Some surprising health benefits of pizza

For many people I know, pizza is a reasonable option for a quick, easy meal on a Friday night at the end of a long week. Especially on traditional “meatless” Fridays during Lent, coming up again on the calendar in the next few weeks.

Some say an Italian housewife in New York City or Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century created pizza as we know it in America. She had some leftover tomato sauce and bread dough. (Remember when people used to bake their own bread!?) So she creatively combined the two–and added cheese and spices on top.

In Italy and Southern France, they made a version called “pis saladiere,” which had caramelized onions, olives, cheese, and spices baked on top of a thin crust of bread. Tomatoes did not come to Europe until the late 1700s, so tomato sauce was not originally part of this traditional Italian/French “pizza.”

So how about it? Is pizza a healthy option?

Well, the tomato sauce itself can be very healthy. You see, tomato sauce is high in many beneficial nutrients, including lycopene. I helped discover the role of lycopene in human metabolism and nutrition while working at the National Cancer Institute with the USDA in the mid-1980s. In fact, the tomato is a rich source of lycopene in nature and is very important for prostate health.

Interestingly, we found in our USDA diet studies that college-age men had very high levels of lycopene. We credited these levels to their “Frat Boy” diet, high in concentrated tomatoes from pizza sauce and ketchup.

Of course, the tomato is also a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, and some B vitamins. Plus, since the sauce contains concentrated nutrients, it’s almost like taking a healthy nutritional supplement.

You can also put many healthy toppings into or onto the sauce. Possible ingredients like garlic and onions are healthy additions. And the spices that go on top, like black and/or red pepper, oregano, and basil offer many health benefits. Cheese–as long as you don’t overdo it–is a good source of calcium, other minerals, and protein.

Whenever we eat pizza, we like to add lots of vegetables. You can load up your pizza with mushrooms, olives, onions, green peppers, red peppers, broccoli, spinach, diced tomatoes, or any other fresh vegetable. This will dramatically increase the pizza’s health benefits. And if you like anchovies, go for it. Anchovies are one of nature’s best sources of calcium because they include the tiny little bones, which act like safe, natural bioavailable calcium supplements.  You can also use meat toppings in moderation for some added protein and minerals.

Of course, delivery pizza is usually very “high” in salt. But the idea that salt is unhealthy is turning out to be a myth. The vast majority of people can handle any extra salt in their diet without negative health effects. I was one who predicted this finding 30 years ago, based on the basic science. Now, emerging research shows salt is harmless for most people. Unfortunately, many scientists and doctors do not know the latest science.

The only truly “unhealthy” part of the pizza is the dough, which is carbohydrate.

A thick crust is just empty calories and empty carbs. So–the thinner the crust the healthier. Plus, in some parts of the U.S., such as New England, they add sugar to the dough (and even to the sauce). So watch out for this sweet pizza.

A few years back, there was actually a fad diet in Europe called the “pizza diet.” But their pizza typically has fewer calories because of the thin crust and other ingredients compared to a lot of pizza in the U.S.

If you are trying to lose weight, the main thing to remember is to reduce the size of your portions and to eat a balanced diet. And when you do choose pizza, go for thin crust without added sugar. Also, eat just one slice. That’s what they do in Europe.