What your daily biscuit habit does to your waist, heart and gut

' My brain is powered almost exclusively by biscuits,' says writer  Hattie Garlick
'My brain is powered almost exclusively by biscuits,' says writer Hattie Garlick - David Rose

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What is currently lying on your desk? A laptop, probably. A photo of your family, possibly. A tea-stained mug and embarrassingly deflated pack of biscuits? Certainly, if you are anything like me. My brain is powered almost exclusively by biscuits. And I am not alone. According to Statista, biscuit sales amounted to about £588 million in the UK in 2022, up six per cent on the previous year. The average man, woman and child nibbled their way through 81 grams of sweet biscuits and cereal bars each week (about five and a half digestives).

“No other nation buys and eats more biscuits,” says Lizzie Collingham, the food historian, in her book The Biscuit: The History of a Very British Indulgence. “Biscuits are as embedded in British food culture as fish and chips or the Sunday roast.”

Savoury ones were a staple of the Roman poor. Sugar was added in the Middle East. But once the Industrial Revolution introduced mass production, Britain took the basic biscuit recipe and ran with it. The world’s first dedicated biscuit factory opened in Reading in 1846 and it was British bakers who developed the myriad moreish flavours we scoff today.

Ginger nuts are currently the nation’s favourites, according to a Sunlife poll of the over-50s conducted this year. Rich Tea rolls into second place followed by digestives, custard creams, and shortbread. The key factor is dunkability. Or, as one respondent named Dee succinctly put it: “Any biscuit that can be dunked into a cuppa at the time of drinking is the best biscuit.”

The reason you can’t resist a biscuit with your cuppa

Why is it so impossible for our nation to imagine tea without biscuits? “There are two aspects at play,” says Dr Emily Leeming, a gut health expert at King’s College London who has explored the latest research on the impact of food on your microbiome and mood in her report Second Brain on online platform Substack.

The first is psychological and stems from an area of the brain called the amygdala. “It’s the architect of your emotional memories, linking specific foods with a feeling, certain time or place.” Brain scans show that the amygdala is more powerfully activated by scent than by images.

So the smell alone of tea and biscuits can serve as a time machine, transporting you back to happy childhood memories of after-school snacks, or cosy afternoons with your granny.

There is more, however, to the magic of this traditional pairing. Carb-rich and sugary foods like biscuits activate the nucleus accumbens – the brain’s so-called “pleasure area” – giving us a transient dopamine high, says Dr Saira Hameed, consultant in endocrinology and diabetes at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and author of The Full Diet Cookbook.

Add tea, and this process is accelerated. “Dunking a biscuit softens up the texture making the biscuit literally melt in the mouth. This means that the sugar hits the taste receptors with a bang and also gets into the bloodstream and thus that ‘pleasure area’ faster.”

Psychological ties to specific times and places can make resisting a biscuit more difficult
Psychological ties to specific times and places can make resisting a biscuit more difficult - David Rose

Placing a warm, tea-soaked biscuit in the mouth floods us with feelings of happiness and also – as sugar surges through our blood – with energy. Like all the best things, however, this feeling fades. The duration of a sugar spike can vary from minutes to more than an hour.

Then insulin begins to clear that excess sugar out of your blood, and your blood sugar levels fall again. “You can experience this in various ways – perhaps an energy crash, or a mood swing or simply craving more sugar,” says Dr Hameed. This explains why we find ourselves reaching for another biccie. Then another. Then another. And it is also why our national habit might be something of an issue.

Healthier swaps

Biscuits aren’t exactly a health food but few of us are prepared to give them up completely. Here are the better options:

Swap your chocolate digestive (84 kcal) for a Nairns dark chocolate chip oatcake (45 kcal)

Swap your Hobnob (72 kcal) for a Rich Tea biscuit (38 kcal)

Swap your shortbread (109 kcal) for a Malted Milk (39 kcal)

Swap your Ginger Nut (55 kcal) for a Nairns ginger oatcake (44 kcal)

The problem with modern biscuits

Because the nation’s favourite treat has come a long way since 1892, when Scottish company McVitie’s developed a digestive biscuit, the secret recipe for which contained a recently discovered ingredient: bicarbonate of soda. This alkali neutralises stomach acid, allowing the company to advertise the health benefits of its new product.

Today’s biscuits, however, have been developed to a different end, suggests Dr Hameed. “They’re designed by food engineers to have a perfect bliss point – an ideal ratio of sugar, salt and fat that feels amazing and keeps us coming back for more,” says Dr Hameed.

