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2 Oct 2014

Biscuit quest – Greetings once again, faithful readers! Despite appearances, I have not been idle for the last three weeks. I’ve been busy preparing for my class twice a week (which takes a lot of time and effort), I’ve been preparing for a presentation in November and I gave a presentation the Saturday before last at the monthly RASKB colloquium (which was, in fact, sort of a test run for the presentation in November). I’ve had a lot on my plate, in other words.

“While Digestive biscuits are certainly not the worst thing in the world you could cram down your maw, I wanted to see if I could come up with a healthier alternative.”

This has not stopped me from continuing to experiment with the ancient grains, though. My latest experiment was inspired by something I had mentioned in correspondence with Kevin: the desire to create a healthy alternative to McVitie’s Digestive biscuits. I developed a taste for Digestive biscuits during my semester abroad in London, when I probably ate far too many of them. Actually, there’s no “probably” about it; I don’t even want to think of how many boxes I personally polished off in that one semester. I developed the habit of dunking them in my tea, and this is something that I continue to do to this day.

Digestive biscuits, though, aren’t the healthiest thing in the world. The ingredients listed on the box of biscuits I have sitting in my office are: “Wheat Flour (56%), Vegetable Oil (Palm), Sugar, Wholemeal Wheat Flour (13%), Partially Inverted Sugar Syrup, Raising Agents (Sodium Bicarbonate, Tartaric Acid, Malic Acid), Salt.” Notice that only 16% of the biscuit is made from wholemeal, with the remainder being “wheat flour.” I don’t know exactly what this means, but you can be sure it’s not wholemeal—otherwise why list it separately? The biscuits also contain sugar (no surprise there) and something called “partially inverted sugar syrup.” I had no idea what this was, except that it sounded like something Wesley Crusher might use to save the day. But we live in an era when the collected knowledge of humanity lies at our fingertips, and “ignorance” is just another word for “laziness,” so I looked it up. Apparently inversion is a process by which sucrose is broken down into its components (fructose and glucose), producing a syrup that does not crystallize as quickly as normal sugar and is preferred in some baked goods. Is it bad for you, though? Well, in that it is sugar, it’s not great for you. Other than that, I honestly don’t know if it’s any worse than any other type of sugar.

So, while Digestive biscuits are certainly not the worst thing in the world you could cram down your maw, I wanted to see if I could come up with a healthier alternative. If you break down the ingredients above, you’ll see that they fall into a few major categories: flour, oil, sweetener, and raising agent. I also saw other ingredient lists online that included milk, and although my box did not list milk in the ingredients, it did say “may contain milk,” so it’s a pretty safe bet that cow juice is the liquid that makes it all come together. I did some searching around for faux-Digestive recipes and found that there were numerous variations on the formula. I based my own attempt roughly on this recipe from

Let’s start with the flour. I knew from the start that my biscuits were going to be true wholemeal biscuits, and that I would be using ancient grains: spelt, Kamut, quinoa, and amaranth, just like in my previous experiment. I also elected to add oats, even though they’re not an “ancient grain.” They have, of course, been around for quite some time, but they’re not part of the latest fad. Ancient grain or no, oats are still good for you, and I like the taste. Compared to the 56% “wheat flour” and only 13% wholemeal in Digestive biscuits, this one’s a no-brainer—my combination is definitely going to be healthier.

For the oil I decided to go with butter, which may seem like a step backward in the health department. I’ve seen so many conflicting studies on reports on butter, though, that I just don’t know what to think anymore. Like many things that were once thought to be killing us softly, butter is now enjoying a comeback of sorts. Also, notice that the “vegetable oil” in question is palm oil. Palm oil is one of those substances that, like high-fructose corn syrup, might as well be pulsing through Satan’s veins, at least according to some. A quick search, however, shows that the verdict is still out—some studies say it’s bad, some say it’s not so bad, or even good. I think it’s pretty safe to say that palm oil is an environmental catastrophe, though, so... I guess my biscuits will at least be more environmentally friendly? But I have a confession to make: I went with butter not because it is healthier than palm oil or less destructive of the environment, but because it tastes good and makes good biscuits. I figured as long as I didn’t go overboard, I would be OK.

The sweetener was another area where I would be making a change. I’ve been trying to watch my sugar intake lately, and as such I’ve been using agave syrup. Again, I’ve seen conflicting reports on this food, but everyone seems to agree that it has a low glycemic load, which means that it doesn’t cause spikes in blood sugar. The negative side flip side to that, of course, is that it has a low glycemic load because it is low in glucose... and high in fructose, which is incidentally why high-fructose corn syrup is supposed to be so bad for you. I think the moral of the story here is that all of our food is trying to kill us in one way or another. At least, spend enough time on the internet trying to figure out whether certain foods are beneficial or maleficial (yep, that’s an archaic word, but I’m bringing it back) and this is the conclusion you are likely to reach. At any rate, advantages and disadvantages aside, agave syrup is still sugar, so I decided to go with a relatively low amount.

