The magic of pizza is how it works so well for so many different occasions. From dining with friends at the local pizzeria to a simple Friday night dinner at home after a long week, it’s a meal that satisfies every appetite.
But there's also a scientific explanation for why pizza is so good: Pizza produces umami, a unique taste sensation not easily found in other meals.
Let's talk a little more about umami and a few other factors that make pizza one of America’s most loved foods.
The Science of Great Taste
There’s wide agreement among Americans that pizza is delicious.
You don’t have to look far for people who will confirm that they eat it at least once a week. In fact, statisticians estimate that about 350 slices are consumed every second in this country.
Pizza is so well-liked that it helps contribute to the strength of our economy: There are more than 78,000 pizza restaurants in the United States which, collectively, produced about $45-billion in sales in 2021.
In 2020, when the pandemic inspired many to stay home, more than 200 million Americans purchased frozen pizza.
But, what explains this depth of love for pizza?
In the simplest terms, it’s chemistry. Pizza pairs great-tasting ingredients that become even better-tasting together.
It’s a phenomenon called umami. Borrowed from Japanese, umami means ‘delicious’ or ‘pleasant savory taste’. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘fifth taste’ – after the four basic tastes: salt, sweet, sour and bitter.
Let’s look at how umami explains why pizza is one of the best foods.
Umami, which is used as both an adjective and a noun, is a taste sensation produced by naturally occurring glutamate, an amino acid that's often found in meat and some vegetables. Pizza contains a large amount of glutamate.
When you ingest foods with umami, receptors in your mouth bind with glutamate and two other compounds, inosinate and guanylate. That familiar mouth watering sensation begins when your brain receives signals from these compounds, an experience many pizza enthusiasts can relate to.
More Good Things About Pizza
If the umami you’re experiencing with each bite isn’t enough to aid your understanding of why you love pizza so much, consider these three additional reasons for why pizza is good for you:
1) Pizza is an Easy Way to Get Your Vegetables
A good thing about pizza is that it includes many of the fresh ingredients that Italians are admired for including in their diet. Focused on vegetables and fruits, bread, fish and olive oil, the so-called Mediterranean diet is considered a complete and balanced way to get important nutrients that are not always part of standard North American diets.
So it is with beloved pizza which delivers considerable protein and calcium in a single serving as well as a sizable dose of lycopene, an antioxidant commonly found in tomatoes. Vegetable toppings also offer healthy fiber through favorites like artichokes, spinach and bell peppers.
Pizza can also be easily adapted for those with food intolerances and allergies. For example, there are gluten-free dough options as well as many plant-forward crusts such as those made with cauliflower, or zucchini.
2) Pizza is Accessible to All
Another reason why pizza is so good is that it can be made exceptionally well with few ingredients.
After all, it was originally a meal that the working class in Naples made popular in the 1800s. Fishermen are believed to have purchased for their lunches cooked dough made from simple, local ingredients: wheat flour harvested and milled nearby.
Purchased from street vendors and folded into their pockets, these lunches were also smothered with freshly harvested and made olive oil, oregano and garlic.
Marinara pizza, a simple Neapolitan pizza made with only tomato sauce, extra virgin olive oil, oregano and garlic is said to have been named after these mariners.
Fast forward to modern day cuisine, if you like the Neapolitan style, you need only flour and water to replicate it at home. While of course you can choose to cook with fine oils or pricey aged cheeses, you’re just as likely to produce a great pie with simple, affordable ingredients.
3) Pizza Making is a Craft You Can Master
Yet another reason why pizza is good for you is that it’s a recipe that you can master. There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes with that accomplishment.
Chances are that the first pizza you make isn’t going to be your best. But, over time, you’ll fine-tune what proportion of ingredients produce the dough you most like.
You’ll also hone your senses about how long to mix the dough, how to handle it after it’s mixed and then how to shape and move it into the oven.
You’ll learn how quickly your oven heats to the desired temperature and you’ll gain a more intuitive grasp for how long your dough takes to reach its optimal baking point. In time, each element of your home-made pizza will reach that point at the same time. The results will speak for themselves.
The craft of a professional pizza maker is well-respected. In Italy, for example, it’s common to find many generations of pizzaiolos in a single family. In Naples, each will have mastered how to make pizza that meets the specific standards required by Italian authorities for making Neapolitan pizza.
While perhaps you won't be seeking any Neapolitan pizza certifications, we hope that your passion as a pizza maker inspires you as well as your family and friends.
Pro-Tip to Help You Master Your Craft
It all starts with good dough.
If you get the dough right, complicating factors such as cooking temperature, pie shape, cheese types and toppings are less relevant.
We recommend building up your confidence around dough making a simple recipe like Jim Leahy’s no-knead dough.
Here is a pro-tip to help you master the craft of pizza making: As many pizzaiolos will confirm, weigh your ingredients instead of measuring them by volume.
Using a digital kitchen scale, this approach will leave you confident of the amount of flour, dry yeast and salt that you’re putting into the dough.
Relying on a volume measurement can lead to inconsistencies because of how the flour may pack into the measuring cup.
While science helps explain why pizza is so good, the art of a well-made pie is just as important.
We hope you’ll enjoy making your pizza as much as you enjoy eating it.