Biscuits

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 37 brands of biscuits.

We also look at palm oil, packaging, shine and light on the ethics of McVities and give our recommended buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying biscuits:

  • Is it organic? Buying organic-certified ingredients such as palm oil reduces the negative environmental impacts of your biscuits.

  • Is it Fairtrade? Many biscuits contain ingredients typically produced in the Global South such as cocoa. Buying Fairtrade-certified products ensures some level of transparency and accountability in a company’s supply chain.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying biscuits:

  • Does it contain palm oil? At its most unsustainable, palm oil is linked to massive deforestation and serious violations of human rights. Biscuits often contain palm oil, so look for brands that commit to sourcing palm oil sustainably or state that they're palm oil free.

  • Excessive packaging. Some biscuit brands excessively package their products in plastic-intensive trays and wraps that are often not recyclable.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Our Analysis

For a country of over 65 million people who find agreeing on anything very difficult, when it comes to biscuits we are amazingly united. According to research group Mintel, 93% of us eat biscuits and, in the last year alone, we munched our way through 420,000 tonnes of them.[1]

Despite growing consumer concern about healthy diets, people still appear willing to make an exception for the irresistible biscuit. Sales of biscuits have grown by 4% to £1.8 billion in 2017,[1] the same year that sales of other unhealthy snacks such as chocolate and confectionery stagnated.

Troublesome ingredients

The thought of putting your favourite biscuit brand under the ethical microscope might be daunting prospect. Because if you look past their indulgent persona, the vast majority of biscuits contain a whole host of ethically troublesome ingredients such as palm oil, sugar, and cocoa. Understanding the wider implications of these industries might make you think twice before putting your hand back into the cookie jar.

Palm oil

13 companies in this guide received our best rating for palm oil. None received our worst rating. Only Mondelz lost a whole mark in this category, owing to a combination of its middle rating and external criticism from Greenpeace. This suggests that most companies in this industry are actively tackling this issue.

We don’t think that it is clear whether consumers should avoid it altogether. With this in mind, companies can get our best rating either by being palm oil free, or by using best practices in their sourcing.

For example, a company must have all of the possible palm products used in its global supply chain certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) plus something extra like full disclosure of volumes, suppliers, or traceability to the mill. Or else a high proportion certified and even more other positive initiatives. The higher proportion of palm sourced from segregated supply chains, the easier it is for a company to achieve our best rating. 

Another way companies can demonstrate engagement on this issue is by sourcing palm oil that is certified as organic. Doves Farm was one such company; it stated on its website, “The Palm Oil used in our products is responsibly sourced from an organic supplier in Colombia. It is fully traceable, GMO-Free and, being produced in South America, is in no way implicated in the destruction of Orangutan and other wildlife habitats that is occurring in Southeast Asia.”

Image: Deforestation palm oil
Deforestation caused by palm oil plantations.
Table: palm oil policies
*These brands have some palm oil-free products.

Palm oil scores

With the exception of Island Bakery, every biscuit brand in this guide used palm oil or its derivatives. Not including supermarkets, the majority of brands received our best rating for their palm oil policies and practices. Bahlsen, Mrs Crimble’s, and Fox’s all managed to improve their score from middle to best since we last covered biscuits in 2015. However, Hill moved in the opposite direction, slipping down our ranking, as it failed to submit the latest RSPO report.

Largely, the brands in this guide covered 100% of their palm use with some form of certification (RSPO or organic), with the exception of Mondelz (96%), Lotus (74%), and Nairn’s (89%). Burton’s Foods and Hill Biscuits went further and only used ‘segregated’ oil. Of the supermarkets, only M&S and Waitrose scored best.

A spotlight on FairPalm

The only Fairtrade brand in this market was Traidcraft, which sources its palm oil through its “FairPalm” scheme. The scheme focuses on smallholder farmers in West Africa, where palm plants originate from. To avoid monoculture, FairPalm encourages producers to grow oil palm plants alongside other crops and pays producers a fair trade price for their product.3 It is certified as organic and ‘Fair for Life’ by the Institute of Marketecology (IMO).

Cocoa scores

Chocolate biscuits are the most popular biscuit type in the UK. In our chocolate guide we have detailed the many ethical problems of chocolate and said that, as a minimum, companies need to source their cocoa from certified suppliers.

But, in the world of biscuits, very few companies are taking this responsibility seriously. In fact, our research has shown that only Against the Grain, Island bakery, Biona, Doves Farm and Traidcraft source 100% certified cocoa. The remaining companies in this guide have been marked down under our Workers’ Rights category because of the well-known prevalence of child labour in the industry.

High in sugar

The big news when it comes to sugar is the UK’s long-awaited sugar tax, which came into force in April 2018 for soft drinks. Money raised from this levy will supposedly be channelled directly into funding school sports and breakfast clubs. Although there are no guarantees that the sugar tax will be effective in the UK, similar taxes in Mexico have seen a 10% decline in soft drinks consumption in just two years.

