People have been baking flatbreads and adding toppings to them for millennia. And pizza precursors span the globe. We know that Persian soldiers actually baked flatbreads topped with cheese and dates on their shields. Hopefully, they had time to clean them off before the next battle! And the Aeneas tells the story of a cryptic prophecy of Trojan soldiers eating their tables that turns out to be round breads topped with vegetables. Sorry about that spoiler, but the book was written like 27 centuries ago.
The pizza as we know it and love it today seems to have originated in Naples, Italy. They had to wait for European exploration of the New World for the key ingredient, tomatoes, which are native to the Americas and weren’t grown in Europe until one of the first explorers brought back some seeds or cuttings. These strange-colored eggplants, as they were first described, were found to be delicious when seasoned with salt, pepper, and oil. Soon they were dubbed “golden apples,” or pomi d’oro.
And one day, perhaps, two distracted Neapolitans were walking on the piazza, one holding a flatbread and the other a stewed tomato, when — bang! — they bumped into each other. And thus was born the classic Italian pizza. (Okay, that might or might not be literally accurate, but it makes for a fun story!)
Modern Pizza’s Development
One of the simplest and most iconic variations is the Pizza Margherita, allegedly invented in 1889 in honor of a visit to Naples by Queen Margherita. The inspiration was visual — a dish sporting the three colors of the Italian flag: red (tomato), green (basil), and white (mozzarella cheese.)
Italian immigrants to the US brought the dish with them in the 19th century, although its popularity was initially limited to immigrant communities. The first pizza restaurant in the country, Lombardi’s in New York City, opened in 1905. But when tens of thousands of servicemen and women returned from Italian campaigns after World War II, they also brought with them an appreciation of Italian cuisine that included a strong hankering for pizza.
In the 1950s and beyond, the market for pizza exploded to the point where today a pizzeria is a staple in just about every community in the US. And giant restaurant chains specializing in pizza compete for market share on billboards and in commercials.
By 2019, the global pizza market had annual sales estimated of nearly $145 billion. That’s a lot of dough tossing! Americans and Western Europeans eat the most, per capita. But you can find pizza just about everywhere you can find electricity and running water. And different countries and regions have added their unique ingredients, flavor profiles, and sensibilities to the ever-evolving pizza. Even within the US, you can find regional differences that let you know where you are even without GPS.
The Problem with Pizza
From thin crusts and small amounts of cheese that dotted the classic Italian “tomato pie,” pizza has evolved into a supersized transport vehicle for sodium and saturated fat.
Modern commercial pies can have up to a pound of cheese on them, a statistic caused in part by the US government’s subsidies to the dairy industry. It turns out, the US government has lobbied and paid corporations like Pizza Hut and Dominos to add as much cheese as possible to their pies as a way of shrinking the gargantuan US cheese surplus. There’s so much extra cheese, they’re even sticking it in the crust!
Lots of vegans have had the experience of ordering a pizza without cheese. And then getting a pie covered in cheese anyway. A common explanation: “Oh, I thought you meant no extra cheese.” Even though a cheeseless pizza covered in tomato sauce and veggies is totally delicious, it’s almost impossible for most people (and especially, it would seem, employees at pizza joints) to conceive of such a pie.
A second source of saturated fat and chronic disease from pizza is processed meat. Pepperoni and sausage sourced from factory farms are among the most popular pizza toppings in the US. And it’s not uncommon to also find chicken, meatballs, ham, bacon, and anchovies. Processed meats like these can increase your risk of heart failure, especially the red meats. Red meat has triple the levels of TMAO or trimethylamine N-oxide, a byproduct of red meat consumption formed by gut bacteria during digestion and linked to heart disease.
And then there’s the crust. Most pizza crusts are made from white, all-purpose wheat flour, which is almost always contaminated with the herbicide glyphosate. With the exception of a few high end and health conscious pizzerias, it’s hard to find 100% whole wheat or even a combination of whole wheat and white flour, let alone organic. More and more establishments are offering gluten-free crusts. But these are typically no healthier than refined wheat flour, and often less so. They can feature white rice, tapioca flour, potato starch, and lots of fillers and binders that were created in a lab rather than grown in a field.