Finally, the raising agent; this is an area where there is not much room for improvement. The original Digestive biscuits got their name from the sodium bicarbonate (aka, baking soda) they contained, which was thought to make them a digestive aid back when they were first created in the mid-19th century. Sodium bicarbonate can, of course, relieve indigestion, but it’s not much use in that regard after it has already interacted with acids in baked goods. I guess whoever came up with the name had a very weak grasp of chemistry. Nonetheless, the name stuck, so any attempt at a healthier Digestive biscuit, no matter how far removed from the original, needs some sodium bicarbonate. You’ll notice that the raising agents also include tartaric acid and malic acid; sodium bicarbonate plus an acid is essentially baking powder. Thus I decided to go with a combination of baking soda and baking powder, as in the recipe I linked to above.

I figured I would need to add some milk as well, although probably not too much, as my sugar is entirely liquid. I used low-fat (1% fat) milk, which is what we drink regularly. (I suppose if you wanted to cut down on a relatively miniscule amount of fat, you could use skim milk instead.) Last but not least, I added some salt. My final list of ingredients is as follows.

I mixed all the dry ingredients (all the ingredients up to the salt) in a bowl and then added the cubed butter. I worked the mixture in pretty much the same way I do when making a crumble—I pressed the flour and butter together with my fingers until it started to form flakes. There wasn’t quite enough butter to pick up all of the dry ingredients, but after adding the agave and working it some more I ended up with a moist crumble. To this I added just enough milk to make a dough. I then carefully shaped the dough into a log (I learned from my cracker experiment last time that if you push cracker or biscuit dough too hard it will break up, very much unlike bread dough), dropped it on the work surface on both ends to flatten them out, and then wrapped it in plastic wrap and put it in the freezer.

I had intended to leave it in the freezer for a half hour, but the Asian Games quarterfinal match in men’s football between Korean and Japan was on, so it ended up being more like an hour (and a very frustrating hour at that, as Korea squandered scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity—although they did manage to eke out a 1-0 win on a penalty kick just before full time). During halftime, I took the log out, sliced half of it into biscuits, put the biscuits on a tray, and put them in the oven at 190 degrees Celsius.

About eight minutes or so into the baking time, an unwelcome smell reached my nostrils—the biscuits were starting to burn. I took them out, but by the time you smell the burning, it’s already too late. They weren’t completely burned, and they certainly weren’t inedible (I have, in fact, since eaten them all), but they were definitely more done than I wanted and very dark on the bottom. This is one of the problems with a mini-oven, which is what I use for all my baking. In a standard oven, food is cooked by the radiant heat from the walls of the oven. In a mini-oven, though, food is also cooked by the heat coming directly off of the heating elements. So even if the interior of the oven is 190 degrees, the heating elements are much hotter, and they are very close to the food (cf. the “mini” part of “mini-oven”). I do have a method for dealing with this that I use on a regular basis, it just hadn’t occurred to me that I would need to do that with the biscuits. For the second batch, though, I brought out my secret weapon: an oven rack that I keep wrapped in foil, shiny side down, to deflect heat away from the bottom of my baking pans and trays. With the foiled rack in place, I was able to leave the biscuits in for the full twelve minutes, and they came out perfect.

I did take photos of the process at various points along the way, but to be honest they’re not really that interesting, and I don’t think anything says it better than this photo of the finished product.

These are, of course, from the second batch. They look like proper wholemeal biscuits, and I particularly like the effect of the oats—because of the way the dough was shaped, pretty much all the oats ended up being on edge in the finished product. Had I rolled the dough out flat and then cut out the biscuits, you would have seen the “faces” of the oats, rather than the edges. But you can see for yourself what they look like. What you want to know is how they taste, right? In a word, they taste quite good (OK, two words). They don’t really taste anything like Digestive biscuits, but I was going for an alternative to Digestives, not a reproduction of them. These ancient grain biscuits are not as sweet, they don’t feel quite as fatty, and they have a nuttier, heartier flavor (I was pleasantly surprised to find that the amaranth worked quite well here, as it did in the crackers). In terms of texture, they are crisper and more dense than Digestive biscuits.

