A deliciously fresh pizza pie with warm baked dough, salty tomato sauce and gooey cheese is a delight for the senses. There are few foods that could satisfy me on a daily basis, but pizza is one of them.
Interestingly, pizza was recently ranked as the food most associated with indicators of addiction, according to a recent study. But what is it specifically about pizza that makes it so universally craved?
Perfect combination of ingredients
“I’m fascinated by the fact that people will eat almost any kind of pizza – not necessarily the ‘best’ pizza – and part of that is the fact that it is the uber selection of ingredients that have fat, sugar and salt, that pleases the amygdala [a set of neurons in the brain] and makes the brain very happy,” said Gail Vance Civille, founder and president of Sensory Spectrum, a consulting firm that helps companies, including pizza companies, learn how sensory cues drive consumer perceptions of products. “It delivers on the food matrix that people tend to crave and want, and feeds the brain, which says ‘this is just wonderful.’ “
“It’s the Holy Trinity of crust, cheese and sauce that really accentuates that whole umami thing,” said Bill DeJournett, managing editor of PMQ Pizza Magazine. “Cheese is addictive on its own … and what is better than bread and cheese? And then when you pair with sauce, it takes it to a whole new level, and it’s irresistible.”
Herbert Stone, a sensory scientist for 50 years, has worked with some of the nation’s top pizza companies in order to enhance pizza’s appeal to consumers. “That combination, when heated, has enormous appeal,” he said. “It’s addictive because there is nothing offensive about it. … There is nothing not to like.”
DeJournett added, “no matter what the pizza style is, if you have a pizza in the oven, that pizza will smell great. And it will make you hungry.”
The food science of pizza’s ingredients
The interaction of pizza’s ingredients is more nuanced than you may think. Civille points out the beautiful combination of yeasty fermented bread with fermented mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, which constitute a complementary pairing of soury, tangy ingredients. Then you have the caramelized tomato, “which has a viny, fruity character, which complements the cheese.”
A really well-done pizza sauce will have garlic, onion and green herbs to work with the viny and sulphury part of the tomato, and when you do all of that well, “you are creating this very, very well-paired conglomeration of individual foods together to give you a unified symphony of flavors. … All of the notes merge together to create a singular pizza note,” Civille said.
The texture of pizza is as important as its flavor. “You have the crispiness of the crust, the chewiness of the cheese and the moistness of the sauce … and if made properly, one doesn’t overpower the other. Everything disappears in the mouth at the same time … and comes together in a unified way,” she said.
Stone says that pizza’s color palate also plays an important role in the food’s ability to make someone salivate and even can influence the perception of its flavor. The most appealing sauce color? “It’s a deeper red, almost approaching purple-like. That is what is most appealing. … With the lighter cheese, it gives you the right combination in the consumer’s mind.
“It is such a simple product … but from a sensory point of view, it is very complex,” he added.
Pizza is the No. 1 ‘addictive’ food
In a recent study, pizza was ranked as the food most associated with symptoms of addiction, according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a tool that assesses the diagnostic criteria for substance-use disorders in reference to highly processed foods.
The psychological response to pizza’s ingredient combinations is partially explained by the fact that highly processed foods like pizza, with added amounts of fat, refined carbohydrates and salt, are most associated with behavioral indicators of addiction, such as loss of control over consumption, cravings and continued consumption despite negative consequences, according to Erica M. Schulte, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan who authored the recent study.