Since when did sugar and fat become the stuff of great pizza?
That's what Jeff Leach, cofounder of New Orleans-based World's Healthiest Pizza, wants to know.
"Americans have trained their palates to sugar and fat — when, in fact, that's not what pizza's supposed to taste like," said Leach, who also is an evolutionary anthropologist who studies trends in human nutrition. "To be blunt, we don't need another Oreo pizza in this country."
By using 10 organic whole grains instead of highly processed pastry flour and eliminating shortening, butter and added sugar from the dough, New Orleans-based World's Healthiest Pizza was able to reduce the calorie count of its dough by 40 to 60 percent compared to national chains.
Attempting to create solutions for what has turned into a worldwide epidemic, restaurant operators like Leach are trying to tackle the obesity issue one bite at a time, and World's Healthiest Pizza isn't the only one getting into the act. Newport Beach, Calif.-based zpizza offers a selection of pizzas made with ingredients such as soy cheese, roasted eggplant and homemade salsa.
A breakdown of the nutritional content of each menu item is available via the zpizza Web site.
"zpizza corners a new niche in the pizza segment," says zpizza president Chris Bright. "Customers love our food because we offer fresh, health conscious ingredients--ingredients that make them feel good about eating pizza again."
Even small changes can help turn the tide. Ronni Litz Julien, a nutritionist, registered dietitian and author of "The Trans Fat Free Kitchen," said restaurants can take simple actions such as baking French fries instead of deep-frying them; pan-frying items such as chicken breast and fish; and including more vegetables.
Obesity's far-reaching impact
Another culprit in the battle against obesity is high-fructose corn syrup.
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is used as a sugar replacement in many processed foods and beverages. It is cheaper because of the abundance of corn in the United States, and creates products with a longer shelf life. Introduced into many foods and beverages in the 1970s and '80s — including Coca-Cola and Pepsi products in 1984 — the prevalence of the liquid sweetener has been tied to the spike in obesity.
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Some say that HFCS is linked to obesity simply by contributing to the amount of empty calories consumed. Others suggest that HFCS actually may cause weight gain because it doesn't affect appetite. While the sucrose found in cane and beet sugars produces chemicals that alert the brain when the stomach is full, fructose does not. (Read also, Letter to the Editor: Corn Refiners Assoc. defends use of sweetener.)
"With all the recent research, just knowing that (HFCS) is an inexpensive concentrated form of sugar leads us to believe that it can be a source of weight gain," Julien said.
Since HFCS is found in many sweetened beverages, restaurants have started to offer other beverages including unsweetened iced tea, unsweetened coffee, diet beverages, fruit juices and low-fat milk.
World's Healthiest Pizza eliminated beverages containing HFCS, replacing them with a range of vitamin waters and diet drinks.
"We also got rid of the high-fructose corn syrup that was present in our barbecue sauce," Leach said. "We got rid of all that because high-fructose corn syrup is not doing anybody any favors."
Another combative method has been the offering of smaller portions.
"I used to think that it was a particular food, say pizza, that — if eaten in large amounts — would create a weight problem," Julien said. "Now, I have figured out, that the more choices available to us, whether it is the unhealthy or healthier foods, they can add weight if overeaten."
Portion control is a much bigger problem than ever before, she says, and as a remedy restaurants should reduce portions by as much as 50 percent.
"If restaurants would take the first step, and cut their portion sizes in half, we would be in much better shape," she said.