When I started researching pizza ingredients, one thing became abundantly clear. Pizza restaurants did not like the questions I was asking.
The only way to find out what may be lurking in your pizza is to review its complete ingredient list, which is often concealed from the public. I began calling the top pizza chains and easily found a couple ingredient lists online. But, when I called most pizza restaurants and began asking questions, they blatantly refused to share ingredient lists and their customer service reps were oblivious to what their ingredients were – they had no clue.
Little Caesars, California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) and Mellow Mushroom have all refused to answer my questions about their ingredients. I was told by Mellow Mushroom’s corporate offices that they will only comply with minimal government regulations, which require them to publish an allergen list.
After sending me their dough ingredients, CPK suddenly claimed that due to “proprietary restrictions” they can’t disclose their full ingredient lists. They went on to tell me that they “don’t have an easy way to perform a search by individual ingredient” and would need to call each vendor first. While traveling, I stopped into a CPK in an airport to ask questions face to face. Both the manager and store clerk had zero access to ingredients. I even asked to look at the packages of their dough and other ingredients that got shipped to the store in and they said they did not have them.
I called many local pizza restaurants and was informed that it’s their policy to NOT disclose ingredients to their customers. Little Caesars literally told me that if I was concerned about what was in it, I “just shouldn’t eat there…” Ha! Don’t worry, I won’t!
Papa John’s also has repeatedly refused to release their ingredient list, which really caused a stir last year with my friend Melanie Warner, author of the processed food exposing book “Pandora’s Lunchbox“. How can Papa John’s claim to have “Better Ingredients… Better Pizza” without telling us what’s really in it? While they say their lack of transparency is due to the proprietary nature of their recipes, they could be hiding some seriously harmful ingredients. After repeated calls to corporate offices and some helpful photos sent to me by Melanie Warner, I was finally able to uncover some details about what is really in their pizzas.
Why are the ingredients so hard to find? Why are they refusing to share their ingredients? What is it that these pizza restaurants don’t want us to know?
Well, I’ll tell you what they’re hiding: Lots and lots of hidden MSG!
Restaurants don’t want to get a bad rap by putting monosodium glutamate (MSG) on their ingredient or allergen statements, so they have found another way to secretly add this potent flavor enhancer to your food, without the average customer realizing it. Instead of letting you know that they are putting MSG in your food, they are using an FDA loophole to sneak processed free glutamic acid into your food, which has the same effect as MSG – all without warning you. They simply use other forms of free glutamic acid (such as Hydrolyzed Soy Protein), which is the main component of MSG. This allows them to have “clean labels” and deceive us into believing their product contains no MSG – when it actually does!
While it’s true that tomatoes and cheese are naturally high in glutamates, they do not have the same effect on the brain as added manufactured free glutamic acid additives. When I talked to Papa John’s, they admitted that these additives are used as a replacement for MSG by the food industry.
It will blow your mind – literally
MSG tricks your brain into believing that what you are eating tastes so great that you want more of it. Your taste buds sense that there is more protein in the food than there really is – which is great for food manufacturers that want to save money by using less or lower quality meat. These ingredients also promote an addiction to pizza so that you keep coming back to order more. Repeat business keeps their pockets lined with lots of cash. Ever wonder why you can’t stop at one slice? This is why.
MSG and hidden MSG additives are known to commonly cause headaches, obesity and depression – and this is just the tip of the iceberg. As an excitotoxin, its effect on the brain is so toxic that it has been linked to learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Board certified neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, M.D. warns that, “Excitotoxins have been found to dramatically promote cancer growth… It also causes a cancer cell to become more mobile, and that enhances metastasis, or spread… When you increase the glutamate level, cancer just grows like wildfire”.
