Jeff Leach is tired of seeing pizza cast as a whipping boy for nutritionists.
Leach, the co-founder of New Orleans-based World's Healthiest Pizza, is working to change the perception of pizza as the epitome of unhealthy eating. The two-unit chain's mission statement is "Delivering great-tasting pizza that's actually good for you."
An anthropologist who studies trends in human nutrition, Leach partnered with mortgage banker and developer Randy Crochet in October 2006 to open World's Healthiest Pizza in post-Katrina New Orleans. The partners opened a second location a few months later.
"When people write about what's unhealthy in America, they immediately conjure up the word â€˜pizza,'" Leach said. "I thought we could develop a pizza that tasted good, but was healthy at the same time."
Although people typically focus on the toppings as the unhealthiest part of a pizza, Leach said, that's not where the problems lie.
"Most people don't realize that on a straight cheese pizza, 60 to 70 percent of the calories are in the dough," Leach said. "What is inherently bad about dough is that it is made with highly-processed pastry flour, which means that it's been stripped of its outer fiber and bran coating."
WHP's dough is made with a combination of 10 different grains instead of the processed white flour traditionally used in pizza dough. The company doesn't use butter, shortening or added salt or sugar in its dough, either.
"What we ended up with is a pizza dough that has 50-60 percent fewer calories than any other dough on the market," Leach said. "And it actually tastes great."
Although WHP offers traditional pizza toppings such as pepperoni and sausage, along with a few New Orleans-inspired ones such as alligator sausage, calorie savings extend to mozzarella cheese made with skim milk and fresh, rather than canned, pineapple.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2008, the company stopped using products containing high fructose corn syrup, including soft drinks and dough ingredients.
"We are not attempting to limit customer choices, said WHP co-founder Randy Crochet. "Rather, we are trying to lead a movement in the New Orleans area among restaurant businesses to take a stand on healthier alternatives and attempt to make a difference."
Meeting the demand
In recent years, operators have begun to offer options such as diabetic-friendly whole wheat crusts and gluten-free crusts for those with celiac disease, a condition where the body can't tolerate the protein gluten typically found in wheat products such as flour.
In 2003, Cleveland-based Bungo's Pizza developed a diabetic-friendly whole wheat crust. Bungo's owner Steve Sandberg, who has a family history of diabetes, created the pizza in order to make a more healthful dish.
Last fall, Tacoma, Wash.-based Farrelli's Wood Fire Pizza introduced its own pizza catering to those with diabetes. Farrelli's founder John Farrell created a whole-wheat crust in response to a request from a diabetic boy named Eliot, christening the dish Eliot's Pizza.
As the growing obesity problem in the United States garners more and more media attention, the decision to offer a healthy pizza alternative can help boost the bottom line.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Pizza Fusion has built itself on being an organic pizza chain. Organic food goes hand in hand with healthy eating, said Pizza Fusion's vice president of communications Eric Haley.
"Organic is healthy in the sense that it lacks the artificial additives such as pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics and those types of things into the food," Haley said. "We've taken a pretty aggressive approach to the healthy aspect of our food. Beyond the organic, we also offer a multi-grain crust for the carb-conscious eater, we offer a gluten-free pizza for those with celiac disease and a range of vegan offerings."
Pizza can actually be a very healthy food, said Jackie Hart, founder of HealthWealth Inc., an Austin, Texas-based company that designs customized corporate wellness programs.
"You can get all of your major food groups if you have the right ingredients," she said. "Mediterranean diets are quite healthy. Pizza is an American food, but it's based on Mediterranean-style food."
Operators can step up their healthy offerings by making a few simple recipe changes, said Pamela Gould, co-author of the book "Feeding the Kids: The Flexible, No-Battles, Healthy Eating System for the Whole Family."
Olive oil can be used in place of other types of oil, she said, while mozzarella made with skim milk can be substituted for whole-milk mozzarella. Using lean meats also can cut down on saturated fats.
"Parents I talk to are desperate to have a healthy pizza for their kids," she said.
Additionally, a pizza doesn't have to be laden with cheese to be good. Pizzas served in Italy traditionally have a light sprinkling, not an inch-thick layer of cheese, said Rose Forbes, owner of The Nutrition Makeover Wellness Center in Asheville, N.C.
"You could also choose low-fat cheese," she said. "But I say use the real thing and just use less of it for a more satisfying bite."