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Biscuits

Ethical and environmental rankings for 50 brands of biscuits.

We look at vegan biscuits, including those made by non-vegan companies. We also look at palm oil, issues around sugar and cocoa, plastic packaging, 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying biscuits:

  • Is it Fairtrade? Ingredients such as cocoa and sugar are associated with poverty incomes and a range of human rights abuses. Buying Fairtrade supports payment of a fairer share of profits to producers.

  • Is it organic? Biscuits are made of agricultural products such as flour and dairy. Buying organic is better for the environment and guarantees higher standards of animal welfare.

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 uncertified palm oil? Biscuits often contain palm oil. The massive growth in palm oil plantations has caused deforestation and been linked to serious human rights abuses. Look for palm oil free or at least certified palm oil.

  • Is it linked to factory farming? Some companies making vegan biscuits use dairy ingredients in other products or farm animals for meat. Look for 100% vegan companies.

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) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Ethical, vegan and palm-oil free biscuits

Everybody likes a biscuit. Well, almost everybody: 90% of us eat sweet biscuits and more than half of us eat them at least once a week. Savoury biscuits are also growing in popularity as more people eat lunch and snacks at home because of Covid-19.

But with biscuits commonly containing palm oil, cocoa and sugar – ingredients often associated with human rights abuses and environmental destruction – how ethical is what you’re munching? We take a look at these three ingredients and how companies are sourcing them.

We’ve also updated our list of palm oil-free biscuits and created a list of vegan biscuits.

 

Who owns which biscuit brands?

McVitie’s dominates the UK biscuits market with a quarter of market share and six of its biscuits in the top ten by sales.

Other favourites include Fox’s (Ferrero), Cadbury (Mondelez), Oreo (Mondelez), Jammie Dodgers (Ferrero), Ritz (Mondelez), Wagon Wheels (Ferrero),  and Maryland Cookies (Ferrero). All of these brands are now owned by multinational companies with annual turnovers in the billions.

With the exception of Ryvita and Amisa, savoury biscuits are owned by the same giants that dominate the sweet biscuit market. Most of the supermarkets make own-brand versions of popular biscuits so these are also included in our scoretable.

 

Palm oil and biscuits

Palm oil is widely used in many processed foods, including biscuits. Its mass production has been very damaging environmentally and been linked to workers’ and human rights abuses.

What are the options if you wish to either avoid palm oil, or only buy biscuits with certified palm oil?

A handful of biscuit brands got our best rating for palm oil sourcing:

Most other brands including supermarket own-brand biscuits scored a middle rating. However, Aldi and Spar received a worst.

Those that did not meet the threshold for a middle scored a worst rating. This includes Yildiz, which owns Pladis Foods, maker of McVitie’s, Jacob’s, Carr’s, and TUC. In 2020, only 40% of palm ingredients used for its consumer goods globally were RSPO-certified. Yildiz also owns two processing plants that refine palm oil, and despite the issues being known for more than 10 years, as a processor only 3% of its palm ingredients were RSPO-certified in 2020. Associated British Foods (Ryvita) also scored a worst rating.

For readers who prefer to avoid palm oil, below is a list of palm oil free biscuits. We’ve only included the companies that receive our best rating for palm oil or are entirely palm oil free, because we think it’s important to consider what the company is doing as a whole. Some other brands and most supermarkets also have palm oil free options.

Palm oil rating and biscuits
Brand (and palm rating) Palm Oil Free Biscuits
Amisa (best) All biscuits
Biona (best) All crispbreads, spelt, corn and rice cakes
Island Bakery (palm oil free) All products
Lazy Day (best) All biscuits
Mr Organic (palm oil free) All products
Traidcraft (best, and its other biscuits use fair trade organic Fairpalm) Chocolate chunk & sour cherry shortbread, double chocolate chunk & raspberry shortbread, half-coated chocolate shortbread finger, Geobakes all butter shortbread biscuits

Palm oil is a cheap substitute for animal fats so the biscuits most likely to be palm oil free are the buttery ones like shortbread.

This isn’t good for vegans, so below you’ll find a list of vegan biscuits owned by companies that are palm oil free or get our best rating for palm oil.