This is serious stuff. But the industry will tell you it’s harmless and that you are crazy for being concerned.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is okay to eat this stuff occasionally, because these ingredients can stick around in your body for a long time, leach nutrients from your system, and can make you really sick. As put by my pal Kristen Michaelis at FoodRenegade.com, “Not only is MSG not a traditional food, not only are many people immediately sensitive to it, but it can also interrupt the hormonal and biological development of children! Lest you think this is all fanciful, it’s important to remember that a number of studies have found that the effects of MSG can occur cumulatively over time with subsequent exposure.”
Toxic hidden MSG ingredients buried in popular pizza menu items:
- Autolyzed Yeast Extract (Hidden MSG)
- Textured or Hydrolyzed Proteins (Hidden MSG and GMO)
- Hydrolyzed Corn (Hidden MSG and GMO)
- Modified Starches (Hidden MSG or Possible GMO)
- Natural Flavors (Possible Hidden MSG)
- Disodium Inosinate or Disodium Guanylate (MSG enhancers)
The additives Disodium Guanylate and Disodium Inosinate are not added to a product that doesn’t contain MSG because they are considered expensive additives that are ineffective without MSG ingredients. The presence of Disodium Guanylate or Disodium Inosinate in a product is a strong indication that a product contains hidden MSG.
I’m talking about more than MSG here
The ingredient lists that I could get my hands on are riddled with artificial colors, artificial and natural flavors, partially hydrogenated oils, cellulose (wood pulp) to keep the already shredded cheese from clumping, and GMO soybean oil.
Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Trans-fat) – There is absolutely no reason for anyone to still be using this. These oils are so bad that even our FDA has woken up and warns that it’s not safe to eat this in any food. Partially hydrogenated oils block arteries and the CDC estimates that they could cause up to 20,000 heart attacks every year! I found these dangerous oils in Pizza Hut’s hand-tossed crust, Round Table’s Creamy Garlic sauce, Papa John’s dipping sauces and Dominos Philly Steak pizza. Partially hydrogenated oils are found in 21 menu items at Cici’s Pizza – it’s even added to their cheese!
Soybean Oil (likely GMO) – You’d hope to see just olive oil in there, but soybean oil is the oil of choice for most pizza restaurants. It’s in the dough and pizza sauces, so it basically makes its way into every pizza. This genetically engineered inflammation causing oil is being used at these restaurants:
- Papa John’s
- Pizza Hut
- Uno Pizzeria
- Papa Murphy’s
- Little Caesars
- Mellow Mushroom – “Soybean oil is a major ingredient in our pizzas”
- California Pizza Kitchen – “our Ciabatta Bread and our Wheat Dough do contain Soybean Oil”
- Round Table Pizza – Creamy Garlic sauce
BHT/BHA (Butylated Hydroxytoluene.Butylated Hydroxyanisole) – BHT is used in embalming fluid and to fuel jets. BHA is toxic to your organs and linked to cancer. These were found in the pepperoni on every ingredient list I looked at from Uno’s to Dominos.
Sodium Nitrite – Whenever this is added to a meat, there is a really good chance that it contains cancer-causing Nitrosamines. Nitrites are often found in the pepperoni, ham, bacon and sausage toppings.
Enriched Flour – This is a dead food that has had some vitamins and minerals artificially replaced. It’s absorbed by your body as a starch, rather than a whole grain. This flour is used in pizza dough, except the gluten-free versions.
Artificial Colors – These are petroleum-based colorings linked to asthma, allergies and hyperactivity. I found them in the banana pepper toppings, the cheese at Cici’s, and specifically in the garlic oil used by Domino’s.
Caramel Coloring – This is often made by heating ammonia and sulfites under high pressure which creates carcinogenic compounds. You’ll find this very controversial coloring in the bacon at Pizza Hut, the Italian sausage at Round Table, the beef at Little Caesars, the zesty pizza sauce at Cici’s and in the BBQ Chicken pizza at Uno’s.
BPA (Bisphenol A) – You won’t find this on any ingredient label, but BPA leaches from the cans that hold pizza sauce in some restaurants. Many fast food pizza chains use canned tomato sauce that could have BPA. This substance exposure increases your risk for cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes and a slew of other medical problems.
