March 28, 2007

If you eat pizza all the time, chances are you're not overly concerned with your health. And if you are a healthy eater who turns to pizza as an occasional junk-food splurge, you may experience some guilt after you've downed a few (or five or six) slices of cheesy, empty-carb heaven. But soon, that could all change. Sort of.

Food chemists at the University of Maryland have been looking into ways to boost the antioxidant content of wheat-based foods. Two components in wheat -- bran and endosperm -- are rich in antioxidants, nutrients that can prevent cell damage in the body by inhibiting the oxidation process. Research has shown that antioxidants help avoid the effects of free radicals in the body, which are charged particles that go around stealing electrons from atoms, causing cell damage that has been linked to diseases like cancer and heart disease. The body has natural antioxidant defenses against free radicals, but those natural defenses can be overrun. Adding antioxidants to your diet can help those defenses fight back more successfully (see How Antioxidants Work to learn more). So that's the idea behind boosting antioxidants to make foods more healthy.

So how can pizza help prevent heart disease? This concept requires disconnecting the dough from what goes on top of it. It's the dough that can be made antioxidant-rich -- but only if it's whole-wheat dough. Regular pizza dough won't work.

What the researchers did is take various types of whole-grain wheat dough and mess around with three factors: fermenting time (when the dough is left to rise); baking temperature and baking time. They found that increasing each factor increased the levels of antioxidants in the dough. Baking the dough for 14 minutes instead of seven minutes increased antioxidants up to 80 percent. Higher baking temperatures, going from 400 F (204 C) to 550 F (285 C), raised antioxidant levels up to 60 percent. And extending the fermenting time from the usual 18 hours to 48 hours boosted antioxidants up to 100 percent. The exact results depended on the type of flour and the antioxidant test the researchers applied. But overall, the results were very good for a healthier pizza dough. The scientists believe antioxidants levels will really skyrocket if pizza makers implement all of the increases, although it's unclear how a pizza won't burn if it's baked both hotter and longer.

No one is sure exactly why the higher temperatures and longer bake times increase antioxidant levels in the dough. But they believe the longer fermenting time boosts antioxidants because the yeast has more time to carry out chemical reactions that cause changes in the dough, which leads to the release of more latent antioxidants as molecular bonds are reorganized in the fermenting process.

Of course, there are a couple of issues standing in the way of "pizza as health food." The first one is the fact that people put stuff on top of the pizza dough. Tomato sauce is not a big problem, but cheese is -- cheese is a high-fat food. And not just fat, but saturated fat. That's why it tastes so good. And stuff like pepperoni and sausage? Artery clogging, thigh-expanding foods. So as soon as you put that stuff on your antioxidant-rich, whole-wheat pizza dough, the good effects of the antioxidants are completely canceled out by the bad effects of the cheesy, fatty, processed-meaty goodness.

On the other hand, if you put some reduced fat cheese, spinach and low-fat turkey sausage on that antioxidant-rich dough, you could actually be eating a healthy meal that looks and tastes a lot like pizza.

The other thing blocking pizza's path to health is that almost nobody makes pizza dough with whole-wheat flour. Whole-wheat-flour dough tastes different than refined-flour dough, and the general public seems to prefer the latter. The researchers think you might see some increase in antioxidants in regular pizza dough using the three methods they studied, but it would be a small increase at best. Refining wheat takes out most of the bran and endosperm, which doesn't leave many antioxidants left to boost.

The University of Maryland chemists say the pizza industry is not funding their research. They decided to take on pizza as opposed to, say, pita bread, because it's wheat-based and extremely popular. If you can make pizza a healthy food, public health would actually benefit significantly. There are similar things happening in the soft-drink industry. Coke and Pepsi are both hitting the market with vitamin-fortified soft drinks in 2007. But they're not calling them "soft drinks." These new products are "sparkling beverages." And there's a Snickers protein bar on store shelves, not in the candy bar aisle, but in the energy bar aisle. Healthier junk food is an interesting trend, and some support the industry's attempt to stop killing people slowly. Others insist that food that's actually healthy to start with is a much better option.

For more information on pizza, antioxidants and related topics, check out the following links:

Sources

  • Atkins, William. "Healthy pizza dough? It's in the prep work and materials!" iTWire. Mar. 27, 2007. http://www.itwire.com.au/content/view/10857/1066/
  • "Chemists Create Healthier Pizza By Boosting Antioxidants In Dough." ScienceDaily. Mar. 27, 2007. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/03/070326181611.htm
  • Martin, Andrew. "'Healthy' soda pop to include vitamins." The Detroit News. Mar. 7, 2007. http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070307/ LIFESTYLE03/703070418/1040
  • "Pizza as health food?" CNN.com. Mar. 26, 2007. http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/03/26/ pizza.antioxidants.reut/index.html