We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on) themselves with the help of an expert.
This edition: The DiGiorno Original Rising Crust Supreme Pizza, which is made from more than 45 separate ingredients (some of which have ingredient lists of their own) that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on their website.
It’s worth noting that their ingredients list is incredibly confusing — numerous ingredients are listed multiple times, since they’re found in various different parts of the pizza (dough, cheese, toppings), but the order in which they list them doesn’t always remain consistent with which part of the pizza they seem to be talking about, so I’ll try to point out the weird stuff as we make our way through the list.
With that, let’s get to it…
1) Enriched Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid): As we learned in our exploration of the many, many, many ingredients in the McDonald’s Big Mac, enriched flour isn’t actually “enriched” at all. In addition to containing more calories than whole wheat flour, the bleaching process enriched flour undergoes produces an unfortunate byproduct: A chemical called alloxan, which has been found to induce diabetes in lab-animal test subjects by destroying their pancreas.
2) Water: This is added to the dough.
3) Low-Moisture Part-Skim Mozzarella Cheese (Part-Skim Milk, Cheese Culture, Salt, Enzymes): As physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, explained to us during our analysis of Doritos, suspicious-sounding ingredients like “cheese cultures” and “enzymes” are actually nothing to worry about: “Starter cultures and enzymes are just used to accelerate the process of coagulating milk into cheese. Pretty much all cheese is made using some kind of enzyme to speed up the fermentation process.”
Cooked Seasoned Pizza Topping Made with Pork and Chicken BHA, BHT and Citric Acid Added to Help Protect Flavor
4) Pork: It’s incredibly difficult to say for certain which parts of the pig are in these miniature meatballs, since the Department of Agriculture appears to be fairly lenient with regard to pizza toppings. Its Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book, the only real stipulation I could find, states that “up to 25 percent of Meat Block” used to produce meat toppings on pizza may contain partially defatted chopped pork or beef, which are byproducts produced from fatty trimmings containing less than 12 percent lean meat. All in all, this isn’t high-quality pork.
5) Mechanically Separated Chicken: Mechanically separated chicken is a paste created by pressing unstripped chicken bones through a sieve to separate edible meat tissue (including tendons and muscle fibers) from the bones. This paste is then added to those tiny meatball toppings. (Is your mouth watering yet?)
6) Water: You already know this one, but this time it’s found in the meaty toppings.
7) Textured Soy Protein Concentrate: This is a soy flour product that can easily take on the texture of meat. It’s typically used as a meat substitute or extender, since it’s much cheaper than actual meat.
8) Spices: What these spices are remains a mystery, because as we learned in our exploration of the ingredients in nacho-flavored Doritos, the FDA doesn’t require food labelers to list each spice by their specific name (as a means of protecting their recipes) so long as it follows their definition of the word “spice”:
“The term spice means any aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken or ground form, except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onions, garlic and celery; whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutritional; that is true to name; and from which no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring principle has been removed.”
9) Salt: For flavor.
10) Sugar: For sweetness.
11) Sodium Phosphates: Sodium phosphate is a generic term that may refer to any sodium salt combined with phosphoric acid. They’re usually added as texturizers and emulsifiers, which allows for the uniform dispersion of numerous ingredients. One study suggests phosphate additives contribute to the prevalence of chronic kidney disease, and the FDA even issued a safety warning concerning the use of over-the-counter sodium phosphate products to treat constipation. In other words, this is an ingredient to be wary of.
12) Paprika: This provides a bit of heat.
13) Natural Pork Flavor (Modified Cornstarch, Pork Fat, Natural Flavors, Pork Stock, Gelatin, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Sodium Phosphates, Thiamine Hydrochloride, Sunflower Oil, Propyl Gallate): Let’s take this one at a time, beginning with modified cornstarch, which acts as a stabilizer, thickening agent or an emulsifier. It’s probably added to help those tiny meatballs bind together.
Pork fat is added for flavor, and natural flavors are flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., pork flavoring taken from an actual pig. Adding even more flavor, pork stock is made by simmering various parts of a pig (including the bones) in a mixture of spices and water.
Autolyzed yeast extract is the result of yeast being broken down into its individual components, which include the flavor enhancer MSG (more on that here). Because MSG is a natural component of autolyzed yeast, it doesn’t have to be listed separately on the ingredients lists — so watch out for this ingredient if you’re sensitive to MSG.
We’ve already explained sodium phosphates, but thiamine hydrochloride is another flavor enhancer (often used in gravies and broths). It can also be used to increase the amount of vitamin B1 in a food.
As per sunflower oil, Shanahan previously told us that consuming too much vegetable oil (sunflower, canola or corn) — which is easy to do, considering she says roughly 45 percent of the average American’s calories come from refined oils — has serious repercussions (i.e., fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines). While it’s nearly impossible to eliminate vegetable oil from your diet altogether — major contributors include processed foods, fried foods, frozen pizzas, cakes, cookies, margarines and coffee creamers — it’s best consumed in moderation.
