McVitie's (spelled with the apostrophe, according to the company's website). He was born in Scotland in 1809 and became a baker. In 1830, Robert and his father opened a provision shop in Edinburgh. The shop did so well that others were opened. When Robert died he left his business to his son, who continued to expand it.

The first biscuit factory was opened in 1888 after it became obvious that baking in shops was no longer sufficient to meet the demand. Additional factories were opened later.

Some highlights of the company's history include the creation of the following:

  • the first McVitie's digestive biscuit in 1892 (made by Alexander Grant)
  • the wedding cake for the future King George V and Queen Mary in 1893
  • the chocolate digestive biscuit in 1925
  • Jaffa cakes in 1927
  • the wedding cake for the future Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947
  • the first fully automated biscuit factory in the world in 1948 (located in Harlesden, an area in London)

McVitie's is now part of United Biscuits. As its name suggests, this company consists of several biscuit makers. Recently, United Biscuits has become part of Pladis, a global biscuit and confectionary company. Pladis is a subsidiary of a Turkish food group called Yildiz Holding.

McVitie's digestives
McVitie's digestives | Source

Digestive Biscuits

McVitie's digestive biscuits, or digestives, come in four versions—plain, or coated with milk chocolate, dark chocolate, or milk chocolate plus caramel. The plain version is my favourite. I sometimes buy digestives coated with milk chocolate, however. They are nice right out of the packet and after dunking in tea.

Digestives get their name from their sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) content. It's known that drinking a small quantity of sodium bicarbonate dissolved in water can relieve some types of upset stomach. It's highly unlikely that the chemical in a cooked product can do the same thing, but the creation of the name "digestive" biscuit was probably a good marketing strategy.

The plain biscuits can't be classified as a health food, but they aren't a nutritional disaster. They are made from wheat flour and a smaller quantity of wholemeal flour. The term "wheat flour" generally means the same as white flour. One biscuit contains 2 grams of sugar and 2.5 grams of fat. There are no artificial flavours or colours added to either the plain or the coated biscuits.

Some people like to eat cheese with digestive biscuits. Others like to crumble the biscuits and then mix them with a little butter to make a base for a cheesecake or the topping for an apple crumble.

Cheesecake With a Digestive Biscuit Base

Dunking Biscuits in Tea

Dunking biscuits in hot tea is a fine art. I love the taste of warm, soft biscuit, but I hate eating soggy bits that have fallen to the bottom of the cup. The length of the dunking time is important. Too little and the biscuit is still hard; too much and it disintegrates.

Several researchers have tried to find the best biscuit for dunking. The rich tea biscuit—including the McVitie's version—has been the winner in every case. It's a relatively hard and dense product that stays intact for the longest time when placed in hot tea. Despite the fact that the chocolate digestive disintegrates faster in hot liquid, it's a popular item for dunking. The heat creates a warm biscuit with soft chocolate, which tastes delicious.

Some people like to dunk their biscuits in coffee or milk, but tea is my beverage of choice for dunking.

Dunking a McVitie's digestive
Dunking a McVitie's digestive | Source

Buying Digestives

I currently live in Canada. McVitie's has a Canadian distribution centre that distributes nine varieties of their biscuits to other parts of the country. The products are made in Britain and have the same ingredients as the British ones, which pleases me. When prepared foods are produced or sold in countries other than their original one, they are sometimes made from a slightly different recipe.

The biscuit selection that I find in my local stores is limited and variable. It probably depends on what a store orders or on what is currently available in the distribution centre. Getting the product that I want is often a hit-and-miss affair.

Buying biscuits online allows people to get a specific variety. Good packaging helps to prevent breakage during shipping. It's hard to completely avoid breakage in the plain version of digestive biscuits, however, since they're quite fragile. I often find that the first ones in a packet are crumbled at the edges. They taste just as good whether they're intact or broken, though. The chocolate-coated varieties are stronger than the plain one. Amazon sells a six-pack collection of McVitie's digestive biscuits that were made in Britain.

An interesting arrangement of Jaffa cakes
An interesting arrangement of Jaffa cakes | Source

Jaffa Cakes

Jaffa cakes get their name from Jaffa oranges. The name is a reference to the orange flavoured jelly inside the cakes. The "J" in the name is capitalized because it refers to the city of Jaffa. One cake contains 6.4 grams of sugar and 1 gram of fat.

The base of a cake is made of genoise sponge. The sponge is named after the Italian city of Genoa, where it was first created. It's made from whole eggs, sugar, and flour. Air is added to the batter to produce the spongy texture.

