What Exactly Are Digestive Cookies—and Are They Good for You?

A brief investigation into this delicious, confusing snack.

a photo of Disgestives
Photo: Getty Images

McVitie's Digestive Cookies are one of the treats I love the most in this world. I first tried these British biscuits when studying abroad in Italy and quickly became hooked on their crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth texture and semi-sweet flavor. Though they are not as popular in the U.S. as they are in Europe, when I returned stateside, I found my local World Market carried them, which only fueled my eat-them-by-the-box habit.

Yet my one—and only—hang-up with these cookies is their confusing, and frankly, unappealing name. Having never noticed a difference in my own digestion after eating them, I've long wondered: Are they actually a digestive aid? Could eating them trigger more bathroom trips? Will digestives improve not just my mood, but also my health?

In an effort to better understand one of my favorite snacks, I asked two registered dietitians for their take.

What are digestive cookies?

First things first, some brief background on digestives. This particular type of cookie isn't exclusive to British-based McVitie's—Tesco, Doves Farm and Marks & Spencer, among other European companies, all offer their own version of the biscuit—yet McVitie's is among the first purveyors. According to their website, an employee named Alexander Grant created the signature cookie in 1892, "the secret recipe of which is still used today." In 1925, McVitie's introduced a chocolate Digestive, and both that and the original version remain popular today.

Do they have any digestive properties?

So what about the name, Digestives? According to the product description on Amazon, it comes from the baking soda present in the biscuits. This ingredient "is a bicarbonate, so technically it can act as an antacid if you are experiencing heartburn, though exactly how much bicarbonate these biscuits contain is a mystery," says registered dietitian Catherine Brennan, RD, LDN, CLC.

The second ingredient in these biscuits that could (key word: could) help aid digestion is whole wheat flour, says Brennan, which is known for its ability to keep you regular and contribute to a healthy gut microbiome. Yet in scanning the product ingredient list, wheat flour, rather than whole wheat flour, ranks as the first ingredient. "This means that these biscuits actually contain more white (wheat) flour than whole wheat flour, and thus only contain about half a gram of fiber," explains Brennan. For what it's worth, most cookies don't contain any fiber, so digestives could offer a (very small) advantage there.

What about other health benefits?

In general, the calories in these cookies (about 40 calories in one cookie) mostly come from refined carbohydrates, says Brennan. They also offer a small amount of protein (1 gram per cookie), fat (3 grams), and fiber (.5 grams, as mentioned). On the whole, "they provide little in the way of vitamins and minerals besides sodium," says Brennan. "I don't see any specific health benefits that these cookies provide."

Registered dietitian Maya Feller, M.S., RD, CDN, agrees. "This product would not be something I'd recommend as a digestive aid," she says. "I would not label this product as a functional food nor would I highlight its health benefits."

So in sum, from a nutrition perspective, digestives are essentially just a cookie (albeit a very delicious cookie), and nothing more.

What are proven digestive aids?

If you're looking for a legitimate digestive aid, try "a diet rich in fiber and good nutrition," says Brennan, which comes from eating a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, legumes and healthy fats.

Regular digestion can also be attributed to eating at regular times, managing stress, and exercising on the reg, and new research suggests that consuming probiotics can contribute to a healthy gut microbiome, Brennan adds. All that said: "there is no one magic bullet to help your digestion," she says, "and these cookies certainly aren't it."

"Digestive aids really need to be tailored to the individual based on the root cause of what's creating the indigestion," says Feller. "As there is no one-size-fits-all, what works for one may result in a sensitivity for the other."

The bottom line

These cookies "won't miraculously improve your digestion," says Brennan. At the same time, they aren't harmful to your health (if consumed in moderation, of course). Feller puts it this way: "If someone is looking to have this product because they want a cookie, then they should have it as a cookie and make an informed decision." Consider me informed.

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