When it comes to pizza, healthy is more about a state of mind than adhering to a rigid dietary regimen. Diets come and diets go, but pizza will always remain popular. Diets can be great motivators to help a person lose unwanted pounds, but unless that person has fundamentally changed the way they live and eat for good, the old bad habits will return, as will most—or all—of that weight. Most diets do work for a while, but unless one can make a lifelong commitment to never again eat foods that are bad for us, we set ourselves up for eventual failure. Because never is a very long time.

Pizza can and should be part of a normal healthy-eating diet. Responsible pizzeria operators should create pizzas that offer consumers viable, tasty alternatives so they can make a smart choice regarding what’s good for them and what tastes good. Smart eating = good eating = smart pies. Smart pies make perfect sense when it comes to making sound nutritional decisions instead of reactionary ones that embody the latest diet fad.

What’s so smart about smart pies? First of all, smart pies cut both the operator and consumer some slack when it comes to strict dietary disciplines by steering clear of specific diet-plan references, such as the keto diet, or playing the heart-healthy, light, low-fat or fat-free claim game. Whenever one of these terms is used, strict regulations must be followed regarding truth in advertising. Creating recipes that are consistently on target in regards to specific diet plans can be problematic if not strictly enforced. Other food claims must be substantiated in writing. If the pizza is independently analyzed by an outside source and it fails to deliver what it claims, legal ramifications could ensue. On the other hand, smart pies draw from diet fads and current nutrition information in a more subtle and generalized manner.

Does the average operator have the time to study all of the latest diet programs or to pore over reams of nutritional information to create healthier, good-tasting pizza options? No. You’re looking for simplified answers that can be easily incorporated into your menu, and consumers are looking for simple and tasty solutions to eating right. It is a proven fact that subtle dietary changes, when made consistently over time, are far more effective than more aggressive changes over a shorter time. In other words, pizzas that taste good first, and secondly, are good for us, are the answer.

Use the Crust You Have

My first bit of advice is to start with what you have and use less of it. For example, if you normally use 12 ounces of dough for your 12″ pizza, use six or seven ounces of dough that is rolled out thinly. The result: 40-50% less fat, calories and carbohydrates without changing a thing in your dough formulation. The crust will come out thin and very crispy and will enjoy a big following with those that tend to leave their crust ends on the plate. (For a 6″ to 8″ personal thin-and-crispy pie, use four to five ounces of dough).

The lightest, low-calorie, low-fat option for your sauce is good, ol’ plain chopped or crushed tomatoes in juice or puree. Prepared tomato sauces have sugar, oil and other flavorings in them that contribute significantly to their fat and caloric content.

Alternative Pizza Crusts

For a non-fat crispy dough, formulate a dough recipe using only flour (try to make it unbleached and organic), water, yeast and sea salt. Avoid using any kind of sugar (honey is still sugar), fats or chemical additives.

Here’s a high-fiber, whole-grain crust that’s deliciously chewy and flavorful. The addition of wheat berries, rolled oats, sunflower seeds and bran create textural interest. (Note: It makes a fantastic crust, but it is not low-calorie.)

There are also lots of whole-grain and sourdough mixes available to make formulating your special crust a snap. Try mixing in some sunflower seeds, bran, rolled oats or sprouted wheat berries to add additional fiber and texture.

Other alternatives are frozen doughs based on non-gluten grasses and grains like spelt, soy flour, chickpea flour, rice flour and cornmeal. Corn, flour or whole-wheat tortillas make excellent thin crust substitutes—especially for Latino light pizzas. Lavash is another great quick, thin crust option.

This photo shows a male chef's hands adding tomato sauce to pizza dough.

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Super Sauces

As already mentioned, chopped or crushed tomatoes in juice or puree is a great low-calorie, low-fat option here. If you want to season the crushed tomatoes, add a bit of black pepper, oregano and chopped fresh basil—leave out the salt, they’ll already have plenty. Add chopped fresh garlic directly onto the empty pie skin before saucing. This type of Italian-style “sauce” has an extremely bright, fresh flavor that is sure to win over many customers.

Also consider an oven-roasted tomato sauce. This has a wonderful intensity to it and a rustic look and taste. Halve fresh ripe Roma tomatoes onto a sheet pan and sprinkle with salt, pepper, fresh garlic slivers and fresh basil. Drizzle very lightly with olive oil—or don’t use any oil at all. Place them in a 400 ̊F oven until the tomatoes are just tender, then remove them from the oven and allow them to cool. Remove the tomato skins and reserve the tomatoes, seasonings and all of the accumulated juices. These tomatoes can be used as is on pizza or coarsely chopped as a sauce.