The jelly in the cakes contains concentrated orange juice and natural orange flavouring. The gel is produced by the addition of pectin. A cake has to be cut open to see the jelly, which is located under the raised area of the dark chocolate topping.

All of McVitie's Jaffa cakes are made in a factory at Stockport. 2,000 cakes are produced every minute. Each one goes on a journey of nearly a mile in length and about eighteen minutes in time as it's assembled.

How Jaffa Cakes Are Made

Cake or Biscuit?

According to U.K. law, biscuits are considered to be a luxury item and are subject to VAT (Value Added Tax). For some strange reason, cakes are considered to be a staple food and are not subject to VAT. In 1991, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise decided that Jaffa cakes were biscuits and that consumers should pay the tax when they purchased them. McVitie's disagreed and took the case to court.

Arguments for Jaffa cakes being classified as biscuits included the fact that they are sold with other biscuits instead of with cakes and that they are packaged in the same way as biscuits. They are also small and are eaten as a snack with the fingers instead of with a fork. This argument seems a bit weak to me, since I can think of quite a few types of small cakes as well as cakes that are eaten with the fingers instead of a fork.

The argument for Jaffa cakes being classified as cakes (which won the case) was that cakes become hard when they get stale while biscuits become soft. When Jaffa cakes become stale, they harden. Therefore they must be a cake.

Why Cakes Harden as They Become Stale

Buying Jaffa Cakes

Until quite recently, I could find McVitie's Jaffa cakes in nearby stores. Unfortunately I no longer see them there. There is a wonderful British import store in my area that sells the cakes, however. It takes me quite a long time to drive to the store so I don't go there regularly, but when I do visit I always find the journey very worthwhile. It's like a trip into my past as I view the once-familiar foods and drinks for sale.

Amazon sells a pack of thirty-six Jaffa cakes from Britain. It might be wise to avoid getting them during the hottest part of the year in order to reduce the chance of the chocolate melting during transport. I think it's worth ordering them online at least once if they can't be found locally, though, especially if someone enjoys the taste of chocolate combined with orange. The cakes may become an individual or family favourite, as they have for me.

McVitie's Today

McVitie's still sells a few cakes, which are provided in the form of small, packaged loaves. The company's main emphasis is on biscuits, bars, and sweet snacks, however. It's interesting that some products that the company created 90 to 125 years ago are still very popular. Digestive biscuits and Jaffa cakes have stood the test of time and have remained favourites with the public.

© 2017 Linda Crampton

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    • SimeyC profile image

      Simon Cook 4 months ago from NJ, USA

      When I moved over to the US, I used to get my dad to bring Jaffa Cakes over every time he visited - my kids love them! Now we can get them online, my dad no longer has to risk an inspection at the airport! Great and interesting article! I remember the court case about Jaffa Cakes!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      It's great that there are ways to get the cakes in North America. I would miss them if I could never find them! Thank you for the comment, SimeyC. I appreciate your visit.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 months ago from USA

      I haven't heard of these. Having moved around a fair amount within the US and travelled some abroad I am intrigued by local or regional (in this case international) foods. So interesting ... the lawsuit fuss about biscuit or cake. Sounds like America's court system.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Flourish. I'm interested in traditional foods from different places, too. The cultural aspects of food can sometimes be fascinating. Thanks for commenting.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 4 months ago from london

      Lost my long comment. AAH!

      Anyway, nice to hear of Robert Mc Vitie's and his own history, as well as the durability of his products. Some really amazing and tempting, succulent and scrumptious-looking pictures. Now I'm glad I wrote my Ode to Chocolates.

      Cakes or biscuits? Something for the wit of the Tax man, perhaps.

      I work for Reed who has done his autobiography. An inspirational book about his humble roots and how he got going. It reads like a manual for success. Just imagine he is still alive and the son runs a very successful, large and international company.

      Well into his late eighties, the father still exercises and keeps fit, I believe. Nice to read about people with drive who started poor and made the seemingly impossible possible. Another excellent Hub.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Never heard of them, never tasted one, obviously, but if they were to have chocolate on them, I would love them. :)

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 4 months ago from The Beautiful South

      Chocolate and orange...sounds like an interesting combination. I have been thinking of baking that combination in a recipe lately, having seen it mentioned somewhere else. Might give these a try, thanks for jogging that memory.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Manatita. Thanks for repeating your comment! It can be very inspiring to read about people who work hard and achieve success. The person that you describe sounds like a great example.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. Yes, chocolate makes many foods taste great! I love it, especially milk chocolate.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment, Jackie. I think the combination of chocolate and orange is delicious. It's definitely worth trying if you haven't tried done so before.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 months ago from England

      Oh you are so English! lol! now I want a Jaffa cake! being English I love my digestives and jaffa cakes, I buy them all the time. great info about who started the whole thing, and where. loved it! Now, where are my biscuits?