 

Image: Deforestation palm oil
Deforestation caused by palm oil plantations.

Vegan biscuits

Some of the biscuit brands included in this guide are deliberately vegan and are made by fully vegan companies such as Mr Organic and Lazy Day Foods. But many of our old favourites are also vegan by chance.

The expandable tabs below shows the vegan biscuits made by the brands and supermarkets we have rated. It includes biscuits that are labelled as vegan by the brand or the shops which sell them as well as many which are not.

Those that are not explicitly vegan often carry a warning that they may contain milk or egg. This is because they are made in factories where non-vegan items are used and there is a risk of cross-contamination. They are therefore not suitable for people with allergies to non-vegan items.

We have divided the biscuits to show how the company making them does on palm oil. Starred* brands are gluten free. We have checked all the ingredients lists when researching this guide, but manufacturers do sometimes change their recipes so it’s always best to check the label. The table is not exhaustive.

Vegan biscuits and palm oil

Island Bakery – All oatcakes and all biscuits in the Sweet FA gluten-free range.

Mr Organic – All biscuits

Amisa* (Windmill Organics) – All crispbreads and spelt crispbreads (apart from cheese and pumpkin), dark chocolate corn cakes and rice cakes. (All palm oil free, but owned by Windmill, which uses palm oil.)

Biona (Windmill Organics) – Sesame crispbread, original crispbread, spelt cakes, corn cakes, rice cakes (except the yoghurt covered ones), canna biscuits, chocolate chip orange cookies, raisin coconut cookies, spelt fruit cookies, muesli cookies.

Doves Farm – All including the Freee gluten-free range of biscuits.

Hill’s Biscuits – Chocolate creams, fruit shortcake, shortie, ginger nuts, lemon cream, ginger rings, orange creams, digestive creams, bourbon creams, ginger fingers, oaties, fig rolls, nice, fruit shortcake, rich tea.

Lazy Day Foods* – All biscuits. (All biscuits are palm oil free, but company uses palm oil in some other products like tiffin and slices.)

Nairn’s – All oatcakes except those which contain cheese, stem ginger oat biscuit breaks, oat mixed berries biscuits, stem ginger oat biscuits.

Traidcraft – Double chocolate cookies, stem ginger cookies, ginger Christmas tree biscuits.

Cadbury (Mondelez) – Bournville fingers dark.

Oreo (Mondelez) – All apart from the chocolate-covered ones.

Ritz (Mondelez) – Ritz Original (UK sunflower oil, but US palm oil)

Maryland (Ferrero International) – Maryland, chocolate chip sugar free cookies.

Jammie Dodgers (Ferrero International) – Jammie Dodgers.

Lyons (Ferrero International) – Rich Tea and Digestives.

Fox’s (Ferrero International) – Ginger Crinkle Crunch, Party Rings.

Kallo (Ecotone Group) – Dark chocolate topped rice cakes and all rice, corn, lentil and veggie cakes except cocoa, date and vanilla.

Mrs Crimble’s (Ecotone Group) – Vegan coconut macaroons, Oaty bakes with chocolate, vegan choc macaroons.

Lotus Bakeries – Lotus Biscoff original, Biscoff cream sandwich, Biscoff vanilla sandwich.

Orgran* (Finebrook Pty Limited) – All biscuits.

Asda – Lightly salted cracker bites, melba thins, pink wafers, digestives, cookies & cream, rich tea, bourbon, digestive, fruity flapjack cookies, cream crackers, water biscuits, crisp and savoury cracker range.

Co-op – Breadsticks, bourbon, rich, tea, ginger nuts, digestives (but not honest value digestives), cream crackers, Scottish oat cakes, rosemary crackers, sea salt and black pepper crackers.

LidlRivercote brand: original rye crispbread, wholegrain rye crispbread with sesame, savoury crackers, grissini breadsticks, salted and unsalted rice cakes, multi-seed flatbread thins. Tower Gate brand: oaties, bourbons, fruit shortcake, mini iced rings, ginger nuts, rich tea, digestives, Scottish black pepper oatcakes, rough oatcakes, seeded oatcakes, gluten-free ginger cookies. Sondey brand: speculoos.