Depending on the brand, three chocolate digestives contain about 15 g of free sugars, half an adult’s daily recommended intake and approaching the entire 19g recommended for children aged six and under, says nutritional therapist Lucy Miller. “Overwhelming evidence highlights the negative impacts of excessive, prolonged sugar intake,” she says.

“It’s associated with a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and dementia. Plus, a diet high in sugars can disrupt the gut microbiome in ways that are implicated in the development of obesity and insulin resistance. These disruptions to the gut can also have an impact on mood, metabolism and hormone balance.”

Remember for every 3,500 calories, the general rule of thumb is it adds a pound to your waistline — assuming it’s not burned off. Three chocolate digestives a day equates to 249 extra calories, nearly 100,000 calories over a year. Imagine what that could mean in terms of your weight.

Modern processing poses other problems for our gut health too. “Some biscuits now contain dubious ingredients like emulsifiers which can cause GI [gastrointestinal] issues and discomfort,” says Dr Hameed. Plus, highly processed biscuits are low in fibre, adds Dr Leeming. Fibre not only adds bulk but slows the rate of digestion and prompts your gut to send fullness signals back to your brain. In the absence of fibre, “it’s harder for your body to sense if it’s full or not”.

Biscuits with high levels of sugar can disrupt the gut microbiome and insulin levels, Hattie Garlick reports
Biscuits with high levels of sugar can disrupt the gut microbiome and insulin levels, Hattie Garlick reports - David Rose

Not all biscuits are created equal, however. Take Rich Tea, which contains a relatively modest 38 calories. A single Taste the Difference Triple Belgian Chocolate Cookie, on the other hand, contains 312 calories – more than in a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

For context, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta), an independent charity, produced a report in January suggesting that cutting 216 calories a day from our individual diets would be enough to halve obesity levels in England. That’s roughly equivalent to three average biscuits.

However, obesity is not the only concern. “Three ultra-processed biscuits a day will have a negative impact on your long-term health,” says Dr Hameed. The sugar can cause dental decay, she says, while the intense sweetness of many of today’s biscuits can even alter our taste preference over time, meaning that we expect all food (even savoury) to taste sweet. Ultra-processed food consumption is also associated with the development of diseases including cancer.

Not all biscuits are created equal: Rich Tea contains 38 calories
Not all biscuits are created equal: Rich Tea contains 38 calories - David Rose

In fairness, biscuit brands have been beavering away to cut the sugar content. In 2020, McVitie’s reformulated nine of its most popular biscuits (from Rich Tea to Chocolate Digestives via Hobnobs and Ginger nuts) removing more than 900 tonnes of sugar from the UK’s annual diet. The bell may, however, finally be tolling for bourbons, custard creams and their cousins.

Last October, new rules on HFSS (High in Fat, Salt and Sugar) products prevented supermarkets from placing sugary biscuits in positions too prominent for our feeble self-control. The young, however, appear to be cleaning out their own cupboards.

A January survey from the United Kingdom Tea & Infusions Association (UKTIA) suggested that one in ten 18-to-29-year-olds now reaches for a granola bar when they stick on a brew (more than double the proportion of over-65s). Mintel, the market researcher, has issued a grave warning that “future sales of sweet biscuits are at risk if the younger generation do not establish the hot drink with biscuits habit”.

Can we rehabilitate the biscuit?

Biscuits branded as low-sugar or high-fibre breakfast alternatives are now filling the shelves. Dr Hameed, however, prescribes a healthy dose of scepticism: “There has been a raft of remarketing to reposition biscuits as a healthy choice. I’d advise checking the ingredients list. If you don’t understand what an ingredient is, please consider whether your body knows what to do with that ingredient and do also check the sugar content which may well be as high as a traditional biscuit.”

If you’re still a sucker for the old-fashioned sweet stuff, there is hope. When you eat a biscuit can limit its impact on your health. “For any sweet treat, it’s ideal to have it at the end of a meal, or having it with fruit and a handful of nuts for a snack,” says Dr Leeming who is loath to demonise any food.

“This will help you stay fuller for longer and keep you energised through the rest of the day.” Or simply stop to savour it. “If you’re going to have a biscuit, then have it because you love it – that’s my philosophy,” she says.

Getting back into baking might be the ultimate solution: “Making your own will be infinitely better than buying ultra-processed industrially produced versions,” says Dr Hameed. “Home-made biscuits will contain recognisable ingredients that humans have eaten for millennia, while UPF biscuits contain ingredients that are novel for human consumption, and which an increasing evidence base suggests have a detrimental impact on health.” Plus, the elbow grease involved in replenishing your stocks might just help you resist reaching for a second.


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