Unsurprisingly, a digestive biscuit is supposed to help digestion.
According to McVitie’s web site, Sir Alexander Grant de Forres created the original McVitie’s Digestive recipe for the Scottish bakery McVitie & Price in 1892. That recipe is kept secret.
Alternative versions of the digestive’s history locate it in advertisements for the biscuit company Huntley & Palmers in 1876 and a recipe published in Cassell’s popular New Universal Cookery Book of 1894 written by domestic economist Lizzie Heritage, which notes that “The sugar may be omitted and the biscuits eaten with cheese, &c.; more salt is then wanted.”
A digestive is a semi-sweet biscuit believed to have antacid properties due to the inclusion of sodium bicarbonate in its manufacture. However, since most of the sodium bicarbonate decomposes during baking, it has negligible impact on the stomach’s acid production. But who cares? They still taste delicious!
It was inevitable that the plain old digestive would eventually be given a make-over. In 1925 McVitie’s first foray into combining biscuit with chocolate resulted in the Homewheat Chocolate Digestive brand (now simply known as McVitie’s Chocolate Digestives). They were an instant success, although unaccountably some people prefer the milk chocolate variety while more discerning palates opt for plain chocolate. Either way, according to “Chocolate digestives: the best and worst – taste test” (The Guardian, 24 February 2016), the “digestive” part has been overtaken by sheer greed:
“The feelings associated with it are more often guilt and mild nausea, rather than health and wellbeing. You may open a packet of chocolate digestives with the best of intentions but, invariably, you will end up eating six rather than two. And only stopping at six if you have iron self-discipline.”
Famously – it seems – in his travel book. Notes from a Small Island (1995) American travel writer Bill Bryson called the chocolate digestive “a British masterpiece”. In a paean to his adopted land he wrote:
“Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain – which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad – Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but’, people apologizing to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays – every bit of it… What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardeners’ Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.”