The self-proclaimed “Food Babe’s” latest expose on pizza has been all over the place. I first saw the blog post, which claims to have the potential to “Blow your mind (maybe literally)” in my Facebook News Feed, garnering a “like” from my wife and several friends of ours, who are also parents of young kids. I’m a huge proponent of “real food” for families and kids, and I think it came as a surprise to many of our friends that I took significant exception to the post. And no, my significant exception was not isolated to the abuse of the word “literally”.
The Food Babe and I have this in common – we both love pizza, and we’re both advocates of real, fresh food. But when it comes to pizza, and particularly Papa John’s, apparently our commonalities diverge.
My perception of Papa John’s was initially formed in college at Notre Dame, where cheesy bread with garlic dipping sauce was the perfect late-night antidote to the cold, bleak Indiana winter blues. I wasn’t reading ingredient statements back then, and even if I were, ingredient standards weren’t a driving factor in our “4th meal” decision making at 2am on a Saturday night.
Fast forward to today, where my level of discernment around food is significantly heightened from my college days, both as a father of four young children under 7 and CEO of a company dedicated to serving fresh, real food to tens of thousands of students a day in California. I’ve been impressed with Papa John’s dedication to fresh ingredients: vine-ripened California tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, and a whole grain, fresh-not-frozen dough for schools. You can imagine a blog post specifically taking aim at Papa John’s and calling them out for misleading ingredients caught my attention.
The Food Babe makes several claims in her post, which I summarize as this:
- Food companies don’t want to associate with MSG, so find other ingredients with similar properties to MSG to intentionally deceive us while having the same impact.
- MSG is bad. Other ingredients that are similar to MSG must also be bad. Therefore, the pizza companies use of these ingredients is nefarious and deceitful.
- These ingredients make pizza addictive, which is why they are used. Use of these ingredients drives pizza cravings, which makes “keeps [the pizza companies’] pockets lined with lots of cash”.
- Most of these companies add powdered wood pulp (cellulose) to their cheese blends. She claims cellulose is a cheap filler of wood pulp that food companies use to “trick consumers” into feeling full.
- The impact of these ingredients is pizza addiction. To quote her directly, “Ever wonder why you can’t stop at one slice? This is why.”
Pizza companies nefariously masking addictive ingredients in their pizza to drive your pizza consumption and using wood pulp to drive up profits? That’s a pretty serious accusation. Some might say enough to blow your mind – literally (only definitely not literally – you know that’s figurative, right?) And for a company like Papa John’s who prides itself on better ingredients, that’s a very serious accusation.
Admittedly, Papa John’s shoots itself in the foot a bit in terms of it’s “better ingredients” positioning primarily with one line of products – dipping sauces. In fact, three of the five ingredients that are called out in her post are dipping sauces. This is interesting, but seriously, who is crushing Papa John’s shelf-stable dipping sauce cups under the guise that this product is anything more than a pure indulgence? I love the garlic dipping sauce personally, but I don’t give it to my kids, and when I eat it myself, the narrative running through my head isn’t “Wow, I can’t believe Papa John’s was able to make such a delicious and healthy sauce so flavorful and shelf-stable!” The dipping sauces at Papa John’s are a hallmark of their product, and they serve a very specific purpose. Reinforcing their “better ingredients” position is not that purpose.
Food Babe goes beyond the Papa John’s Dipping Sauces, posting what look like clandestine pictures of ingredient labels from cases of ingredients found in Papa John’s stores. There’s a flippant “Do these look like “Better Ingredients” to you?” caption on the photos, which is likely intended to lead the reader to gasp at the sheer length of the ingredient statement and exclaim “No way! How dare they!”
It’s a cute little trick to phrase an incredulous question like that. Yes, there’s definite opportunity in their beef and Canadian bacon. They could ditch the sodium nitrite and deal with the meat losing some of it’s desirable pink color, and they could swap out the seasoning on the beef for something less “complex” and avoid some hot buttons like maltodextrin. But if you’re a parent who’s kids are likely eating cheese pizza as their pizza of choice, there’s not much to be appalled over. Let’s look at the other two ingredients highlighted: sauce and cheese.
The Sauce. Vine-ripened fresh tomatoes, sunflower oil, sugar, salt, dehydrated garlic, extra virgin olive oil, spices and citric acid.
What is supposed to be appalling here? Sugar? My family has used a little sugar in our pasta sauce recipe for years to sweeten it up a bit, and this isn’t uncommon at all. Citric acid? That sounds scary with the whole “acid” thing, but citric acid and lemon juice are virtually the same thing. This label looks pretty good to me.
The Cheese. Part Skim Mozzarella Cheese, Modified Food Starch, Powdered Cellulose, Whey Protein Concentrate, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Propionate.
There are a lot of big chemically looking words there, and that can seem scary and feel wrong. The Food Babe would have you believe these additional ingredients beyond mozzarella cheese are there to make you addicted to the product and drive up profits. Let’s dig in a bit:
- Modified Food Starch: The Food Babe claims this is Papa John’s way of tricking you with “toxic hidden MSG” ingredients meant to addict you to the product. I’m not saying that her theory is impossible, but I would guess it highly improbable. I would assume the modified food starch is used more to maintain texture of the cheese and to keep the cheese and ingredients on top of the pizza. Interestingly, modified food starch is on Whole Foods Ingredient Standards list as “acceptable” as a binder, thickener, and stabilizer
- Powdered Cellulose: Ah, the Food Babe loves this one. The narrative is that Cellulose is a wood pulp used as filler to drive profits and trick consumers. Makes sense that the greedy national food chain would use this to improve their margins and trick us! Cellulose is plant fiber, and it’s used in shredded cheese as an anti-caking agent. But what if I told you that Organic Valley’s shredded mozzarella also has cellulose? And Horizon Organics Shredded Mozzarella. Land O’ Lakes too. Yep, even those organic companies are using cellulose, and if you ever use pre-shredded cheese at home, you are too.
- Whey Protein Concentrate: Again with the intimidating words. Whey protein is a byproduct of skim milk production, and ricotta cheese is made from it.
- Sodium Citrate: More scary chemically sounding words. Basically salt that’s also used as an emulsifier in cheese that allows the cheese to melt without becoming greasy. The #1 complaint for kids cheese pizza? Too greasy.
- Sodium Propionate: More chemicals?! Again, a salt. This one primarily used as a mold inhibitor. Nothing drives me crazy like going to use the bag of shredded mozzarella in the fridge and finding mold.
All in all, the Papa John’s cheese pizza stacks up pretty well. Most people would be surprised at how difficult it is to do pizza, and to do it well. I have no doubt that Papa John’s has opportunities to reduce their costs for focusing on a lower quality ingredient standard, but they seem to do a pretty good job resisting that. And why shouldn’t they be able to promote that?
But the bigger issue in my mind is how these discussions go down, and how the rise of “investigative bloggers” and social media continues to feed off of consumer distrust of companies and leverage their channel to misinform and gain attention for themselves with hyperbole and shocking inferences. A friend of mine from Notre Dame who is now a PhD in Chemistry shared an article on the Food Babe earlier in the year that was critical of her “reporting” techniques. Even NPR joined in on whether her approach is helpful or hurtful to the conversation around food in America.
One of the taglines on the Food Babe website is “End the confusion. It’s easy.” Really? Because throwing around scientific definitions of ingredients with the intention of making food sound scary doesn’t seem to be ending the confusion – it’s actually doing quite the opposite.