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Ethical Food & Drink – Biscuits

So-called ‘healthy’ biscuits are one of the fastest-growing sectors in an already saturated food market. Yet the whole idea of a biscuit is hardly healthy: it is just a sugary, fatty treat to be enjoyed, hopefully, in moderation. It is for this reason that some of the major companies have come under fire for marketing more and more of their products towards children, and for labels that mask their biscuits’ true, fat-filled content.

Corporate cr‍‍‍unch-up

At the time of writing, the biscuit market was a perfect example of global corporate crunching. A lowly Somerfield ‘basics’ digestive was made by McVities, which is owned by United Biscuits, which is owned by Finalrealm, which is a‍‍‍ consortium of Nabisco, DB Capital, Cinven and PAI.

Of those in the consortium, Nabisco is owned by Kraft, which is owned by Philip Morris, the company that makes Marlboro cigarettes but has changed its name to Altria. Cinven is a leverage buy-outoperation which owns companies as diverse as Odeon Cinemas, Foesco chemicals and William Hill bookmakers. DB Capital Partners is owned by Deutsche Bank, which has been involved in financing controversial dams amongst other things. So what’s new?


Vegetarians and vegans should be aware that many biscuits contain dairy products su‍‍‍ch as butter or whey powders. Some brands may contain non-specific animal fat. Companies are slowly realising that people do often look at the labels. In the mid-1990s, Greenpeace famously persuaded McVities to stop making biscuits with fish oil from industrial fishing.

One biscuit-maker, Northern Foods, says that none of its biscuits are tainted with GM because people won’t buy GM food. While this is a positive step, it is not supported by the powerful food industry lobby the Food and Drink Federation, which believes that ‘biotechnology, including genetic modification, offers enormous potential to improve the quality and quantity of the food supply’.

‍‍In the US, Kraft has been using untested and unlabelled genetically modified ingredients for several years, although in Europe the company has so far been respectful of social pressure. Now, more than ever, is a time for vigilance against the stealthy introduction of GM technology.

Try to buy Walkers, Traidcraft, Doves Farm or Bahlsen, who do not use genetically modified ingredients.


Biscuits are more than likely to be one of the targets of the government’s ‘traffic light’ food labelling system. As fat-filled confectioneries they will almost certainly come under the ‘red’ section of the threecolour system, showing that they have fewer health benefits than other foods and should be consumed in moderation. 

Nevertheless, it looks as if there will still be plenty of scope for companies to try and market their biscuits as healthy. While regulations prevent a product from being labelled as ‘reduced’ (such as reduced fat) unless there has been a 25 per cent reduction in that particular nutrient, there is nothing to stop them from using other terms such as ‘lite’ or ‘low fat’ to describe a minimal change in ingredients. The term ‘lite’ could refer to the colour of a product, its weight or, finally, the amount of fat it contains.

Equally, an ‘85 per cent fat free’ biscuit is still 15 per cent fat. A lot of people tend to think these are better when in fact they could have just as much fat as a slice of cheesecake. While the Food Standards Agency advises that potentially misleading labels such as these should be avoided, many companies capitalise on their customers’ trust to market their alternative products.

And they’re right to think we’re confused: surveys have shown that the majority of shoppers have no idea what the labels actually mean.

As a general rule biscuits made from oats, and which don’t include chocolate, sugar icing or cream centres, will be marginally more healthy, but the only way to truly know is to take a good look at the ingredients.

Key Research

Below you will find links to the key sections of our ethical research in Food & Drink:

We have created ethical rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the comp‍‍‍any group (see above tables): Doves Farms, Traidcraft, Walkers, Bahlsen, Hill, Burton’s, Fox’s, Jacobs, McVities, KitKat, Ritz

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