How about a light pesto sauce? Place two packed cups of fresh basil leaves in a food processor with 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup of non-fat chicken broth and process until smooth. This pesto puree is ready to flavor all kinds of sauces or to spread on pizza. For a low-fat creamy pesto sauce, mix 1 tablespoon of pesto with 1/4 cup of low fat mayonnaise and 1/2 teaspoon of chopped fresh garlic. Use this as a base and spread over an empty pizza shell.

Finally, you can try a Formaggio Bianco base. Per one pint of low-fat or non-fat ricotta, mix in one tablespoon of grated Parmesan and one tablespoon of grated Romano, a generous grating of fresh nutmeg and fresh ground black pepper. Use this cheese base for a creamy low-fat alternative.

This photo shows a slice of pizza with red peppers, olives and spinach leaves being pulled from a whole pie with a nice, stringy cheese pull.

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Cheeses That Please

For mozzarella, I prefer to use a very full-flavored part-skim-milk mozzarella that’s been very finely shredded because it will impart the best flavor with just a small amount. With non-fat cheeses, it often takes too much product to taste like anything at all, and their melting capabilities are often pretty poor. Smoked mozzarella has a lot of flavor, and again, you tend to use less.

Provolone is a wonderful option; it is tangy and full-bodied, and a little goes a long way. It also melts into great strings.

With cheddar cheese, shredded 2% fat works best. It has good flavor and still melts nicely. If you’re using Parmesan cheese, shred it rather than grating it for a bigger flavor punch.

Grated or shredded, Romano has plenty of flavor bang for not a lot of calories. Asiago is another full-flavored cheese that benefits from being shredded—especially after the pie comes out of the oven.

Goat cheese is mild, tangy and very low in fat and calories. Similar to goat cheese, feta is saltier and has a bit more tang to it. Feta delivers excellent flavor with little fat.

While gorgonzola or blue cheeses tend toward higher fat and caloric content, a little goes a very long way. They are excellent crumbled over a pie as it comes out of the oven.

Low-fat or non-fat ricotta creates an excellent, low-fat, creamy, almost custard-like effect. Ricotta is a must-have low fat ingredient.

I prefer to use low-fat versions of cheese instead of the non-fat because they have so much more flavor and better texture, delivering satisfaction with a lot less product on the pie. Stronger-flavored cheeses are pretty important to satisfying those cravings. Another trick is to coarsely shred cheese over the top of the pie as it comes out of the oven—which gives a great cheese hit without a lot of cheese. I also love to crumble feta or blue cheese over the pie after it bakes, so that I get the most out of their flavors.

Meat, Poultry and Seafood Toppings

When it comes to meat on a healthier pizza, forget pork sausage, pepperoni or chopped beef. However, bring on the Canadian bacon, smoked ham, chicken breast, chicken sausage, turkey bacon, turkey pepperoni, turkey salami and turkey sausage. Most seafood is naturally low in calories, so pile on the shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops, smoked salmon, smoked tuna, smoked oysters and domestic fish caviars.

For a sausage-topped pizza, I use an excellent Italian-style turkey sausage or turkey pepperoni to flavor the rest of the topping—a little goes a long way.

Low-fat ham is great on pizza as is Canadian bacon, but once again, turkey steals the show with excellent turkey bacon, turkey ham and turkey salami.

Chicken breast is perhaps the most popular healthy meat topping option for pizza—it can be grilled, diced, shredded or sliced. Chicken is so versatile and so good for you. Traditional seafood toppings also shine brightly on smart pies. Seafood is the best entrée into upscale toppings—who can turn down a shrimp pizza?

Vegetable Toppings

Here lies the heart and soul of healthy pizza. Eating your vegetables never tasted so good. Try to roast most of your cooked vegetables, as this process brings out their natural flavors and sugars without the added fat of sautéing.

Leafy greens like spinach, kale, chard, broccoli di rape, broccoli and escarole are traditional Italian toppings that are loaded with nutrients, tasty and low in fat and calories.

Fresh tomatoes, heirlooms, cherry tomatoes, sweet 100’s, yellow, golden and green tomatoes are made for pizza. They are low in calories and high in flavor.

Peppers, onions and mushrooms form the happy healthy veggie trio of pizza. Other top contenders include eggplant, which has a rich flavor and meaty texture; light and satisfying zucchini; and, of course, garlic. Try it chopped fresh or roasted.

Finally, salad-topped pizzas are not only good for you, they are also hugely popular in the mainstream. Toss on some mixed spring greens, baby romaine lettuce or arugula.

One more thing: Heat and spice are extremely popular trends that add flavor without guilt. There are hundreds of hot sauces, hot pepper condiments and salsas out there to choose from.

As you can see, the smart-pie palette is quite broad; there is no reason why anyone should have to suffer through a healthier pizza option!

Evelyne Slomon was a food writer for PMQ. This article originally appeared in the June-July 2006 issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine.

Food & Ingredients