How these pizza restaurants stack up
Papa John’s – They add a lot to their “Better Ingredients”. For instance, their “100% Beef” topping is a lot more than just beef! It contains corn syrup, maltodextrin, natural flavor, natural smoke grill flavor, beef flavor and seasonings. Also, so much for believing that there is 100% real cheese topping their pizzas, as they add modified food starch (hidden MSG), preservatives and powdered wood pulp (cellulose) to their cheese blend. They also add natural flavors to their thin crust, pepperoni, and chicken topping, as well as hidden MSG (autolyzed yeast extract) to their garlic ranch and spinach alfredo pizza sauces. Those little dipping sauces that come with your pizza are loaded with partially hydrogenated oil, GMOs and (you guessed it) more hidden MSG.
Update: In June 2015 Papa Johns announced they’re removing 14 ingredients by the end of 2016, including artificial colors, caramel color, the preservative sodium benzoate, and hidden MSG ingredients like autolyzed yeast extract and hydrolyzed proteins. They have also listed ingredients on their website (however this list is not entirely complete as they don’t publish the ingredients in some of their seasonings, such as in their beef topping).
Domino’s – One of the few pizza restaurants that openly publishes their ingredients online – and their ingredient list has hidden MSG written all over it. It’s almost impossible to avoid at Dominos, as it’s in their cheese, marinara sauce, white sauces, BBQ sauce and a slew of toppings (chicken, beef, Italian sausage and Philly steak). They also add “flavors” to their pan crust, cheese, pepperoni and shake-on seasoning. The garlic oil used on nearly every pizza is NOT what you’d expect (garlic & oil). It’s actually a toxic combo of over 20 ingredients including artificial colors, artificial flavors and TBHQ.
Pizza Hut – You get a lot more than “100% Real Beef” in this topping loaded natural and artificial flavors. Their sausage and bacon toppings have hidden MSG (autolyzed yeast or hydrolyzed proteins), and you are eating modified starches in their cheese, chicken and cream sauce (starches usually derived from GMO corn). The garlic sauce and seasoning used on every hand-tossed pizza is loaded with natural flavors, artificial flavors and partially-hydrogenated GMO oils. Pizza Hut recently reformulated their hand-tossed crust by replacing the high fructose corn syrup with sucralose (Splenda) – an artificial sweetener that has been shown to cause DNA damage to the gastrointestinal tract, reduces beneficial gut bacteria, and is linked to inflammatory bowel disease. Recent research indicates that sucralose is linked to leukemia.
Round Table – “The Last Honest Pizza” honestly adds straight “Glutamic Acid” to their creamy garlic sauce. They add hidden MSG ingredients to their pizza sauces, chicken and sausage toppings. Their cheese is far from “100% real” with “Natural Smoke Flavoring” and cellulose.
Little Caesars – Although their corporate office told me that their ingredients are top secret, the first gal I talked with admitted that there is yeast extract in their beef topping. I also called a local store and found that their super-secret ingredients were listed right there on the package for anyone in the kitchen to read. According to my local restaurant, their sauce contains natural flavors and the cheese contains wood pulp (cellulose). They also rattled off the beef topping ingredients to confirm it contains yeast extract, beef flavorings and caramel coloring.
Mellow Mushroom – One of the most tight-lipped restaurants I talked to would only admit to the use of soybean oil, which is likely GMO – “Soybean oil is a major ingredient in our pizzas” they wrote to me in an email. Furthermore, when I asked about hidden MSG ingredients, they told me that they weren’t required to tell me since they are not one of the 7 major allergens designated by the FDA and don’t list them on their allergen list. So I decided to go use their allergen tool to see what they do list and found something shocking. The tool gives misleading, inaccurate and potentially dangerous information if you have a soy allergy. For example, I confirmed their crust uses soy, but when you use the tool, it says there are plenty of pizzas without soy. The information doesn’t add up and regardless of whether if you have an allergy, I would not trust Mellow Mushroom until they release the full ingredient lists for their menu.