Finally, propyl gallate is a preservative often used in conjunction with BHA and BHT (more on those later). Animal studies found that it’s “slightly toxic” when ingested.
So much for “natural” pork flavor…
14) Spice Extractives: These are exactly what they sound like: Concentrated spices added for flavor.
15) BHA: Butylated hydroxyanisole (aka BHA) is a common preservative added to prevent products from spoiling. “In lower levels — like those found in foods — some researchers consider BHA to be perfectly safe,” nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, previously told us. “On the flip side, the National Toxicology Program has concluded that BHA ‘is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.’” Generally speaking, BHA is probably worth avoiding as best you can.
16) BHT: Butylated hydroxytoluene (aka BHT) is another common preservative added to prevent products from spoiling. Studies continue to go back and forth about whether or not it’s carcinogenic, so it’s hard to say whether the meager amounts found in this frozen pizza would cause you any harm.
17) Citric Acid: Citric acid naturally occurs in citrus fruits; it’s often added to foods to extend their shelf life.
18) Vegetable Blend (Green Bell Peppers, Black Olives, Red Bell Peppers, Onions): You know these.
19) Tomato Paste: The bread-and-butter of many tomato sauces, tomato paste is just tomatoes that have been cooked down, had the seeds and skins removed and then cooked down even more until it turns into a concentrated paste.
Pepperoni Made with Pork, Chicken and Beef
20) Pork: More pork! This time it’s used in the pepperoni, and the pork listing above still applies.
21) Mechanically Separated Chicken: This rears its mechanically separated head once more, as it’s also used in the pepperoni (which just feels wrong on a personal level).
22) Beef: Also used in the pepperoni — the info about pork above also applies to beef.
23) Salt: More flavor.
24) Spices: See above.
25) Dextrose: Dextrose is a sugar derived from starches, like corn. Fun fact: Dextrose has a high glycemic index, meaning it quickly raises blood sugar levels, so it’s used in IV solutions to treat low blood sugar and dehydration. People with diabetes might also consume dextrose tablets to raise their blood sugar levels if they become dangerously low. Because of this blood-sugar-boosting effect, consuming dextrose also provides an almost immediate jolt of energy — and then the inevitable crash.
26) Pork Stock: See above.
27) Lactic Acid Starter Culture: Lactic acid starter cultures are natural preservatives derived from vegetable sources, like beets or corn.
29) Flavoring: What exactly this flavoring is remains unclear.
30) Sodium Nitrite: “Sodium nitrite stabilizes the red color in cured meats, which prevents the meat from naturally turning gray,” Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, told us while we were exploring the ingredients in frozen breakfast sandwiches. “Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of nitrosamines (a carcinogen).”
31) Sodium Ascorbate: This is more or less just a fancy name for vitamin C.
32) Paprika (Processed with Natural Smoke Flavor): Again, this adds a little heat. For that natural smoke flavor, wood is burned at high temperatures, and the resulting smoke particles are collected in condensers. That liquid is then concentrated, creating a strong smoky flavor.
33) BHA: See above.
34) BHT: See above.
35) Citric Acid: See above.
36) Sugar: See above… again.
37) Wheat Gluten: DiGiorno doesn’t indicate that this ingredient — and many of the following ingredients — are found in the dough, but I can only assume that’s the case (even though enriched wheat flour, another ingredient used to make the dough, was listed further up). Those with celiac disease beware of wheat gluten: It’s wheat flour that’s been hydrated to activate the gluten, then processed to remove everything but the gluten. It’s added to improve the chewiness of the crust.
38) Vegetable Oil (Soybean Oil and/or Corn Oil): See sunflower oil.
39) Degerminated White Corn Meal: This is simply corn meal with the kernels removed.
40) Yeast: The fungus that makes dough rise.
41) Salt: Even more flavor.
42) Degerminated Yellow Corn Meal: See degerminated white corn meal.
43) Seasoning Blend (Salt, Spice, Dried Garlic): You already know these ones.
44) Baking Soda: Baking soda is often used as a leavening agent, causing dough to rise and become porous by increasing the surface area.
45) Wheat Flour: Wheat flour is a powder made from grinding wheat. Duh.
46) Enzymes: In bread making, enzymes help break down the starches into simple sugars, which aid in the fermentation process that results in a browned crust and well-developed flavor.
47) Ascorbic Acid: This is another form of vitamin C that can be used as a dough conditioner. When exposed to oxygen, ascorbic acid becomes an oxidising agent, increasing the volume of the dough (or in this case, the crust).
I’m not even sure where to begin, since this pizza is easily one of the most unhealthy products I’ve come across during my time writing this column. The dough is made with enriched wheat flour, which is highly caloric and capable of destroying your pancreas. The meat toppings are made up of jumbled animal parts, then injected with dangerous preservatives and flavor enhancers. On top of all that, the entire pizza is riddled with vegetable oils, which will quickly fuck you up.
It’s not delivery: It’s Dis-Gustingly unhealthy.