The Effective Digestive

A humble cookie with healing powers.

Food Features
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Like many women, I have a delicate digestive tract. I have no difficulties shoveling in the food. It’s the elimination that’s problematic. And disruptions to my regular schedule, such as plane travel, or discomfort, like staying in an unpalatable setting, can cause delays in my system that would put American Airlines to shame.

Of course, this is all kinds of ironic for a food-and-travel writer. But then, life is a series of poignant incongruities, isn’t it? I vividly recall a whitewater rafting trip on the Salmon River in Idaho. It was supposed to be “glamping,” that portmanteau of glamorous camping. But when the guides introduced us to the toilet tent – literally a box with a teepee draped over it – the women on the trip exchanged knowing looks that said yup, we’d be constipated for a week (the other option being a shovel). When the lodge where we were staying on the last night came into view, we collectively broke into a grateful run.

I expected a similar situation when I traveled to Canterbury in Kent, England, this past July. I’d been warned that the accommodations in this ancient, walled city were on the negative side of lacking; after all, there’s only so much you can do with fifteenth-century buildings. It’s true that my room at The Victoria House was about the size of my walk-in closet at home, and about as ventilated. The shower door had been derailed by someone who was perhaps marginally larger than me, and I’m five-foot-two. Add in that I’d be touring for the first seven days with my parents, who had come overseas to meet me, and then presenting four workshops at an academic conference for the last three, and I expected a colon filled with the equivalent of cement.

Oddly, it didn’t happen that way. I hit the ground running. Well, not running, as the euphemism implies, but after the first day or so, I was as regular as if I’d been starting the day with café Cubano. At first, I put it down to the welcoming atmosphere at the hotel. Though hardly a five-star establishment, the staff was bend-backwards pleasant; there’s a pub with outlets on the ground floor where no one cared if I worked all evening on a laptop over a couple of pints; and the room, as teensy as it was, was meticulously cleaned daily. Housekeeping also always left a package of coarsely textured cookies on the desk next to the electric kettle and tea bags every evening. I felt it was my duty as a polite, paying guest to consume them.

It occurred to me about four days into my stay that perhaps the digestives, what the British call these semi-sweet, whole-wheat (or whole-meal in the UK) biscuits, had some beneficial properties. I’d always enjoyed a digestive now and then, especially those coated on one side with milk chocolate, ever since my sister had spent a semester in London when she was in college several decades ago and I visited her. But it had never occurred to me to question why they were called that in particular.

After a little research, I discovered that the digestive was indeed developed to aid people with poorly functioning metabolisms like me. In 1839, two Scottish scientists developed them using a goodly dose of sodium bicarbonate to prevent indigestion. Bakers subsequently added diastatic malt extract, which they assumed “digested” the starch in the dough, a process called saccharification. The baking powder idea was a failed experiment; once the cookies change chemically in the oven, the properties are lost. But the fibrous content of the biscuits turned out to be an aid.

Depending on the brand, however, some digestives may actually be more effective than others – a fact I discovered when I returned to England for a second time, accompanying my son so he could play soccer for a week. I stayed in a Travelodge next to an Aldi, and the only digestives I could acquire were the store’s Belmont brand, similar in look, flavor and structure to the popular McVitie’s brand. Sadly, while they’re tasty indeed – and I managed to find three varieties, including those with dark and milk chocolate – they didn’t alleviate the angst of navigating Miami and Heathrow airports with twenty teenagers, then staying in a room that smelled like cat urine and had neither phone nor hairdryer. Nevertheless, I diligently ate my cookies, hoping for an appetizing cure.

As it turns out, the original commercial digestives, starting with Huntley & Palmers in 1876, included more of the whole grain, given that millers were less sophisticated then at separating the grain into parts. Today, finely milled flour is the rule of thumb. So if you’re actually eating them for a singular purpose, read the label to see if whole-meal flour is the first ingredient and if oats, bran or wheat germ – all good signs that the fiber will be helpful – are added. Sainsbury’s is one brand that roughs up the texture with oats. Tesco’s Everyday Value also includes oatmeal, and as a bonus, deletes the artificial elements and hydrogenated fats (but keep in mind that the brand’s regular digestives are free of oats and full of preservatives). Hovis includes wheat germ in its recipe, which is also accommodating for those of us with a sensitive nature.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get any brand but McVitie’s in the States for a reasonable price. On the other hand, in the comfort of my own home, I don’t need digestives for any reason other than enjoyment. Which is why I went to the Aldi the night before I left England for the second time and bought as many tubes of digestives as would fit in my suitcase, brought over half-empty for just that tasty purpose.

Jen Karetnick is a Miami-based lifestyle writer, poet and author of 14 books, including the cookbook Mango (University Press of Florida, 2014).

Image: SimonQ CC BY-NC-ND