Uno Pizzeria – They are not much better than the rest with hidden MSG in their BBQ Chicken pizza, Harvest Vegetable pizza, sausage topping and gluten-free crust. I was a bit surprised to see that they also add caramel color, artificial flavors, and a large amount of natural flavors to their BBQ Chicken pizza – it’s totally unnecessary.
California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) – As they were being very difficult in sharing ingredients, I was only able to confirm that the Thai sauce, tomato pizza sauce, pepperoni, salami, bacon, romano cheese, and chipotle sauce do not contain any of the hidden MSG ingredients that I listed. Because they refuse to share an ingredient list, I have no way of knowing whether they contain other additives or hidden MSG that I didn’t ask about – so don’t be convinced that these menu items are clean! I also inquired about hidden MSG ingredients in their other cheeses, BBQ sauce, chicken, sausage and ham toppings – and they have not responded at all regarding those items. Again, I will take their lack of a response as an indication that they do contain hidden MSG until they inform us otherwise.
Papa Murphy’s – It’s all about the sauces at Papa Murphy’s, where there’s yeast extract in their basil pesto sauce and modified food starch in their BBQ sauce, buffalo sauce, creamy garlic sauce and sweet chili sauce. They also add “flavors” to nearly every meat topping available and to their cheese.
Cici’s – They don’t really hide it by adding straight MSG to 10 menu items including their “Zesty” pizza sauce. Cici’s further adds hidden MSG to their buffalo sauce, ranch dressing, bacon cheddar sauce, sausage topping and beef topping. Quite frankly, I can’t believe how bad their “cheese” is – modified food starch, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, (added) casein, aluminum, natural flavors and artificial color! I was also astounded to find high fructose corn syrup in their BBQ sauce and dessert pizzas, as well as carrageenan and propylene glycol in several of their sauces, including the Alfredo.
Are you wondering about your favorite pizza place?
The good news is that you can do the exact same thing I did at your favorite pizza place, and please share the outcome with me!
To get the best results, plan to visit your pizza place during a slow time and not during their dinner rush. This way their employees won’t be rushed and will have time to answer your questions. Right off the bat, ask them if they have an ingredient list to share with you. Most likely they won’t, but it’s worth a try. If their ingredients are not readily available, here’s my game plan for navigating the menu and asking the right questions:
- Typically the safest bet is to stick with a veggie pizza without cheese. This is dependent on what they have lurking in their sauce and crust, so it’s really important to find out what is in those items! Ask them to read you the complete ingredients in the sauce and dough.
- Hidden MSG is most often found in meat toppings, seasoning mixes and creamy sauces – so if you plan to order those things I would ask specifically about hidden MSG ingredients. Ask them if monosodium glutamate, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed proteins, modified starches, or natural flavors are in any of those menu items. Which ones?
- GMO soybean oil is usually found in the crust and the sauces. Ask them if they use soybean oil – and in what menu items. Is soybean oil used in their pans? Can they make you a pizza without it?
- Ask them directly if any of their ingredients are GMO. You may be surprised as they may have no clue what you are talking about. Use this as an opportunity to briefly share with them what a GMO is and why you don’t eat GMOs. Let them know that most soy is GMO so if they use soy in any products, it is probably GMO. Their allergen statement should also be able to tell you if soy is used in any product.
- Remember that “garlic oils” and “shake-on seasonings” may contain a bunch of questionable ingredients and MSG. Ask them if there are any specialty oils, butter sauces, or seasoning mixes used on their pizzas. If they can’t tell you the ingredients in those, ask them not to use it on yours.
- Do they use high fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners in their sauces or dough? These sweeteners are probably derived from GMO sources – including “sugar”.
