This weeks theme - Italian
I know how serious Italians are about their amazing cuisine, so I will do my best to describe it's interesting history and nuances accurately in my upcoming posts!
Italian food is an absolute favourite of mine: From pizza, to pasta, to antipasto (appetizers), there are just so many things to love about this very traditional cuisine. Every culture has some healthy foods and some not so healthy foods.
Balance and variety is my main message to clients, and it does not change with many Italian classic dishes. In light of the theme "Globally Inspired Nutrition", and since I am a dietitian new to blogging my website, I will start with some of the "healthier" or "lighter" cuisines, recognizing that most any food can be healthy when practiced with moderation and as part of a varied diet. For example, two favourite pasta dishes, spaghetti carbonara and traditional bolognese (meat, meat, and more meat) sauce, are more of a "Choose less often" type of dish you have in moderation with a big salad. I will re-post these two popular recipes of mine soon, because today is about pizza. But is pizza actually healthy?
First, a little history on this iconic dish served around the world.
The origins of pizza appears to date back as far as 997 AD on the south West coast of what is present-day Italy. Although some expert archaeologists believe the precursors to have developed 7000 years ago in Sardinia. One thing for sure, Italians have a deep history surrounding pizza. More recently, there is a story that in 1889, Neopolitan pizza-maker Raffaele Esposito created the "Pizza Margherita" to honour the Queen consort of Savoy with a dish representing the national colours of the Italian flag (Green - Basil, White - Mozzarella, and Red - Pizza Sauce). Also, the neopolitan pizza has specific topping requirements set out by law, including the use of "San Marzano tomatoes, which grow on the volcanic plains to the south of Mount Vesuvius, and Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, a protected designation of origin cheese made with the milk from water buffalo raised in the marshlands of Campania and Lazio in a semi-wild state" [1, 2]
Pretty cool hey?
So yes, pizza has a rich and savoury history.
Plus, what is not to like about pizza? As much as there are specific legal pizza requirements, we also see incredible variation and flexibility across the world, and over generations. The basics: Savoury tomato sauce, yeast-risen bread, mozzarella, and any topping you can possibly perceive on top including vegetables, pepperoni, olives, and even pineapple. Yes, I know pineapple can be polarizing, but did you know pizza used to be considered a sweet dish?
We have seen gluten-free crusts in the form of cauliflower and gluten-free grains. We have Chicago deep dish and New-York style (oh yes, the American-Italian influence on traditional Italian cuisine is alive and well in the pizza world). We have thin crusts, forno baked pizza's, calzones, and even pizza-style submarine sandwiches. It is truly a marvel of culinary history. I love the old, and I also love the new.
But back to our question: Is pizza really healthy?
The answer, yes and no. Some studies have actually shown that among pizza-eating Italians, there is a reduced risk of heart disease and some cancers [3, 4]. However, these studies have not found what the exact correlation may be, and the only population studied were Italians. One posit is that the high lycopene content found in cooked tomato sauces, could be a reason for risk reduction from cancer and heart disease (5, 6]. Also, it could be that the pizza-eating Italians from these studies may also adhere more to the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet has a history of scientific evidence for nutrition and heart healthy benefits, such as an overall diet high in vegetables, local foods rich in anti-oxidants, eating omega-3-rich fish often, and the use of monounsaturated fats like olive oil [7,8]. Truly, my guess is that it is a combination of all the above, and the conflicting evidence we see often in nutrition studies points once again back to balance and variety.
"Trust your intuition, balance the facts, and eat pizza guilt-free, in moderation and with a variety of salad sides and healthy toppings"
Therefore, while it is exciting to see some potential health benefits of pizza, in certain populations, we must be aware of the context. These studies were performed only with an Italian population in Italy. As discussed, pizza culture in Italy is different than here in North America. For example, here in North America, we are more likely to add more cheese, meat, and even bread to our pizza (Case and point = Chicago deep dish). Interestingly, pizza mozzarella production in the US is 10 times as much as all of Europe (1 million tonnes vs. 100 thousand) . I do not have population statistics but heck, Italy is just one country in Europe. This would mean all Italians eating pizza-cheese combined, do not even come to within a tenth of what Americans eat.
So, can we compare studies on Italian pizza eaters to those in North America? My bet would be with a grain of salt, and to understand why we need to look at the factors differently. For example: Increased total calories, high calories from saturated fat, and high sodium ingredients is likely more a North American phenomena than what is happening in a traditional Neapolitan thin crust pizza. Frozen pizza's and fast food pizza's are also much more likely to be higher in these 'not-so-healthy' pizza factors such as high sodium, fat, sugar, and preservatives.
"So how do we make pizza healthy? Portion control, balance, variety, fresh ingredients.
1) Choose thin crust, use moderate cheese, and limit/avoid processed meat. Rather focus on fresh vegetables, herbs, and potentially even fruits like pineapple or figs.
2) Serve with a salad e.g. follow the "Half-your-plate" Rule (see picture at the bottom of this post)
"Also, try making your own! It's fun for date nights and for family cooking to engage the kids"
Here is the recipe for the "Simple Veggie Pizza"
Note: All vegetables are thinly sliced
1 Pizza dough ball (homemade or storebought)
Low sodium or home-made pizza sauce
1/2 eggplant, thinly sliced
1 zucchini, thinly sliced
4 Mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 Roma tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 cup Mozzarella, shredded
Parmesan Cheese (Optional)
1. Stretch pizza dough thinly onto pizza pan or stone.
2. Ladle out pizza sauce evenly onto pizza dough.
3. Add cheese, then ingredients evenly.
4. Bake at 450 degrees Fahrenheit until crust is browned and cheese is melted (approximately 15 minutes)
5. Let cool, and enjoy
One more fun fact! ------ Benefits of red wine?
Ever heard of "The French Paradox"? The glass of wine I have here, is an added touch to reflect balance and variety, and my love for a good glass of shiraz. However, some epidemiological studies in French populations have shown that one glass of red wine a day may help keep the doctor away . Something known as the French Paradox. But do not start free pouring - more than one glass per day could have the reverse effect, and the effects on your liver may counteract any benefits gained towards your heart health. Again, balance and variety is key! One (or two) glasses are a great way to enjoy cooking and eating rich and flavourful Italian foods. More on that in future posts!
Thanks for reading!