Marks & Spencer – Digestives, bourbons, rich tea, ginger snaps, oat crunch, iced party rings, cream crackers.

Morrisons – Snacking crackers, grissini breadsticks, rice cakes, coconut rings, oat nobblies, ginger nuts, fruit shorties, bourbon, Scottish rough oatcakes, poppy and sesame thins, sea salt and black pepper crackers, rosemary crackers, water biscuits, cream crackers.

Sainsbury’s – Salt and pepper crackers, rosemary crackers, grissini breadsticks, corn thins, rice cakes, bourbon, rich tea, Lovett’s Digestives but not Sainsbury’s own, nice, ginger snaps, shortcake, cream crackers, harvest grain crackers, savoury crackers, high bake water biscuits, poppy and sesame seed thins, butter puffs, rough oatcakes.

Tesco – Multigrain crackers, snackers, rye crispbreads, original and sesame breadsticks, lightly salted rice cakes, salt and vinegar rice cakes, bourbons, fruit shortcake, ginger nuts, rich tea, cream crackers, sea salt crackers, salt and pepper crackers, rosemary crackers, sesame and poppy thins, water biscuits, garlic crackers, Scottish rough oatcakes.

Waitrose – Essential wholewheat biscuits, No.1 biscuits for cheese, No.1 fig, plum and cranberry wheat biscuits, No.1 rosemary sourdough crackers, essential bourbons, essential ginger nuts, rich tea, nice, fruit shortcake, shortcake, poppy and sesame seed thins, high bake water biscuits, cream crackers.

McVitie’s (Yildiz Holding) – Rich tea, digestives, Hobnobs, fruit shortcake, fig rolls, ginger nuts, digestive twists (both flavours).

Crawford’s (Yildiz Holding) – Bourbon creams, nice, shorties, pink wafers, morning coffee.

Jacob’s (Yildiz Holding) – Cream crackers, Cornish wafers, butter puffs, choice grain crackers.

Carr’s (Yildiz Holding) – Flatbreads, table water biscuits, crispbread.

Ryvita (Associated British Foods) – All except crackerbreads, cheese thins, and fruit crunch.

Aldi (Aldi South Group) – Savour Bakes crispbreads, savoury crackers, gourmet rosemary savoury crackers. Belmont brand: ginger nuts, iced rings, rich tea, caramelised biscuits, jammy wheels, bourbon, digestives, oaties, cookies & cream, Scottish oatcakes.

Ocado – Breadsticks, sesame breadsticks.

Spar – Ginger nuts, rosemary crackers.

Vegan products made by non-vegan companies

Some of the companies which sell vegan biscuits lost marks for animal rights or factory farming so vegans may want to avoid them.

  • Mondelez (Cadbury) and Yildiz (United Biscuits) use large amounts of dairy produce that isn’t organic and don’t have policies prohibiting factory farming in their supply chains.
  • Ecotone Group, which owns Kallo and Mrs Crimble’s, owns a brand which sells organic ham and sausages.
  • Lotus Biscoff makes a dairy ice cream using non-organic milk and the company doesn’t appear to have an animal welfare policy.
  • Associated British Foods, which owns Ryvita, owns pig farms and sells pork.

Cocoa and chocolate biscuits

Cocoa is a common ingredient in many biscuits, but there are serious ethical issues associated with its production. In the four major cocoa-producing countries of West Africa – Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon, and Nigeria – which are responsible for three quarters of the world’s market share, the issues have been well-known for decades and there have been numerous projects and initiatives by governments, NGOs and companies to address them. But as the 2020 ‘Cocoa Barometer’ report puts it:

“The challenges remain as large as they have ever been. Poverty is still a daily reality for most smallholder cocoa farmers. Child labour is still rife throughout West Africa. Old-growth forests are still being cut down for cocoa production.”

Voice Network, which publishes the Cocoa Barometer, argues that one of the reasons these problems persist is because the initiatives to address them have been voluntary, with no enforcement or accountability for companies which do not participate.

Ethical Consumer’s cocoa rating

Ethical Consumer’s cocoa rating requires companies who use cocoa to demonstrate that all their suppliers are certified by one of two voluntary certification schemes: Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance (which includes UTZ).

