Junk food addicts and Ninja Turtles across the world rejoiced in late March, as food chemists from the University of Maryland have finally found a way for them to stop feeling guilty about their favorite food—pizza.
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By: Norman Clausen
June 29, 2007
A research team led by associate professor Liangli Yu and doctoral student Jeffrey Moore has discovered several new techniques to boost the antioxidant properties of pizza. Findings suggest that whole wheat dough, when given longer rise-times and exposure to higher bake times and temperatures, has a significantly higher antioxidant count.
Antioxidants play an important role in deactivating the free radicals inside the body that cause cellular damage and several deadly diseases. Antioxidants are known to slow and prevent the onset of cancer, and help to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by deterring the collection of plaque on arterial walls.
“We chose to investigate pizza dough because it’s one of the most popular wheat-based food products in the U.S.,” added researcher Jeffrey Moore. “Making popular food more healthy using the tools of chemistry may have a larger impact on public health.”
It makes total sense. If the public can’t break poor eating habits, then we may as well learn how to improve the foods involved in those habits. This continues on the philosophy that was employed in the recent ban of trans fats in New York restaurants. It doesn’t mean that you should start having pizza for breakfast. You’re still better off by eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, but it’s still nice to know that science is helping us to improve upon some of our biggest vices.
Several studies were conducted using different baking conditions to assess the effect on antioxidant levels. Different varieties of wheat were exposed to baking temperatures from 400 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit, ranging from 7 to 14 minutes.
In general, studies showed that longer baking times and higher temperatures equated to higher antioxidant levels in the dough. Antioxidant levels were reportedly increased by 60 percent with longer baking times, and up to 82 percent with higher baking temperatures, according to Moore.
While little, old Italian men have known for generations that more intense cooking conditions can enhance the flavor of pizza, it’s the men in white lab coats, not white aprons that stole the show at the American Chemical Society. The Maryland research team presented their findings at a recent meeting for the ACS held in Chicago, where the locals take two things seriously—the Bears, and deep-dish pizza.
Typically, pizza dough is allowed to sit and rise for about 18 hours before being tossed into the oven. To account for this process, the researchers also tested the effects of longer rise-times, which allow for more fermentation induced by yeasts. Fermentation times ranging from zero to 48 hours were tested, with the longest times showing as much as a 100 percent increase in antioxidant levels.
These findings bode well for fans of Sicilian and Chicago-style pizzas, which have thicker crusts that may allow for more of a threshold in baking time and temperature. Add to this news the already well-known studies about the health benefits of tomato sauce, and all of a sudden, pizza is skyrocketing up the list for cancer prevention. If they could somehow find a way to make cheese healthy, we’d really be in business.
While this is all good news, it may not be time to celebrate yet. The studies were all based on pizza dough made with whole wheat flour, which is not in common usage at your local pizzeria. A much more prevalent mixture contains refined flour, which saps the dough of its antioxidant qualities by stripping the wheat of its bran and endosperm components. These same cooking factors will likely have an antioxidant boosting effect on refined pizza dough, but because the ingredients are starting with less antioxidant potential, the effect will likely be less obvious, according to Moore.
So basically, until we can see a widespread change across the industry to whole grain dough, the findings have little bearing on day-to-day health. Though it may become an alternative option, it’s not likely that whole wheat pizza will ever become the standard. However, if you typically make pizza at home, a number of popular crust and frozen pizza producers, like Boboli and Amy’s, offer whole wheat selections.
But forget about toppings. If you typically go for the artery busting meat and cheese lover’ s pie, you’re no better off than before.
“If you’re adding back all these other things that have potential negative health consequences, then you’re negating anything that you’re adding in terms of (health) value,” Moore said.
Also, pizza must be closely monitored, as burnt dough can contain significant amounts of the carcinogenic chemical benzopyrene. Even slightly burning the crust could offset any antioxidant benefit gained.
The study is part of ongoing research at the University of Maryland at College Park to discover and refine technologies that will enhance the natural levels of antioxidants in grain-based foods.
Funding for the study came from a grant by the U.S. department of Agriculture’s National Research Initiative. Finally, our tax dollars are going to good use. Additional funding was furnished by several representatives of the grain industry, but not by the pizza industry.