From time to time, I get a question regarding how to make pizza a healthier food. It seems that healthy eating is all the rage these days, and rightfully so. With our aging population and reports of overweight youngsters, we really should take greater care in selecting the foods that we eat. We can reduce our fat and sugar intake, and increase our consumption of cereal grains, fresh vegetables, fish and poultry to provide for a healthier diet. Which brings us to America's favorite food – pizza.While some people look at pizza and perceive it to be low in nutritional value, published data indicate that just the opposite is usually true. Most pizzas are actually quite high in nutritional value. They offer a good source of protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and they are fairly low in caloric density.

The protein content of pizza often appears to range from about 10% to just a little more than 14%. Due to the fact that the majority of this protein comes from the cheese and meat toppings, this protein is of a high nutritional quality, which is important to growing children.

When we first look at a pizza, it might appear to be high in fat content. Again, research has shown that the fat content of most pizza rarely exceeds the 10% level. Compare this to a piece of steak with upwards of 20% fat, and you begin to realize just how good pizza really is. On top of all this, because vegetable oil, olive oil, and oil-based shortenings are commonly used in the crust formulation, pizza and pizza products (calzone, stromboli, and bread sticks) are good sources of polyunsaturated fat, with only modest cholesterol contributions (through meat and cheese toppings) to the diet.

Pizzas are quite high in complex carbohydrates, primarily from starches, making it a good energy food. On the other hand, pizzas tend to be low in fiber content. This is especially true when a regular white pizza flour is used in making the crust. When a whole wheat or multi-grain flour is used, however, the fiber content of the pizza can be improved significantly.

Another aspect of pizza that is often maligned is that of caloric content. Research indicates that the caloric content of pizzas does not have to be excessive. In fact, some cheese pizzas have a caloric content not much higher than regular bread products. This translates to about 340 calories for 1/4 of a 13-inch cheese pizza, 370 calories for the same portion of a pepperoni pizza, and about 400 calories for 1/4 of a 13-inch supreme-topped pizza. Mind you, I am making reference to pizzas with a normal application of cheese, not pizzas with double cheese, or with the cheese in the crust in addition to the cheese on the pizza. It should also be recognized that the addition of an extra large portion of meat topping would also significantly increase the caloric content of a pizza.

The only issue that still needs to be addressed with pizza is that of its relatively high sodium content. With meat and cheese toppings being the main contributors of sodium to pizza, the sodium level can be controlled to some extent through judicious use of these toppings and through crust formulations utilizing between 1.25% and 1.5% salt (flour basis).

Aside from the sodium issue, pizza remains a nutritious food. Two slices (1/4) of a typical, 13-inch cheese and meat pizza have been shown to provide almost 1/3 of the daily recommended allowance for protein, 12-15% for vitamin A, 30-45% for thiamin, 25-30% for riboflavin, 20-30% for niacin, 40-50% for calcium, and 18-25% for iron. Overall, this is not a bad contribution to one's daily diet. And remember, up to this point, we haven't made any real attempt to change the pizza into a "more nutritional" food, except possibly to limit the amount and type of regular toppings.

So, if you really want to pull out all the stops and produce a pizza with an even better nutritional profile, what can you do? The first thing to do is to look for ways to reduce the sodium content of the pizza. This can be accomplished by formulating the dough with not more than 1.5% salt based upon the weight of the flour, and then looking for topping ingredients which are lower in sodium content. This could include fresh vegetable toppings or toppings with no added salt. The cheese, which is a contributor of both sodium and cholesterol, might be addressed though the use of an engineered cheese product made with cholesterol-free vegetable oil and reduced sodium content. There are a number of very good cheese products on the market today which are suitable for this application. Then, there is as always the use of poultry and seafood products as toppings that are regarded by many as being a healthier choice compared to regular pizza toppings. The next time you are at any major pizza show, just take a look at the topping ingredient vendors, and I bet you'll find any number of toppings being promoted as healthy choices.

With all of its nutrition, good eating characteristics, convenience, and variety, it's no wonder that pizza is one of the most popular foods in America. PMQ

References: American Institute of Baking Technical Bulletin Nutritional Value of Pizza Products Volume VI, Issue 11, November 1984 Lecos, C. What about Nutrition in Fast Food? FDA Consumer 17(4): 10, 1983

Food & Ingredients, Tom Lehmann, Tom Lehmann: In Lehmann's Terms