Lately I’ve been thinking about how pizza gets a bad rap in the world of nutrition. Specifically, I find it irritating that pizza, all pizza, is largely dismissed as “junk food.”
Don’t get me wrong, as a nutrition professional I love the work that folks like Jamie Oliver are doing out there. We need to think more about the things we put into our mouths that fall under the increasingly vague category of food. But Jamie, like many others, flippantly tosses pizza into the junk food bucket as an evil to be avoided, certainly something to be kept out of the reach of
children. Most nutrition professionals cite the numbers—calories, grams of fat, milligrams of sodium, etc. But it is also important to look behind the numbers and get an idea of where they come from.
Pizza, like most foods, is at its ugliest when it is the result of mass production. The components are highly processed and assembled in a manner that is as mindless as they can make it. The desired result is not great pizza, nor a nutritious product. The desired result is a consistent product from day to day, from store to store, from state to state – the same pizza no matter where you are or when you get it. Like most mass produced, highly processed foods, this style of pizza contains high levels of saturated fat, sodium and refined carbohydrates, which draws the fire of the nutrition police that claim they are trying to prevent us from becoming too wide to fit through the standard door frame. But a real, well crafted pizza is a different story.
Artisan chefs, by their very nature, use the best ingredients they can find. Crusts made from minimally processed flours, sometimes adding whole grain flours, serve as a crispy platform to enhance what is on top of it, such as hand pulled mozzarella cheese and homemade sauces prepared in-house from fresh ingredients --and the quality of the ingredients and the way they are put together can make an enormous difference. From a food science standpoint, artisans making pizza in their shop don’t have to worry about the ingredients surviving a sometimes brutal trip through industrial size equipment that can strip nutrients and flavor (only to be artificially added back in later). Such processes require that preservatives and stabilizers be added. Then, after processing the dough, sauces and toppings need to be packaged and shipped, and stored until used, which often requires further additives.
Small batches of dough, on the other hand, need only the basic ingredients--flour, water, yeast and salt, oil optional. And the flour does not have to be limited to highly processed (and cheap) wheat flour. Whole wheat flour can be used, as can numerous other grains, like the multigrain dough at Naked Pizza (several locations) that claims to have a low glycemic response, which is important for diabetics (for all of us, actually).
Sauces, vegetables, and meat toppings can all be made from fresh ingredients of known origin without added garbage. For example, The Pizza Stop (Outer Banks of NC) uses organically grown tomatoes and local vegetables to build their pizzas. No sugar is added to the sauce because the tomatoes are naturally sweet like tomatoes should be.
Cheese is probably the biggest culprit in dragging pizza into the domain of junk food. Mass produced pies are topped with mass produced cheese made from mass produced milk. It is the source of most of the calories and fat, without a reciprocal return in flavor. And, in spite of usually being the most expensive ingredient, it gets heaped on in disproportionate quantities. A high quality cheese can speak for itself, and a little can go a long way when sitting atop a whole grain crust and tomato sauce that tastes of tomato. Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix, AZ), among other artisan pizzaiolos, is so fanatical about quality that he makes his own mozzarella! And if proof is in the numbers, a slice of pizza from a 12” pie made at a major pizzeria chain will give you 240 calories and 530 milligrams of sodium (25% of recommended daily intake). A Naked Pizza slice from the same size pie carries only 132 calories and 225 milligrams of sodium. [Data from company web sites January 17, 2011].
So in the end, I propose that pizza can, in fact, be part of a healthy diet--but only when properly made from quality ingredients -- providing a nice balance of complex carbohydrates, protein and fat. I rest my case--mangia!