But we need more detail than that, and this wouldn’t be a true experiment if I stopped there. There are two primary uses for a Digestive biscuit—aside from just eating them straight out of the box, of course—and I wanted to test my own biscuits using those metrics. The first use is one I mentioned above: dunking in tea. I made a cup of tea with milk, using the standard method of adding the milk to the cup first and then pouring on the tea, because you don’t want to mess with science. (For the purposes of this experiment I went with Captain Scott’s Blend from Tesco, because it reminds me most of having tea with milk in England, and this is one of my go-to happy sense memories.) With the tea ready, it was time for the dunk. I submerged half the biscuit in the tea for five seconds before removing it and taking a bite. The biscuit held up quite well, probably because it is far denser than a Digestive biscuit. If you submerged half a Digestive biscuit in hot tea for a full five seconds, that’s exactly what you’d be left with when you pulled it out again: half a Digestive biscuit. Generally I only dunk Digestives for about two seconds—three seconds tops—and even then I end up with crumbs at the bottom of my tea when I’m finished. The ancient grain biscuits, though, released no crumbs, and the saturated portion did not threaten to slough off into my tea. So for ease of dunking and eating, the ancient grain biscuits definitely win out over Digestives. Of course, all of this means that the ancient grain biscuits don’t become nearly as saturated with tea as Digestives; if you like your biscuits sopping with tea, that’s probably going to be a downside. I thought they still tasted quite good, though—the tea did penetrate the biscuit and bring out the butter flavor, as well as a little more earthiness from the Kamut and amaranth. As far as I’m concerned, there are no real downsides here, and the ancient grain biscuits passed test number one with flying colors.

(Science note: I wrote the above sentence about dunking Digestive biscuits in hot tea for five seconds without ever having done so. After a while it began to bother me that I was just going on gut feeling, not empirical science. So I dunked a Digestive biscuit in hot tea for a full five seconds yesterday... and I was rather surprised to find that the dunked half of the biscuit did not disintegrate. It came up out of the tea extremely soggy, but it clung to the dry half of the biscuit with a rather disconcerting tenacity. I held the biscuit over the tea for a good five seconds, waiting to see if it would fracture, but it held fast and showed no signs of even stretching. There was a problem, though: In order to actually put the biscuit in my mouth, I would have to flip it 180 degrees, soggy side up. While the biscuit seemed content to just hang there, sodden, for God knows how long, its structural integrity had definitely been compromised; I knew that as soon as I tilted the biscuit even slightly the soggy part would break off and plunge into the tea. My other option was to maintain the orientation of the biscuit, lift it up, and drop it in my mouth. But I feared that the movement would dislodge the sodden part, dropping it on my desk, my pants, the floor, or my face, none of which are proper receptacles for sodden biscuit. I ended up taking a spoon and supporting the biscuit with that as I brought it to my mouth. So, although the biscuit did not in fact split in two, I maintain that a five-second dunk is still a recipe for disaster.)

The second test is something I haven’t mentioned yet, but Digestive biscuits are famous for pairing well with another food, this time a solid one: cheese. This seemed like a pretty good time to break out a “very old” (aged 14 months) Gouda we had bought directly from the source at a New Zealand farmers market; it’s been sitting there in its vacuum packaging since then, but we could never seem to find an occasion to tear into it. Well, what better occasion than science? I sliced off some of the cheese and placed it on the biscuit. I was not surprised to find that the combination worked very well indeed. (Also, the cheese is awesome. Thank you, New Zealand fromagère!) If cheese works on Digestive biscuits (and it does), it is most certainly going to work on a biscuit that is not as sweet and has more of the earthiness of wholemeal. In fact, I think I’d go as far as to say that I prefer the ancient grain biscuits to Digestives as vehicles of cheese conveyance.

In addition to the tests I performed myself, HJ offered her own empirical findings—she gave them a thumbs up, saying that they were tasty and not too sweet. I also released some of the biscuits into the wild, giving them to HJ, who in turn gave samples to her colleagues and students. She reported that the results were positive, and there was even a request for a recipe. (So here you go, Erin... sorry for making you wait!)

All that being said, my primary aim here was not necessarily to create a tasty biscuit. I didn’t, of course, set out to create a biscuit that tasted like crap, but my goal was first and foremost to make a healthy alternative to Digestives. A tasty biscuit that was worse for me than Digestives wasn’t going to be much good. So I suppose the final question we have to answer is: Are the ancient grain biscuits actually better for you than Digestives? Given the fact that I used 100% wholemeal flours, I think it’s safe to say that they are... but you didn’t think I was going to leave it at that, did you? Of course not. We need numbers.

