Thought for Food #3: Vegan Dark Chocolate Hobnobs Hobnobs are vegan. Chocolate Hobnobs are not, thanks to the inclusion of something called ‘butter oil’ or ‘anhydrous milk fat’ in the chocolate coating.

Hobnobs are vegan. Chocolate Hobnobs are not, thanks to the inclusion of something called ‘butter oil’ or ‘anhydrous milk fat’ in the chocolate coating.

This recipe began as your humble author melting a load of proper dark chocolate (naturally vegan) over a load of ordinary Hobnobs.

Delicious. Especially when sneezing one’s head off on Dartmoor.

However: as soon as one starts perusing lists of ingredients, one can’t help wondering whether one couldn’t do better one’s self.

Do those ordinary Hobnobs really need palm oil, sugar and partially inverted sugar syrup? I suspect not. Hence: this recipe.

Hob, nob, is his word; give’t or take’t
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Ingredients

Makes a baker’s dozen of large-ish vegan dark chocolate hobnobs.

  • 150g oats (small grade, not jumbo)
  • 75g flour (plain or wholemeal)
  • 80g rice syrup (about 4 tablespoons)
  • 75g vegan block
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 100g proper dark chocolate — I used 85%
  • Optional: pinch of ginger
  • Optional: tablespoon of coconut oil

The Biscuit Phase

Adapted from BBC Good Food

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan). Next time I’ll experiment with baking them for longer at a lower temperature — maybe even as low as 150°C.
  2. Line a large baking sheet with that brown parchment baking paper stuff.
  3. Beat the vegan block until it starts to behave. Add the rice syrup and mix well.
  4. Combine the flour, oats and bicarbonate of soda in a separate bowl.
  5. Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture a bit at a time, ensuring you mix well to incorporate all the ingredients together.
  6. Next time, I’ll wrap this dough in cling film and put it into the fridge for as long as I can bear — this recipe promises crumblier results.
  7. Roll the mixture into 13 little balls.
  8. Smoosh each ball into round biscuit shapes onto the baking sheet. Repeat until mixture is all used up.
  9. Bake in the oven (middle shelf) for 13 minutes or until golden brown. They’ll still be a bit soft, so don’t be fooled — they’re done.
  10. Allow to cool completely. 40 minutes is more than enough (I forgot about them).

The Chocolate Phase

The key here is to avoid un-tempering the chocolate — tempering is how it stays solid at room temperature. It’s not a complete disaster if you mess this phase up, you’ll just have sticky fingers during the eating phase.

The following, rather delicate, method was adapted from eHow, of all places. You might prefer to melt your chocolate with a tablespoon of coconut oil in 30 second blasts in the microwave, as per this recipe — but be careful not to overheat the concoction.

  1. Put only two-thirds of the chocolate into a glass vessal (I use a measuring jug).
  2. Put that vessal into a saucepan of water and gently heat the whole kit and kaboodle.
  3. Allow the chocolate to melt gently, without stirring, until it is nearly melted.
  4. After a gentle stir, allow the chocolate to continue melting.
  5. When the chocolate is fully melted, carefully remove the glass vessal from the saucepan and slowly stir in the remaining chocolate a few pieces at a time, stirring with each addition, until it’s all completely melted.
  6. When all of the chocolate has been incorporated, dab a small amount of the chocolate onto the inside of your wrist. If the chocolate is slightly cooler than your body temperature, it is ready to use.
  7. Add a pinch of ginger if you’re feeling that way inclined
  8. Pour the chocolate over the top of the biscuits or dip the biscuits into the chocolate — whichever makes more sense to you.
  9. Leave the biscuits to cool. In theory, if you’ve tempered the chocolate correctly, the coating will become solid at room temperature. I whacked mine in the fridge because I was desperate.
  10. Whatever you do, make sure that you either leave the biscuits on the parchment paper or you wipe the melted chocolate away from the base of the biscuits, otherwise they’ll stick to the tray and break when you attempt to scoff them into your mouth.

The Eating Phase

Compared to normal Hobnobs, these taste quite savoury, but quite delicious.

In reality, I’m not sure how ‘savoury’ these biscuits really are.

They might have nearly 30% less sugar content than a McVities, but there’s still 3.2g of sugar per biscuit from the rice syrup and another 1g or so from the dark chocolate coating.

We’re down to slightly shy of one teaspoon of sugar per biscuit!

Actually, that’s still loads, isn’t it? Enjoy!

Absolutely Gutted

Science is complex. The science of the gut is both complex and young. I’m not a scientist, let alone a gastroenterologist.

At best I am ‘sciencey’, with just enough reading to unwittingly mislead myself and other people on the internet.

And yet here we all are.

So, without further ado, here is what I think I know about the science of the gut, and how I have used it to completely change the food I enjoy and, most significantly, to wean myself off sugar.

Caveat emptor. Also: Caveat bullshitor.

The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis

First up, let’s define some terms.

Your microbiota are the various strains of different bacteria that help you digest your food. Yep, that’s right: there are trillions of microbial organisms living inside your gut right now.

Your gut actually behaves like a second brain of over 100 million nerve cells called the enteric nervous system, which can communicate with your head-brain through the vagus nerve, and also by releasing bacterial metabolites into the bloodstream.

(But remember that I did say that the science is young and, to be honest, no one is 100% sure how this all works, okay?)

This is called the microbiota-gut-brain axis and, quite frankly, I find the whole thing completely mind-blowing. (Or should that be gut-blowing? No, no it shouldn’t.)

For example, there is evidence that the bacteria in your stomach can influence your mood, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and even stuff like autism, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

However, for this dollop of sciencey writing, I’m going to limit myself to (what I now think is) the obvious.