Both provide some financial and other benefits to producers who meet certain standards. This is significant because poverty and low cocoa prices have been identified as key factors in child labour. Fairtrade guarantees a minimum price to protect against low global market prices and also pays a premium which producers can invest in farm improvements and community projects. Rainforest Alliance does not guarantee a minimum price but recently introduced a premium, although it is only about half the size of that guaranteed by Fairtrade.

These schemes are far from perfect and are criticised by Voice Network for their sporadic and therefore unreliable auditing regimes which have failed to eradicate problems such as child labour and deforestation. They also point out that the Fairtrade premium is not high enough to provide farmers with a living income. However, they acknowledge that the schemes are currently one of the few ways by which higher prices and premiums can be paid to farmers and that they do provide support to farmer organisations.

Which biscuit companies do best for ethical cocoa?

Traidcraft was the only non-supermarket to receive a best rating as all its cocoa was Fairtrade.

Three supermarkets – Co-op, Waitrose and Lidl – also received best ratings. Co-op and Waitrose used 100% Fairtrade cocoa and Lidl used a combination of Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance. Note this only applies to their own-brand products.

All other companies received a worst rating, including those using their own or others’ industry schemes. For example, Mondelez has its own Cocoa Life programme and at least some of Ferrero’s cocoa seemed to be certified by Cocoa Horizons, another industry scheme. Such schemes are not independently audited and tend to lack transparency, so we don’t recognise them in our ratings.

Several organic companies, including our best buy Mr Organic, also received a worst. Their organic certification is not adequate for our cocoa rating as in general organic certifications don’t cover workers’ rights in any detail.

Cartoon of woman holding two packets of biscuits and thought bubbles about cows and orangutans
Cartoon by Mike Bryson

Allergies and biscuits

For people with allergies, Lazy Day Foods is a gluten-, wheat-, egg-, dairy- and nut-free bakery. Orgran also caters for people with allergies.

Sugar in biscuits: bad for our health, the environment and human rights?

Sugar and public health

Discussions about sugar often focus on its impact on public health, and in particular on childhood obesity. A levy on soft drinks has been in place for five years in the UK and has resulted in significant reductions in the amount of sugar in drinks and in consumers shifting to drinks with less sugar. Despite this, the levy hasn’t been extended beyond drinks, and biscuits manufacturers are currently merely encouraged to reduce sugar, with a target of 20%.

McVitie’s has cut sugar in nine of its most popular biscuits, including digestives and hobnobs, but by less than 10%. Mondelez (Cadburys, Oreos, Ritz) has created a website about mindful snacking full of consumer empowerment and wellness babble which places the burden of responsibility for sugar reduction fully on consumers.

Overall, the average amount of sugar in biscuits has dropped by a tiny percentage (under 2%, from  2015 baseline to 2019) and campaign group Action on Sugar argue that the voluntary scheme isn’t working. They continue to push for compulsory sugar reduction.

Human rights overlooked in sugar production

The focus on public health often means that other ethical issues related to sugar are overlooked. As with cocoa, human rights abuses are widespread in sugar cane cultivation. The US Department of Labor reports likely child or forced labour in sugar cane production in 19 countries around the world, mainly in Asia and Latin America.

Sugar production uses large amounts of land, and sugar companies have been linked to violent forced evictions of subsistence farmers across the world. Working conditions are poor, with low pay, long hours, and hazardous health conditions such as extreme heat.

Compared to cocoa, however, these abuses have received less attention and as a result are not being addressed by companies to the same extent. For example, Mondelez, the largest company in the guide, publicly discusses the risks of human rights abuses in its cocoa and palm oil supply chains and makes public its targets for sustainably sourcing cocoa, wheat, palm oil and eggs, but it doesn’t mention sugar. McVitie’s owner Yildiz also fails to mention sugar.

Overall, there is very little transparency about where companies get their sugar, which makes it difficult to hold them to account. Given this, it’s hard for consumers to take action, as there’s little to distinguish between manufacturers. However, Traidcraft pays a premium to farmers through using fair trade sugar, and also campaigns and works to address the root causes of the human rights abuses discussed above.