I will spare you the process itself, but the end result of my investigation is a nutritional information table for my biscuits, based on the nutritional information of each of the ingredients. Below is a comparison of Digestive biscuits and ancient grain biscuits.

Per BiscuitDigestiveAncient Grain
   Dietary Fiber-0.9g

There are a few things to note about the above information. For one, the Digestive biscuit box doesn’t have any information for dietary fiber (even though it proclaims on the front “Source of Fibre”), but all of my ingredients included it in their information, and I figured it would be something people might want to know. Also, notice that the amount of sodium in the Digestives is only approximately 100mg. That’s because, for some reason, McVitie’s uses the gram as their unit for measuring sodium. I’ve always seen sodium measured in milligrams, and that was the way it was listed on all my ingredients, so I went with milligrams. Assuming that McVitie’s is rounding to the nearest decigram, this value could be anywhere from 83 to 97 milligrams (more on why later).

The above information is fine if you just want to compare one biscuit to another, but it is also a little misleading, because Digestive biscuits and my ancient grain biscuits are not the same size or (more importantly) weight. Digestive biscuits are 75 millimeters in diameter and 6 millimeters thick, and they weigh 15 grams a piece. My ancient grain biscuits, though, are much smaller at 55 millimeters in diameter, 6 millimeters thick, and 12 grams in weight. So to get a more accurate comparison of the nutritional information, we need to calculate the values by equal units for both biscuits. McVitie’s helpfully gives their nutritional information per 100 grams, so I will do the same.

Per 100gDigestiveAncient Grain
   Dietary Fiber-7.5g

This makes it a lot easier to compare the nutritional information. Starting at the top, we see that the ancient grain biscuits have about 88% of the calories of Digestive biscuits. That’s not a tremendous difference, I suppose, but it is a difference. The numbers for fat content are what caught my eye, though; ancient grain biscuits have roughly 75% of the fat of Digestive biscuits. The difference is not as great in terms of saturated fats (85% of Digestives), but that’s still not bad considering the fact that butter is essentially a hunk of saturated fat.

The ancient grain biscuits are slightly lower in carbohydrates, and even lower in the sugars category. You may be wondering about the dietary fiber/sugars distinction. In a nutshell, “sugars” are the simple carbohydrates, while “dietary fiber” is one type of complex carbohydrates (the other is starch). Simple carbohydrates are processed very quickly by the body, which is not a good thing, so the lower that “sugars” number is the better. Here, we can see that the ancient grains biscuits have about 80% of the amount of sugars that Digestives have. There are many different types of dietary fiber, but the important thing about them is that they are not digested by the body, yet they aid the digestive process in a number of ways. The more dietary fiber the better, and 7.5 grams is not a bad number. I can’t make an exact comparison with Digestives here, but McVitie’s does make a whole wheat version that contains 69% wholemeal flour, and they proudly state that “each biscuit contains a whole gram (of fibre).” Based on that alone, I would guess that Digestives have significantly less than a gram of fiber per biscuit, and that the ancient grains win out in the fiber department as well. Next time I may even add wheat bran (in which 60% of the carbohydrates are dietary fiber) to the recipe to boost this figure.

The higher protein number (the ancient grain biscuits have over 25% more protein than Digestives) is also good, and not unexpected—the wholemeal flours that I used are relatively high in protein. I was a little surprised by the figures in the last row of the table, though. As I mentioned above, McVitie’s measures their sodium in grams, and the box lists the sodium content as “0.6g.” (This is why I said above that the sodium per biscuit could range from 83mg to 97mg; 550mg per 100g would come out to 82.5mg per biscuit, while 649mg per 100g would come out to 97.35mg per biscuit.) This is still lower than the sodium level for the ancient grain biscuits, though. I can only imagine that they maybe used less salt in the Digestives; if I cut the salt down from half a teaspoon to a quarter, I would be down to 524mg per 100 grams of biscuits. The majority of the rest of the sodium comes from the baking soda and baking powder (being, respectively, entirely and partially sodium bicarbonate), and I don’t think I can really reduce the amounts there. I suppose it’s not too bad, though, as long as you don’t scarf down an entire batch (25 biscuits) in one sitting—that would take you to about 90% of the USDA recommendation for sodium (2400mg).

So there you have it. With the exception of the sodium, I think it is safe to say that my ancient grain biscuits are an improvement over Digestives in terms of their healthiness. I am also pleased with how they taste. Like I said, they are not a reproduction of Digestives, but I think they are a suitable alternative. There are a few minor changes that could be made, and no doubt next time I will attempt to improve the recipe, but I am satisfied with the results of this initial experiment. I hope you enjoyed this report, even if it was a bit long.

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