Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Jaffa Cakes: musings on staple foods and a healthy diet

Gretel Hallet, came on our Chocolate Fairy Training last year and is running workshops in East Anglia.  If you live in the area and would like to attend a Beyond Chocolate course, Gretel would love to hear from you!  Meet Gretel.

Today there is a box of Jaffa Cakes in our staff kitchen. I like Jaffa Cakes – I eat them in a very particular way. First I eat all the cakey bit around the orangey centre, right round in a circle. Then I carefully ease the remaining chocolate off the top of the orangey bit with my teeth. Then I peel the orangey bit off the cake and eat it. Then I eat the cake bit last. How do you eat yours?

Whenever I eat a Jaffa Cake, I am reminded of the way this small biscuit shaped cake took on the might of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise and won. It’s one of my favourite ‘David and Goliath’ type stories ever. In 1991 Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise took manufacturers McVitie’s to Court over their definition of their product as a ‘cake’ not a ‘biscuit’. Why was such a serious Government Department interested in the definition of a snack? Well, under UK law, chocolate covered biscuits are considered luxuries and are therefore subject to VAT. Cake and plain biscuits are considered ‘staples’ and don’t incur VAT. So HM Customs and Excise were trying to prove that Jaffa Cakes were in fact biscuits and that McVitie’s had been dodging paying VAT on them.

Apparently, as part of their defence, McVities baked a giant Jaffa Cake (12” across) in order to demonstrate to the Court that their little product was in fact a miniature cake and not a biscuit. That, and the argument that when they go stale, cakes go hard and biscuits go soft, apparently convinced the Court that McVitie’s were right and HM Customs and Excise was wrong.

In case you were wondering what constitutes a ‘staple food’, Wikipedia has the following definition ... It is a food that is "eaten regularly and in such quantities as to constitute the dominant part of the diet and supply a major proportion of energy and nutrient needs." Staple foods vary from place to place, but are typically inexpensive or readily-available foods that supply one or more of the three macronutrients needed for survival and health: carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

So, next time you fancy cake (or a Jaffa Cake come to that) remember that under UK law, cake is a staple food item, not a luxury. This could be useful next time you pick up a slice of cake to have with your mid-shopping spree coffee break and your companion makes noises about cake being fattening and bad for you and what about you wanting to lose weight etc. You can cheerfully go ahead, safe in the knowledge that you are eating a staple food item and not a luxury, that you really need this cake!

Joking aside, the foods that we consider necessary for our health and those we consider unnecessary will vary depending on a variety of factors, including our upbringing, budgets, personal dietary preferences, beliefs etc. But it seems the things we think of as ‘bad for us’ are often the very things that we crave and that we binge on in secret in between dieting or ‘eating sensibly’ or whatever we like to call our current eating patterns.

With Beyond Chocolate a key Principle is ‘Enjoy’. If we like cake, why not enjoy it? Even if we deny ourselves cake, we will eat it anyway and probably won’t enjoy it half as much if we stuff it down in secret. Why not really look forward to it and eat it when we really fancy it? In my opinion cake isn’t ‘bad for us’, particularly if it’s homemade and we know exactly what’s gone in to it. At a very basic level cake is just eggs, butter, flour and sugar – carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Simple, tasty and certainly not ‘bad’ for us! There are few pleasures to beat the smell and taste of a freshly baked cake.

This debate over whether Jaffas are cakes or biscuits also raises the absurdity of labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Staple foods are ‘good’, luxury foods are ‘bad’. Says who? Well, HM Customs and Excise for one! We are taxed on luxuries and not on staples. And cake is a staple! Clearly we do need a range of nutrients to ensure good health, but (with very few exceptions) all foods have some nutritional value and if a slice of home-made carrot cake with frosting and walnuts is what we really want, why should we not have one? And when we do, let’s make sure we really taste every mouthful and really enjoy it!


  1. Let them eat cake, I say! I certainly shall be ... ;)

  2. Fabulous post. I made cake yesterday, so I could enjoy sharing it with friends. I didn't want the quarter that was left to go stale, so I cut it into portions and popped them in the freezer. They will be lovely with a hot coffee while I watch the snow :)


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