Harmful pesticides and sugar beet production

Sugar made from beet is chemically identical to sugar made from cane, and the sweet stuff in your biscuits could come from either plant with no difference in the labelling.

Sugar beet is grown in many parts of Europe including the UK. You might think, then, that it would provide an easy ethical alternative to cane sugar. Think again.

In the UK, all sugar beet grown by farmers is processed by British Sugar, owner of the Silver Spoon brand and a subsidiary of Associated British Foods which also owns Ryvita. In January 2021, British Sugar, together with the National Farmers’ Union, successfully lobbied the government for authorisation to use a pesticide containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam which has been banned by the EU for all outdoor use since 2018 because of its negative environmental impacts, particularly the harm it does to bees. The sugar beet crop was under threat from a potentially devastating disease called virus yellows.

British Sugar not only processes all sugar beet, it controls seed sales and funds UK research on the crop.

Given its powerful position, some farmers have criticised British Sugar for not focusing research on the development of non-harmful alternatives to neonicotinoids and on the sustainable production of sugar beet more generally. In the end, thiamethoxam wasn’t used this year because the threat to the sugar beet crop was lower than expected. However, the issue hasn’t gone away. Rising temperatures caused by climate change mean that the aphids which carry the virus are more likely to survive the winter and the problem may occur again next year.

So, keep an eye out for campaigns on the issue and in the meantime you can sign Friends of the Earth’s pesticide petition.

Plastic tray of biscuits

Biscuit packaging and waste

Most biscuits are wrapped in plastic with some – often the more expensive ones – packaged in rigid plastic trays as well as plastic wrappers.

But public pressure has resulted in many companies reducing plastic packaging and increasing use of recycled materials as well as recyclability of their packets. For example, Border Biscuits has removed 90% of the plastic from its packaging and McVitie’s has removed the non-recyclable black plastic trays from its products, replacing it with recyclable plastic that is itself at least 30% recycled. These examples illustrate the progress that has been made but also that the companies still have further to go.

How biscuit brands scored for other ratings

Environmental Reporting

Of the 19 non-supermarket companies in this guide, 12 received a worst rating for environmental reporting: Bahlsen, Windmill Organics (Amisa and Biona), Border Biscuits, Yildiz (McVitie's), Doves Farm, Hill Biscuits, Nairn’s, Orgran, Associated British Foods (Ryvita), Lotus Bakeries, Traidcraft, and Walker’s Shortbread.

Just eight companies received our best rating: Mr Organic, Lazy Day Foods, Island Bakery, Duchy Originals, John Lewis (Waitrose), Co-op, M&S and Ferrero (but not Burton’s which make most of its brands). The first four are small companies that provide products we considered to be environmental alternatives because they were vegan or organic. This doesn't mean they are without environmental criticisms though.

Tax Avoidance

Ten companies received a worst rating for likely use of tax-avoidance strategies. This included eight of the biggest companies, with turnovers in the billions: Schwarz Group (Lidl, £99 billion), Tesco (£57.9 billion), J Sainsbury (£28 billion), Bellis (Asda - £23 billion), Mondelez (£19 billion), Associated British Foods (£13 billion), Ferrero (£10 billion), and Yildiz Holding (£3 billion).

Lotus Bakeries and Ecotone also received worst ratings.

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 biscuits is that you can tweak recipes to suit your taste buds or preferences, 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, and Viva!'s recipe club has a number of biscuits and other sweet treat recipes.

Company behind the brand

Yildiz is the owner of Pladis Foods (who own United Biscuits), whose brands include McVitie’s, Crawford’s, Jacob’s and Carr’s biscuits.

In August 2021 after months of attempts to save the site, the closure of McVitie’s factory in Glasgow was confirmed. The plant had been going since 1925, and the closure is estimated to cost a total of 864 full-time equivalent jobs once you include those within the supply chain and local economy.

Pladis says it has “excess capacity” in the UK and will shift production to other sites. Over 80,000 people signed a petition to keep the plant open. Some campaigners have criticised the campaign to save the site, saying it tried to appeal only to Pladis’ bottom line, and should instead have appealed to all McVitie’s workers in Britain and across Pladis’ global operations and included industrial action.

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. 

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