THE PERFECT DRUG: WHY IS BAD PIZZA SO GOOD?

ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS PART OF LAST YEAR’S MONTREAL PIZZA EPIC, “PIZZA QUEST: MARGHERITA-VILLE“. -JRS

We love pizza—and by “we”, I mean well, everybody. Worldwide, pizza did $145 billion worth of business last year. That’s billion, with a “b”.

While demand for custom and artisanal pizza has grown, the bulk of that business: bad pizza. To be clear, I don’t mean “bad” in an absolute or judgemental sense. For the record, this writer loves all pizza and—full confession—orders Dominos with embarrassing frequency. (Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.)

Rather, we can think of bad pizza as a set of characteristics, namely pizza that:

  • Relies not on high-quality ingredients for its appeal, but processed components and high amounts of fat, carbohydrates and sodium
  • Demonstrates little complexity in range of flavour, the dominant profile being the basic tastes, i.e. salty, sweet, starchy, savoury
  • Requires little expertise, experience or effort—anyone, pretty much, can pull together a basic dough, apply a prepared tomato sauce and pile on the cheese
  • Can be made and sold very cheaply

 

To the title question: Why is bad pizza so good? There are many factors, of course, including convenience, shareability, and low cost. The main reason, though: Pizza represents a kind of perfect storm of “hyper-palatability”.

In the vernacular of food science and nutrition research, “highly palatable” or “hyper-palatable” foods are those associated with greater food intake and higher risks of over-consumption. In a sense, their properties—generally speaking, higher proportions of sugar, fat and starch—take advantage of our biology to trigger cravings and encourage overeating. You’ve never heard anyone say, for example, “Oh my God, get this lettuce away from me, I can’t stop myself”. But, try to eat a single Oreo. (Do it, I dare you.)

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that processed carbohydrates set off increased activity in those areas of the brain associated with reward and cravings. As if you needed science to tell you that: Consider the satisfying, irresistible pleasure of warm, white bread, or a freshly prepared, plain bagel. Cue that dopamine! (A fascinating aside: There is evidence of a sixth taste related to starch, i.e. the capacity to taste starch on the tongue, separately of sugar.)

The connection to pizza is obvious, particularly given that the base of a lot of bad pizza is basically processed bread. Whereas in better pizza, crust can be very complex in taste and texture (often the product of slower, in some cases natural, fermentation and careful handling), your average crust serves as little more than an “edible plate”, a vessel for toppings. The flavour equals that of white bread, i.e. simple, starchy, sweet.

Atop that crust, of course, lies that element without which a pizza is not a pizza: cheese. Cheese is notoriously difficult to do without; many vegetarians who would be vegans, for example, find it the hardest food to forego.

One reason for this is the fat content. In a study in the Public Library of Science, researchers conclude that fat was linked to problematic eating, whether or not participants were addicted to food. (I know, blowing your mind here, fatty foods are yummy, WOW.)

Another factor is casein, a protein that makes up a major component of milk. According to some research, this substance triggers the brain’s opioid receptors. (Yay more dopamine!). We first encounter dopamine in breast milk (if breastfed), and from an evolutionary standpoint, a built-in craving would make sense. In cheese, however, the proportion of casein is concentrated seven-fold. Which might explain why even cheap cheese—such as that found on bad pizza, often in high amounts—can be so tempting and satisfying.

One final factor to address: the fifth taste, or umami. This taste serves to enhance that palatability of a wide variety of foods: It makes salty food taste saltier, sweet food taste sweeter, and, conversely, makes bitter and sour foods less intense. It can be used to encourage the consumption of healthy foods—or less-than-healthy ones, as in the case of bad pizza.

When you look at a list of foods rich in umami, it looks an awful lot like a pizzeria menu: tomatoes, meat in general but cured meats in particular, mushrooms, black olives, aged cheese. What’s more, certain “umami-full” foods demonstrate synergistic properties in combination, heightening dramatically the taste of umami and its effect: tomatoes with meat or mushrooms, for example. You see where I’m going with this.

And there you have it: We crave simple carbohydrates, we crave fats, we crave salty foods. The umami factor serves to amplify these cravings. A short but sound case for bad pizza as a “perfect drug” of hyper-palatability and an explanation as to why we love and consume so much of it, from the frozen-food-aisle to fast food versions.