If there were any doubt the Atkins Diet and other low-carbohydrate programs were on their way out, Atkins Nutritionals' bankruptcy filing in 2005 removed it. But despite their gradual disappearance, there's no denying low-carb regimes, not to mention the low-fat diets of 20 years ago, increased the degree to which people watch what they eat.
"The popularity of diets proves our urge to manage our weight never goes away," said Joan Blake, a clinical assistant professor at Boston University's Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. "And more people will get interested in this as Baby Boomers get older. Dieting may be a cosmetic thing now for them, but later they'll have more heart problems and bone problems because of the weight they're gaining. They'll take this more seriously."
Blake said many know what foods are good for them, but they don't know how to make them as flavorful as less-healthful foods. Radical diets don't do the trick, she said, because they don't adequately address human cravings for variety and satiety. Long-term diet plans are more successful when people identify what they like first and then learn to make those foods more healthful.
Blake believes many would be surprised to discover pizza can be an ideal element in a healthful diet. In its bare dough, sauce and cheese essence, it's healthful food.
"Pizza is not something full of sugar and without nutrients. It covers many of the food groups," she said. "White flour is enriched, which is good, and now so many people are making whole-wheat crusts, which are better. Tomato sauce is wonderful for you and cheese is a great source of calcium."
People get into trouble with pizza in when they overdo it on cheese and protein toppings high in saturated fat. Making pizza healthful doesn't mean abandoning either cheese or meat, she said, but it does require effort to reduce their potentially negative impacts.
Piling on the veggies
Blake teaches weight management clients how to lower calories, fat and carbohydrates while boosting a pizza's flavor. For example, if someone loves pepperoni pizza, she advises them to use half the amount of pepperoni, make up the difference in mushrooms and scatter both all over the pizza. To increase flavor, she suggests clients add onions, peppers and garlic.
"I'll put a little ground beef on my pizza, but then I load up on vegetables, too," she said. "Pizza is a great way to get a lot of vegetables into your diet."
If meat is a must, then the leaner the better. Liz Hertz, marketing manager for toppings manufacturer Burke Corp., said the company's Canadian bacon and chicken breast strips are among the leanest of meat toppings. Chicken is especially amenable to further flavoring with Cajun or southwest seasonings, which give it a more dramatic impact on the pizza. Like Blake, she suggested operators pair meat toppings with similarly seasoned vegetables to extend a flavor theme.
"Sometimes it's also a matter of making sure fruits and vegetables are available to eat on the side, too." Hertz said. "A really healthy meal includes a balance of foods." Cutting back on the amount of cheese used also cuts calories, and using skim milk cheese goes even further. Less cheese also lets a pizza's other components stand out; without a heavy cloak of casein, the nuances of a really good sauce or crust are better appreciated.
Why the Atkins Diet fingered pizza crust as one of its worst dietary bad boys was because of its key component: low-fiber, high-carb white flour. During digestion, white flour is broken down into simple sugars that can send insulin levels soaring. High insulin, Atkins claimed, triggers excessive fat storage.
Higher-fiber, whole-grain flours aren't digested the same way. And though not yet taking the pizza industry by storm, the number of operators offering whole-wheat crusts in the past few years has increased steadily. Many say customer requests led them to add a whole-wheat crust, but all said sales of them don't compare to those of traditional crusts.
"To say 5 percent of our customers ask for it is probably an exaggeration," said JP LaRussa, general manager of Zachary's Chicago Pizza in
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San Francisco. "There is enough demand that we make it every day, but I don't see it getting much bigger."
Zachary's customers looking for healthful options, LaRussa added, tend to choose leaner toppings, such as baked chicken and vegetables.
Clarence Scott, president, of Spokane, Calif.-based A.C. LaRocco Pizza Company, said his company's line of heart-healthy pizzas center on the benefits of high-fiber, low- to no-gluten crusts. Though not its true target market, many of its customers are gluten-intolerant and/or diabetic.
"Probably 30 percent of the population is really health-conscious, somebody who, when they go to a restaurant, may order healthy foods," said Scott. "We expect that number will grow over time."
To boost crust fiber, LaRocco uses whole-wheat flour and ingredients like flaxseed and chicory root. In most cases the taste difference is negligible, but he said the dough infused with chicory root requires a double proofing to tenderize it.
Recently LaRocco developed a parbaked whole-wheat crust that pizza and restaurant operations can have available for customers requesting whole wheat. "We know restaurateurs are busy, we know labor is killing them and we know that when they get requests for whole-wheat pizza, they don't have time to make a special dough. This is perfect for them."
Peter Reinhart, an instructor at the Charlotte, N.C. campus of Johnson & Wales University, said whole-grain crust development is blooming at the operational level. During a recent visit to Camp Bread, an event where some 250 bakers shared techniques on rendering new flavors from ancient grains, he saw just how much.
"The way these bakers are bringing out sweetness and flavor from flours has great implications for pizza crusts," said Reinhart, author of numerous books on baking, including, "American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza." Developing those whole-grain crusts, he added, will take a pizzaiolo who's dedicated to his dough. "It has to be well executed. People will try something good for them once, but they won't return to it unless it has good flavor. With what I'm seeing now, that's possible."
While many operators have added healthful pizzas to their menus, few have promoted them effectively. Since customers are used to pizza as usual, something different likely won't stand out without special emphasis. That starts with a clever or catchy name that is something customers instantly know is a healthful option. Where possible, consider unique menu headings or different-colored type to make the item stand out.
Bundling a healthful pizza with complementary items on a menu, such as salads, vegetable side dishes and diet drinks, will draw added attention. Doing so also allows the customer to choose quickly (think of bundled meals on drive-thru menu boards). Having nutritional information handy for those items also helps. List calories, fat and carbohydrates, even Weight Watchers points if you know how to calculate them. Wherever possible, said Blake, make it easy and affordable for dieters to dig in at your pizzeria.
"Since people are not going to give up pizza — nor should they — what we need to do is make eating healthy fit into their lifestyles," she said. "Don't make it more expensive to eat healthy, make it a bargain. Don't penalize them for buying a healthy choice, rather, reward them."
Editor's Note: This document is a sample chapter from the PizzaMarketplace Guide to Choosing the Right Pizza Toppings. This free document is available for download by clicking here.