- Most vegetables will not be GMO, unless they have corn, tofu, zucchini or yellow squash toppings. I would avoid those.
- What about cellulose in their cheese? Are flavorings and preservatives added to the cheese as well?
Beware that often times the restaurant employees truly do not know the answers to your questions, and will give you incorrect answers. For instance, they may tell you that their cheese is “100% real cheese”, without realizing that the pre-shredded bag of cheese in the back contains an ingredient list. On that ingredient list, they will likely find cellulose, some preservatives, and possibly some flavors and colors. It’s good to remember that it’s not all that it seems on the surface, and in order to find out what is really in their food they will need to read the ingredient list on the box, bag or can that the menu item comes in. The bottom line – If they won’t tell you what is in their food, don’t eat there.
They don’t expect the average customer to demand answers about their food!
Only four of the restaurants I investigated publish their current ingredient lists online – Dominos, Uno’s, Papa Murphy’s, Cici’s. (Pizza Hut publishes them online, but they admitted to me they aren’t current in an email). As in my Chipotle investigation, I had to be extremely persistent over several months to get the limited information that I did from the other restaurants. This took multiple phone calls, voicemails, emails, and website contact forms – which often went unanswered. I had to ask specific questions about obscure ingredients. They are counting on the average customer to not do this!
On Papa John’s website, they say that their cheese is “crafted from 100% mozzarella and high-quality milk by one of America’s finest cheese producers” – But the ingredients tell the real story. Now we know their cheese also contains wood pulp and modified food starch… and that IT’S NOT 100% CHEESE. When Papa John’s claims in all of their advertising that they have “Better Ingredients”, yet they won’t openly tell us what they are, it’s a safe bet they’re hiding something.
I wonder if any of these restaurants will have the courage to discuss this issue. Will they do the right thing now that we are calling them out, like Chipotle did when they finally released their full ingredient list online for everyone to see? These companies do not deserve our business, until they publish their ingredients online and make them easily accessible to the average customer.
What to eat instead:
Okay, this is the good part! I’m thrilled to say that I’ve found some pizza places that are doing it right!
Pizza Fusion – I called up a Pizza Fusion restaurant and they freely answered every question I had about their ingredients – a big WIN in my book! Their sauce is super simple: organic tomatoes, olive oil, water – and no nasty additives or hidden MSG. They only use olive oil in the restaurant, so you won’t find any GMO soybean or canola oil here. They confirmed with me that their gluten-free crust no longer contains canola oil and that they are diligent about preventing cross-contamination with gluten. I was really happy to find out that all of their meat toppings are antibiotic-free! Their chickens are also fed a non-GMO diet. Many of their veggie toppings are organic and local, and all are non-GMO. This varies and depends on what is seasonally available, so simply ask them which veggies are organic when you order. They have about 12 locations right now, and I really hope they grow into a larger chain so that more of us have access to pizza places like this!
Pure Pizza – I simply love this place. If you are ever in Charlotte, this is the place to go. They have an amazing organic sprouted grain crust, and source their toppings locally.
Truly Organic Pizza – This pizza chain in Florida is USDA certified organic. Because of this, none of their ingredients can be GMO, and all of their meats are antibiotic-free and not injected with hormones. I called them up and asked specifically about hidden MSG ingredients. They told me that they do not use any flavor enhancers such as autolyzed yeast extract or hydrolyzed proteins to season their food. They cook their meatballs and chicken from scratch and only season them with basic seasonings like what we would use at home! This is another great option if you are in Florida.
My Favorite Homemade Pizza Recipe – If you don’t have pizza restaurants like these in your neck of the woods, my homemade pizza recipe is super simple and will be ready in less time than it would take you to order and have it delivered – I promise! This recipe cures my pizza craving in no time!
If you know someone who is ordering or eating pizza with these terrible ingredients, help them make the switch by sharing this very important information with them!
Together we are changing the world, one company at a time, by sharing the truth.