The food you put into your mouth also feeds the bacteria that grow in your stomach, who use the microbiota-gut-brain axis to influence the food you crave and thus put into your mouth.

That sounds (fairly) straight-forward, but think of the consequences.

What I’m saying is that you might be able to stop your cravings for chocolate, pasta or steak not in a dieting willpower kind of way, but in a permanent I-simply-don’t-really-like-that-any-more kind of way.

No one can currently say this from a place of scientific confidence because it’s still only a ‘could’ in the couched language of gastroenterology.

But I say this from a place of anecdotal confidence because a couple of years ago I stopped craving sugary snacks and puddings (I think) by killing the bacteria in my stomach that loves those sort of treats.

Without that variety of bacteria (or as many of them) sending pestering requests to my brain, I simply don’t fancy eating cake any more.

I’m not saying that you can definitely do this as well – all bodies and guts are different, and the science is still somewhat alchemical – but you can certainly give it a try.

How it works (maybe)

This is the mechanism, so far as I think I know:

  1. Everyone has a different make up of bacteria in their gut. Some of this biome we’re born with and co-exist with us our whole lives; some we can change by changing our diet and our living environment.
  2. These different strains of bacteria get their energy from different food sources. Some particularly like sugar, some prefer fats. The more sugar or fats these bacteria get, the more they reproduce, and the larger their population grows.
  3. These bacteria influence the communication between your gut-brain and your head-brain, and can (could) influence the cravings that you have for different foods.
  4. The greater the population of a certain type of bacteria in your gut, the ‘louder’ the clamouring for their favourite food becomes in your head-brain.
  5. This is (could be) the source of what feels like unconscious cravings. Why do you reach for the cake tin, even when you know you shouldn’t? Bacteria done it (maybe).
  6. The more you ‘listen’ to these cravings, the more you feed that particular strain of bacteria, the larger their population grows, and the more dominant their ‘voice’ becomes. Congratulations, your gut is out of whack and you can’t stay off the Skittles.

How to kill the bad guys

In 2017 I spent about 3 months not eating anything sweet, including fruit.

Starved of their usual food source, I think I managed to kill off most of my unhealthy sugar-loving bacteria.

I had a few days of headaches, which I like to imagine was the starving bacteria sending increasingly desperate signals for food. Like a cruel despot, I ignored them.

Since then, I haven’t had a problem with sugar. I don’t use willpower to avoid chocolate or biscuits, I just don’t fancy eating them.

I can eat sweet things in moderation. Nothing bad happens when I eat a bit of Christmas pudding. But, in general, I simply find sweet things ‘a bit much’.

This isn’t about me and my personal preferences. This is my gut bacteria dictating to me the foods they need to stay alive. It just happens that I’ve killed all the ones that loved me scoffing six bowls of Christmas pudding and twenty-seven mince pies.

And I don’t think I’m special. I think this approach is available to other people.

Yay optimism

I find gut science to be very optimistic. Every time you put something into your mouth is an opportunity for change.

Your gut biome can respond to changes in diet within hours, not weeks or months. So whatever you eat today directly affects what you will want to eat tomorrow (maybe).

Yes, it might take willpower to make the initial change: the bacteria in your stomach don’t want to be starved to death and will put up a fight, but I think we are mistaken to believe that maintaining our new healthy diet will always need willpower.

After the headaches (which only reassured me that I was doing the right thing), I don’t think I needed willpower to keep to my sugar-free diet for more than a week.

What I think is needed instead is an understanding of how our microbiota, gut and brain work together and how we can use this nascent science to give ourselves the best possible chance of eating the healthy diet we want.

Your mileage will vary.

Perhaps my 3-month sugar fast was excessive or maybe I was lucky and my gut responded better than most would. Who knows? You’ll have to see what works for you.

The Fast and the Curious

A few sugar-fasting rules that worked for me:

  1. No exceptions. Even one biscuit could keep those bad bacteria clinging on for dear life. For me, this included fruit and artificial sweeteners. I wanted that craving gone gone gone.
  2. Trust the science. Vegetables are freakin’ delicious and the more you eat, the more you’ll love them. This works because it’s not ‘you’ who loves them, it’s the bacteria that you’re cultivating. Imagine you’re growing a beautiful garden: you’ve just got to get the soil right, pull up the weeds and keep watering the flowers.
  3. Fast for longer than you feel is necessary. I can’t remember exactly how long I felt that I needed to use willpower, perhaps a week. After that, the rest of the 3-month fast wasn’t difficult at all: I was happily eating the more healthy foods that I and my microbiota now loved.
  4. Replace your sugar intake with the type of food that nourishes the bacteria that you want. Eat at least 30 different types of vegetables every week. Don’t worry about 5-a-day or 7-a-day rules, just make sure your weekly shop involves something from every basket in the greengrocer.
  5. Change your environment. Remove every last piece of sugary-food from your house. Stop going to places where you have a sugar-eating habit. That might mean changing where you shop, the cafes you visit or even the friends you hang out with (for the fasting period, at least!).

Finally: good luck, and let me know how you get on!

Further Reading

  • The Diet Myth by Tim Spector (2015) Tim is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College London.
  • Gut by Giulia Enders (2015) Giulia is a resident doctor for Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology.
  • The Clever Guts Diet by Michael Mosley (2017) Michael is a broadcaster who trained as a doctor in the 80s, but apparently never practised.
  • Or anything else by an actual scientist…

Prefer listening? Try this All Hail Kale podcast from the BBC, featuring Tim Spector among others.