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It’s all food-group nutrition at its tastiest


April 18, 2008
By Helen Bishop MacDonald

Topics

As a dietitian/nutritionist I have found myself annoyed
frequently over the years, hearing pizza referred to as a “junk” food.
I found this to be an extremely superficial, even asinine, assessment
given that the vast majority of pizzas are composed of the four food
groups.

It’s all food-group nutrition at its tastiest

As a dietitian/nutritionist I have found myself annoyed frequently over the years, hearing pizza referred to as a “junk” food. I found this to be an extremely superficial, even asinine, assessment given that the vast majority of pizzas are composed of the four food groups. True, some might not have meat, fish or poultry, and the odd pizza may not have cheese, but by and large this most popular of “combination” foods is about as representative of Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating as you can get.

So I’ve often wondered why pizza got such a bad rap. The easy answer is because the masses love it. Anytime you have a food or dish that appeals to all age groups, both genders, and transcends any ethnic boundaries, there’s going to be over-arching view that this food must be “bad” for us. A similar fate has befallen the lowly hamburger: make it at home and it’s an acceptable food choice, but as soon as it comes from a “fast food joint” it joins the ranks of the undesirables. This, of course, is a subject for a social psychologist to wrestle with … as a dietitian I want to break the pizza down to its various components and determine its net worth – nutritionally speaking.

Crust
The obvious place to begin is with the crust. With the low-carb fad waning, the high-carbohydrate make-up of the crust should be a non-issue. Sure, the crust is rich in complex carbs, but the food guide recommends 5-12 servings of the bread/cereal group each day and it does so for good reason. To begin with, the flour from which the crust is made is enriched with three B vitamins plus iron, and now folic acid is added as well. The human body requires carbohydrate for a variety of reasons, but if more is being consumed than needed, there’s always thin-crust, not to mention crusts made with whole-wheat flour. In terms of the Glycemic Index Diet (potentially the next hot thing for weight-watchers), pizza is at the moderate level, even with a regular crust.

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Sauce
Next comes the tomato sauce. Nobody to whom I’ve spoken on the issue has a bad thing to say about tomatoes or their sauce … but very few know about the very positive research linking the consumption of processed tomatoes and their products with a reduced risk of prostate cancer. While this may not have a direct impact on women, it matters a lot to them if they care about their fathers, brothers, husbands or lovers. In fact, there is good news about women and pizza, but more about that later. The prostate cancer research notwithstanding, tomato sauce is an important source of many nutrients and therefore a major player in the pizza/nutrition argument.

Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables figure prominently on most pizzas, from the pineapple addition on an Hawaiian pizza to the myriad of veggies on most … everything from artichokes to zucchini. I doubt that anyone needs to be reminded of the nutritional wallop that vegetables bring to a pizza, and besides that, I think that most people choose them because they like them. The vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that they bring to the table are, however, no small potatoes.

Animal Protien
Now we’re getting to the “iffy” part of a pizza, the ingredient that some would most likely identify as the component that lends a negative connotation to the pie, the meat. Usually people think of the pepperoni and salami, which admittedly confer more fat than other meat choices like lean ground beef or ham. There is also a concern about saturated fats, but research has shown that the major such fatty acid they deliver is stearic acid which is either neutral in terms of cholesterol or actually lowers it. This is not to say that the sky’s the limit, but it does serve to remind that portion size is all-important. It’s not any one ingredient in a pizza that might do you in, but rather how much you eat. You can, in fact, have too much of a good thing. Happily, there are many sources of animal protein from which to choose for your pizza, including chicken, shrimp, salmon, crab … even lobster if you’re feeling flush.

Cheese
And finally, what’s a pizza without cheese. Sure, there are cheeseless types on offer, but the true pizza aficionado is not going to be happy without it. The health concern about cheese, I think, is sorely misplaced. Not only have studies shown an inverse relationship between heart disease and cheeses consumption, but we now know that cheese contains an anti-carcinogen called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA for short). Again, though cheese is highly nutritious, it’s not a low-calorie food … so portion control is an issue.

Healthy Ingredients
I commented earlier that there is good news about pizza for women and it’s simply this: not only do we know that the cheese on pizza contributes a hefty dose of calcium, which is extremely important in helping reduce the risk of osteoporosis, research now tells us that the conjugated linoleic acid in the cheese may play a role in reducing the risk of breast cancer. On top of all that, for both men and women there is now scientific evidence that pizza eaters have a lower risk of heart disease and various forms of cancer. And to think that this food was once classified as junk! You gotta wonder.•