The Secrets to a Healthier Pizza

Take an interesting spin on pizza by using fruit toppings instead. Photo courtesy of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association Media Center .

Pizza is infamously unhealthy, and perhaps rightfully so. The average 12-inch pepperoni pizza packs a whopping 1446 calories, already almost three-quarters of the recommended 2000 calories per day. It also has 55.6 grams of fat and 2132 mg of sodium, both approximately 90% of the total daily recommended amounts. Despite these alarming statistics, few people are willing to give up one of their favorite foods. This has made scientists ask: is there any way to make this popular, grease-laden dish healthier? Some common dieting methods include limiting your portion sizes, cutting down on how often you eat pizza, and exchanging pepperoni and other toppings with vegetables, but science also reveals a few other secrets that may make you feel less guilty about indulging in another slice.

A healthy alternative to the refined flour dough found in most establishments is whole wheat. Food chemists at the University of Maryland found that allowing whole wheat dough to rise for two days, instead of only one, doubles the amount of antioxidants in the crust. Baking the pizza at higher temperatures (~500°F) for longer amounts of time (~14 minutes) not only increases flavor, but also increases antioxidant levels by up to 82%. The exact mechanism behind this outcome is still under investigation, but its effect on normal pizza dough is less pronounced because refined flour has already been stripped of the bran and endosperm, the major sources of antioxidants. Incorporating antioxidants into your diet can have a positive impact on your health because these vitamins, minerals, and enzymes can neutralize the harmful free radicals in your body that damage cells and increase the risks of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases.
Sadly, this new baking method also means that the dough can burn more easily and thus produces a carcinogen called benzopyrene, which can essentially negate the advantages of the increased antioxidants. However, if you keep a close eye on the oven, you should be able to reap the full benefits of the healthy whole-wheat crust.

Tomato sauce is often recognized as the one healthy part of pizza, but there are several ways to make it even more nutri¬tious. Normal red tomatoes are lauded for lycopene, a type of antioxidant in the carotenoid family that also gives them their red color. Steven Schwartz of Ohio State University discovered that tangerine tomatoes may be even better for your health. Lycopene actually contains several isomers, chemical compounds with the same formula but different 3D structures. All-trans-lycopenes exist primarily in red tomatoes and cis-lycopenes in orange tomatoes. Although red tomatoes have higher lycopene content, the human body absorbs 2.5 times more lycopene from orange ones. Though tangerine tomatoes are not officially on the market yet, researchers believe yellow or orange heirloom tomatoes have the same effect.

Tangerine tomatoes have more cis-lycopene, which is better absorbed than the all-trans-lycopene found in most red tomatoes. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail

You can also spice up your homemade tomato sauce with rosemary and oregano. Rosemary reduces the amount of acrylamide, a carcinogen that accumulates in the cooking of carbohydrate-rich foods such as pizza. Both of these spices also have beta-caryophyllin (E-BCP), which can alleviate osteoporosis and inflammation since the chemical binds to cannabinoid-CB2 receptors and inhibits the production of inflammatory signals.

The obvious substitution is to use low-fat or fat-free cheeses. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even try to find yak cheese available in gourmet food stores. This exotic cheese has more polyunsaturated fats and four times more conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) than normal cow cheese and is thus much better for your heart. Alternatively, a more feasible option is to use low-fat mozzarella; beware, however, that this cheese can form into an unappetizing skin-like layer instead of it flowing and melting. However, scientists have found that simply spraying the surface of the cheese with canola oil will provide the fatty, hydrophobic surface necessary for this cheese to fuse and melt in the same way as others.

However, you may still be wondering about one very important thing: with all these healthy changes, will the pizza even taste good anymore? Reporters have approved of pepperoni and extra cheese whole-wheat pizzas, but rather than taking their word for it, you can try it for yourself. Check out the full recipe on our website, and have a pizza-tasting party with your friends. Happy eating!