Sunday, January 5, 2014

In search of healthy pizza by Jerry Brainum

I fell in love with my first bite at age 8, and have remained in love with it ever since. I'm talking about pizza, far and away my favorite food. And I'm not alone in this love affair. In 2005, pizza sales racked up $31 billion, with 3 billion pizzas sold in the United States. People consume 350 slices every second, or to put it another way, every man, woman, and child in the U.S consumes an average of 46 slices of pizza a year. Pizza is the fourth most craved food, behind cheese, chocolate, and ice cream. Despite this popularity, pizza is often classified as a "junk food," largely because of its high content of sodium and fat.
   Pizza has been around a long time in one form or another.A Latin text published in Gaeta, Italy in 997 A.D uses the word "pizza." In fact, the precursor to what we now refer to as pizza was focaccia, a flat bread to which was added various toppings. The Romans called it Panis Focasius, and one wonders if this were used to fuel the activities of Roman gladiators, who were largely vegetarian. The invention of modern pizza is usually attributed to Raffaele Esposito, a baker in Naples, Italy. Esposito owned a pizza restaurant, and prepared the pizza as a special dish for the king and queen of Italy, thus making pizza a meal fit for a king--and a queen.Along with the Black Hand, pizza came to New York in 1905, when Gennaro Lombardi opened the first pizzeria at 53 1/2 Spring street in Manhattan. Later, frozen pizza was invented by Rose Totino, whose name still graces a brand of frozen pizza.
       At first, it's difficult to understand why pizza earned its junk food reputation. Analysis of 100 grams or about 3 1/2 ounces of pizza shows that it contains 50 grams of carbohydrate;20 grams of tomato sauce;20 grams of mozzarella cheese;  4 grams of olive oil;2 grams of yeast, along with toppings. This pizza supplies 30 percent of the recommended dietary allowances of Vitamins A, C, B2, calcium, and protein. It provides 50 precent of the RDA for vitamin B1 or thiamine, and 35% of the RDA for iron. Some of the usual ingredients in pizza, such as olive oil, garlic, and oregano are also common components of the Mediterranean diet, known to be the only nutrition plan that may extend longevity.
    A 2003 study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that eating pizza lowered the risk of esophageal cancer by 59%; Oral cancer by 34%; and colon cancer by 26%. Much of this protective effect was thought to come from the tomato sauce and tomatoes in pizza, which are good sources of the nutrient, Lycopene, shown to have cancer preventive effects. Indeed, one celebrated study published by Harvard researchers a few years ago singled out pizza as a protective food against the development of prostate cancer. The prostate gland concentrates more lycopene than any other part of the body, and in that organ, it prevents oxidative reactions that could lead to cell mutations and cancer. A slice of pizza contains just over 2 milligrams of lycopene, a respectable dosage.
    In 2003, the results of a retrospective study of over 40,000 middle-aged women called the Women's Health Study examined 719 reported cases of cardiovascular disease, and found an inverse relationship between eating pizza and the development of cardiovascular disease. And this was true despite the high fat and sodium content of pizza.
    Pizza does present some unique health problems for certain people. Several articles in diabetic medical journals have described the unique absorption properties of pizza. The high fat content of pizza delays the absorption of the carbs in the pizza dough for two to three hours. But at the eight hour mark, there is a sudden, massive release of glucose that can lead to rapid blood glucose elevations. This would call for diabetics to adjust their insulin schedule, if they were using the hormone. No other food is known to produce this effect.
   The notion that pizza is not healthy has led to attempts to improve the nutritional profile of pizza. One pizza, called "Power pizza," contains dough that is made from whey protein. Met-rx, a supplement company, came out with a frozen pizza a few years ago that was made from Met-rx, a supplement containing whey and other nutrients. Other ways to boost the nutritional value of pizza include using only whole wheat crust, which because of the higher fiber content, results in a slower release of carbs. Not adding extra cheese lowers the fat content. I've seen people use a paper napkin to blot up excess oil before eating pizza, but since that oil is often healthy olive oil, that technique offers dubious benefits at best. Some suggest using healthy toppings, including cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, beets (excellent for boosting nitric oxide, which lowers blood pressure), and other veggies. Beets as a pizza topping? Please pass me the barf bucket!
   In a new study, Scottish researchers opted to design a pizza that was not only healthy,but also good tasting as judged by a group of adults and children. They noted that most commercial pizzas came up short for iron, zinc, iodine, and vitamins B12 and C. The usual pizza is also too high in sodium and fat, or so said the researchers. So the scientists set out to produce a pizza that was nutritionally balanced enough to be considered a healthy, complete meal. They decreased the amount of mozzarella cheese, thus lowering the fat content. They lowered the salt in both the dough and sauce. Then they mixed in red peppers with the sauce to boost the vitamin C levels. Whole-wheat dough was used, to which was added dried seaweed, which increased the fiber, iron,vitamin A, B12,and iodine content of the pizza. The resulting pizza was still top heavy in carbs, containing 76 grams, with 22 grams of protein. But it also contains 473 milligrams of sodium, considered low sodium, along with 112 milligrams of magnesium; 813 milligrams of potassium; 3.5 milligrams of zinc, and all other nutrients, along with 513 calories per slice. It also contained 13.7 grams of fiber, a good amount. 
    The seaweed and added peppers did not affect the taste of the pizza, according to a group of children and adults who taste-tested the special pizza. It was rated very high for both taste and appearance. This led the authors to conclude that,"Our study therefore shows that, contrary to popular opinion,it is perfectly possible to have an attractive, nutritionally balanced meal as a single-item pizza meal."   



Combet, E, et al. Development of a nutritionally balanced pizza as a functional meal designed to meet published dietary guidelines. Public Health Nutrition 2013: in press.

 ©,2013 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

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