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Nell. I've lived in Canada a long time and love it here, but a part of me is still British. I think it always will be!

    • Peter Dickinson profile image

      Peter Dickinson 4 months ago from South East Asia

      Loved it.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Peter!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 4 months ago from Oklahoma

      Looks delicious!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I think they are delicious! Thanks for commenting, Larry.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 4 months ago from The Caribbean

      Alicia, these goodies surely sound like a luxury items. The Java cakes with "a chocolate topping, orange flavoured jelly, and a layer of sponge" sounds delicious. And to think that the company made wedding cakes for royalty. Thanks for sharing the facts.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, MsDora. Yes, the cakes are especially delicious. They do seem like a luxury to me! They are a lovely treat.

    • Nithya Venkat profile image

      Nithya Venkat aka Vellur 4 months ago from Dubai

      Interesting and informative article about the McVitie's biscuits and cakes. I love the Jaffa cakes and the chocolate Digestives. The Digestive tea biscuit is the best. Thank you for sharing, learned a lot about Digestive Biscuits.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Vellur. It's nice to hear about another person who likes McVitie's biscuits!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 4 months ago from South Africa

      I love this kind of biscuits! Often have it as breakfast or lunch when I'm in a hurry or too busy to prepare something substantial. Thanks for all the interesting information, Linda! We don't have McVitie's in South Africa! Or perhaps I should check again :)

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Martie. It's interesting to see how many people like the biscuits! I hope I continue to find them in Canada. I appreciate your comment.

    • profile image

      ValKaras 4 months ago

      Hello Linda--- Quite a "delicious" hub you wrote. For quite a while I haven't been eating anything containing sugar and flour, but your hub reminded me of my favorite Digestive Biscuits. I liked the plain kind like you do.

      I always thought that the name "digestive" was picked at random just for advertisement purpose---but now you clarified that the biscuits contain some baking soda, for which I know that it helps digestion---hence the name.

      Thank you for reminding me of all those pleasurable times when I would put the bag (they come in bags) in front of me instead of popcorn and watched a movie.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit, Val. Eating digestive biscuits can certainly be pleasurable! I've never heard of a bag of them before, though we might be referring to the same thing. I've always called the biscuit containers packets, but they do resemble a bag. They are delicious, whatever their container is called!

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      Glenis Rix 3 months ago from UK

      I watched British celebrity baker Paul Hollywood make chocolate digestives on tv yesterday - in Hollywood. Seemed like a lot of hard work for a delicious treat readily available from my corner shop.

      I have been a fan of McVities digestives for around 60 years and could enthuse about them at great length! Even into his nineties my Dad even kept a supply ready for me to enjoy when I visited for a daily morning chat and a cuppa. I can also recommend the plain ones to eat with or without cheese. But I can't share my sons' enthusiasm for Jaffa cakes!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Glenis. I've been a fan of the biscuits for many years, too. I love eating the plain ones with a cup of tea. I like Jaffa cakes as well, though. I always think of them as a special treat.

    • StellaSee profile image

      StellaSee 2 months ago from California

      Hi Linda, I love digestives! I also like the plain ones too, I have a friend that travels to London often and I always ask her to buy me some when she comes back. I always wondered where their name came from, I was thinking maybe it's because it has some laxative property, but now I know. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Stella. I'm lucky because I can find digestives close to my home, although sometimes only the chocolate or caramel varieties are available. It's good that you have a friend who can buy the biscuits for you.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 6 weeks ago from Brazil

      I love them all and have consumed more than my fair share of them. I too am a dunker, it drives my husband crazy. I personally don't dunk chocolate covered ones as I end up with chocolate on my fingers. These are something I definitely miss about the UK.

      I was surprised to read that it is owned by a Turkish holding company. That is like the heart of Britain has been ripped out. The company which has made the wedding cakes for two royal weddings and it is allowed to be sold into foreign ownership? Is nothing sacred any longer? I guess it was a business decision and not one open to public debate.

      Interesting article about some of my favourite biscuits.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Mary. It's nice to hear about another dunker! I dunk both the plain and the chocolate versions. I don't mind the melted chocolate. I assume the sale was a business decision, as you say, although it is a little sad for a biscuit range with such a big reputation as a traditional British product.

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