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McVitie's Company History, Digestive Biscuits, and Jaffa Cakes

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

Traditional and Delicious 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.

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

Some people like to drink coffee with their biscuits.

Some people like to drink coffee with their biscuits.

A Brief History of the McVitie's Company

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 became 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

Facts About 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 in either the plain or the coated biscuits (at least in the versions created in the UK).

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. I'm not fond of eating the biscuits with cheese, but I love their use in desserts.

Cheesecake With a Digestive Biscuit Base

Dunking Biscuits in Tea

Dunking biscuits in hot tea is an enjoyable activity in the UK, where I grew up. It's 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. It would seem strange to me to dip a biscuit into any other type of liquid.

Buying McVitie's 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. In my experience, 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

Facts About 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, which is currently part of Israel. The history of the oranges is an interesting topic in its own right. A McVitie’s Jaffa 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, which is a town in Greater Manchester. 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.

A Trip to a Jaffa Cake Factory

Are Jaffa Cakes a Cake or a Biscuit?

According to UK 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 (despite their name) 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 that are eaten with the fingers instead of a fork. Calling these products a "cake" doesn't seem to be a problem.

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 it 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 Company and Products Today

McVitie's still has its own website and still sells one type of cake, which is provided in the form of a packaged product. Today the company's main emphasis is on biscuits, bars, and sweet snacks, however.

The company's hobnobs are an oat-based biscuit and are another variety in my local stores. They come in a plain, a chocolate-coated, and a gluten-free version, though I can't buy the last variety locally. I sometimes buy hobnobs and rich tea biscuits, but I prefer the digestives. Though I no longer eat them, I remember the company's penguin bars from my childhood. They were (and hopefully still are) a delicious chocolate and biscuit product in a bar shape.

It's interesting that some products that the company created 90 to 125 years ago are still very popular. I'm glad that McVitie's still exists and that it still produces some of its early products, even though it's officially part of other companies. Digestive biscuits and Jaffa cakes are two items that have stood the test of time and have remained favourites with the public. I think they're lovely treats.

Questions & Answers

Question: Where are McVitie's chocolate biscuits made?

Answer: You would have to look at the label on the packet that you intend to buy or search for a store selling the product in your country on the Internet. Some countries import McVitie's chocolate biscuits made in the UK. I don't know whether this is true for all countries where the product is available, though.

© 2017 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 05, 2020:

I think they're worth trying. I hope you enjoy them if you find them and buy them.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 05, 2020:

Digestive Biscuits and Jaffa Cakes are items of which I am unfamiliar. The next time I am in a store selling international food items, like Phoenicia, I will look to see if they are available in our area. Thanks for writing about them.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 22, 2018:

I love digestive biscuits, too, Liza, especially the ones coated with milk chocolate. Thank you for the comment.

Liza from USA on August 22, 2018:

I love digestive biscuits! My favorite one is dark chocolate. When I'm craving for it I had to go to a store called World Market (they have plenty product from different countries). It's funny because it was so easy to find digestive biscuits in my home country, Malaysia than here in the US. Great article.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 07, 2018:

Hi, Curt. Thank you for sharing the information.

Curt Sembello from Ha Long Bay, Vietnam on July 07, 2018:

Hi Linda! Plain digestives are a favorite of mine, too. In North America, I very often than not find them in Asian supermarkets. Apparently, the British connection to Hong Kong makes them popular. So, US readers searching for digestives may want to make a trip to their local Asian store. I wish they sold Hob Nobs, too.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 18, 2017:

Hi, Anita. Yes, they are delicious!

Anita Hasch on November 18, 2017:

They sure look delicious. Can see why they are so popular.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 17, 2017:

Hi, Peg. Yes, the biscuits would be good in cheesecake. You've made feel hungry now, too!

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on November 17, 2017:

Dunking is a true art with the results clearly visible in the bottom of the cup. I like the idea of using these biscuits as a graham cracker type crust for cheesecake. These photos are making me so hungry.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 09, 2017:

Hi, Anita. Yes, some people certainly have a knack for business!

Anita Hasch from Port Elizabeth on September 09, 2017:

So interesting. I love stories of successful businesses. Some people just know how to take it to the next level.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 07, 2017:

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.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on June 07, 2017:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 29, 2017:

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.

StellaSee from California on April 29, 2017:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2017:

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.

Glen Rix from UK on April 18, 2017:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 22, 2017:

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!

ValKaras on March 22, 2017:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 09, 2017:

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.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on March 09, 2017:

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 :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 07, 2017:

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

Nithya Venkat aka Vellur from Dubai on March 07, 2017:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2017:

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

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 02, 2017:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2017:

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

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on March 02, 2017:

Looks delicious!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2017:

Thank you, Peter!

Peter Dickinson from South East Asia on March 02, 2017:

Loved it.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2017:

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!

Nell Rose from England on March 02, 2017:

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?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2017:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2017:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2017:

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.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on March 02, 2017:

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.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 02, 2017:

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

manatita44 from london on March 02, 2017:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 01, 2017:

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

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 01, 2017:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 01, 2017:

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.

Simon Cook from NJ, USA on March 01, 2017:

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!

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