Its introduction has prompted sugar and health campaign groups, such as Action on Sugar, to call for a widening of the tax to other high-sugar foods such as biscuits and sweets.

The NHS recommends a maximum daily sugar intake of 30 g (7 teaspoons) for those aged 11 and over and, with most biscuits containing 3-5 g each, you can understand why they have been targeted. Such is the health concern surrounding biscuits, Diabetes UK have dedicated an entire page on their website to their health impacts.

For children aged 7 to 10, the recommended maximum daily sugar intake is 24 g, and for children aged 4 to 6 it is 19 g. In other words, five biscuits can exceed a 10-year-old’s full daily sugar allowance.

The NHS has this advice: “Read the nutritional information on food labels to see how much sugar the food contains. The nearer to the beginning of the ingredient list the sugar is, the more sugar the product contains.

“Look for the ‘carbohydrates (of which sugars)’ figure in the nutrition label to see how much sugar the product contains for every 100 g: 

  • more than 22.5 g of total sugars per 100 g is high. 
  • 5 g of total sugars or less per 100 g is low. 
  • If the amount of sugars per 100 g is between these figures, it’s a medium amount of sugars.”
  • The UK’s most popular biscuits, McVitie’s Chocolate Digestives, contain 29.5 g per 100 g and are therefore high in sugar.

Does sugar beet cane?

Although biscuit companies are feeling threatened by the sugar tax, they are currently enjoying the lowest sugar prices for many years. The EU’s removal of sugar beet quotas in October 2017 has seen global sugar prices drop dramatically. As the EU ramps up its sugar beet production, sugar cane producers from the Global South are being squeezed out of the market.

One might assume that producing sugar from sugar beet grown in the UK and the EU would have dramatically less environmental impact than importing sugar cane from half way across the world. However, as is often the case, both industries have their ethical shortcomings. 

Image: sugar beet
Sugar beet can be grown in the EU but is less productive and needs more land than tropical sugar cane.

On the one hand, tropical sugar cane is both more productive and requires less land than sugar beet. However, as the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) highlights, sugar cane is also a very ‘thirsty’ crop that has contributed to deforestation and fresh water pollution in countries such as Brazil. In terms of carbon footprint, an EU sugar industry report found that “The carbon footprint range for EU beet sugar was found to be at least similar, if not lower, than cane sugar imported and refined in the EU.”

Supermarkets abandon Fairtrade

When we last looked at biscuits back in 2015, four of the UK’s major supermarkets, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Tesco, and Asda, all offered Fairtrade-certified own brand biscuits. However, all the above have ceased these ranges. This follows a very public distancing that some UK supermarkets have taken away from Fairtrade, a move spearheaded by Sainsbury’s and Tesco. We did, however find Fairtrade shortbreads available at the Co-op.

Packaging

Plastic food packaging has come under the spotlight in recent months after the BBC’s Blue Planet II series highlighted the chronic damage it is doing to our marine ecosystems. Like most food companies, biscuit producers contribute to this problem. All brands in this guide appear to use plastic packaging to varying degrees.

Renewed public attention on this topic has prompted some brands to make commitments to reduce their plastic packaging. Mondelz, for example, has pledged to reduce its global use of packaging by 65,000 tonnes by 2020. Fox’s immediate parent company, 2 Sisters, aims to slash its packaging 90% by 2025.

Where to buy the Best Buys

You should be able to find these biscuits in wholefood shops. Otherwise, try this guide:

 Brand   Where to Buy 
Against the Grain / Island Bakery Waitrose
Biona Ocado and Holland & Barrett
Doves Farm Ocado and Waitrose
Lazy Days Sainsbury's and Holland & Barrett
Traidcraft Oxfam shops
Bahlsen All major supermarkets

Make your own

Making your own biscuits is both easy and tasty. At their most basic, home-made biscuits take a mere 30 minutes to make and only require around four to five ingredients. The beauty of home-made cookies is you can tweak recipes to suit your taste buds, ensuring that you don’t get stuck in a chocolate digestive rut.

To spark your imagination, Peta have created a helpful list of easy vegan biscuit recipes, including sunflower seed and date, peanut butter, fudge, and pumpkin oat.

Company behind the brand

McVities, the UK’s most well-known biscuit brand, is owned by the Turkish food company Yıldız. The company bought the brand as part of United Biscuits, alongside other household names like Penguin, Jacobs and Carrs.

It should be noted that the company has high-risk subsidiaries in tax havens such as Jersey and the Netherlands. This meant that it lost a mark in our Anti-Social Finance category.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

This information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.

References:

  1.  Sweet Biscuits and Snack Bars, Mintel 2018 

Start your 30 day trial today!

Ethics made easy - comprehensive, simple to use, transparent and reliable ethical rankings. Subscribe today for a wealth of data at your fingertips.

We will take payment when you order, but you can cancel by phone or email within 30 days for a full no-questions-asked refund!

Start your 30 day trial today!