Pizza is also one of America’s leading sources of sodium, as salt is typically added to the cheese (to disguise its low quality), the dough, the tomato sauce, and the toppings. Just glance at the nutrition facts label on a conventional frozen pizza box to see how many days worth of sodium is hiding in that large pie. The USDA estimates that a typical parlor pie contains about 5,100 mg of sodium — about three times the daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association. And typical pizzas also contain a fair share of sugar, flavorings, preservatives like BHA/BHT and MSG, nitrites and nitrates, and lots and lots of oil. And many of these ingredients are full of GMOs as well.
Are Healthy Plant-Based Pizzas Possible?
Have we reached the sad end of our epic tale of pizza? From a clever way to eat toppings with our hands without needing a napkin to a modern-day driver of heart disease and an ever-expanding waistline? Have no fear. With some creativity, we can return pizza to its convenient, delicious, simple, and health-promoting roots. And with the revolution in plant-based dairy and meat analogues, we can also create yummy plant-based pizzas that can satisfy (and perhaps even fool) committed meat and cheese eaters.
A Healthier Crust
Let’s start with the crust. Simply replacing the white flour with whole grains, ideally organic and GMO-free, will go a long way toward healthifying a pizza. Also, once you get used to whole grain bread, you’ll discover that it tastes a lot better than the “Wonder Bread” type crusts you can get at commercial pizzerias. But wait, there’s more!
You can make delicious crusts for your plant-based pizzas with nut flours, such as almond — and even riced cauliflower. If you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to make the dough yourself, you can always substitute a whole-grain bread (the famous pizza-bagel comes to mind) or a whole-grain or sprouted tortilla. Cornmeal crusts, naturally gluten-free (make sure it’s organic to avoid GMO corn), are also commercially available and easy to make at home. For a crust mix headed in the nutritious direction, try this one from Simple Mills.
Sauce from Scratch
The classic pizza is topped with some kind of tomato sauce, which can be a health food all by itself. Cooked tomatoes are in many ways more nutritious than raw ones, and are a rich source of vitamin C and lycopene. As long as you go easy on the sugar, oil, and salt, you can make a delicious plant-based sauce that anyone’s nonna would be proud of.
If you want to make sauce sorta-from-scratch, and you’re pressed for time, here’s a trick: pour a jar or a BPA-free can of plain tomato sauce (only ingredient: tomatoes) and a can of diced tomatoes into a saucepan. Add garlic powder, onion powder, Italian herb mix, ground black pepper, and a tiny bit of maple syrup to balance the acidity of the tomatoes (optional if you’re avoiding sugar), and heat for about 10 minutes. You’ll get a much cleaner and healthier sauce than most supermarket brands. And also one that’s plenty tasty and a whole lot less expensive. Triple win!
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to the traditional tomato sauce. You can substitute BBQ sauce (homemade is best to avoid all the sugar found in commercial brands), a plant-based pesto, or even a bean spread like hummus.
Most of us, when we think pizza toppings, take the cheese for granted (just like the folks who make cheeseless pies with cheese for disappointed vegans). So let’s deal with the elephant on the pizza before moving on to other toppings.
You can, of course, go totally cheeseless. There’s absolutely nothing missing on a pie with a quality crust, delicious sauce, and savory vegetables like mushrooms, onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, pineapple, artichoke hearts, and spinach. As long as the baker understands how not to dry out or burn the veggie-based toppings in the absence of cheese, you’ll get a perfectly delicious pie without the side order of heart disease.
The world of plant-based dairy can come to the rescue if you do want to retain the cheesy nature of pizza. Brands like Daiya, Miyokos, Kite Hill, and Biolife all make cheeses that taste and even melt like the dairy kind. If you’re concerned about health, check the ingredients. Some are way more processed and have a lot more saturated fat than others. And as with any processed food, use them sparingly rather than as a two-inch covering.
You can also make your own “cheeze” from plant-based ingredients like nuts, seeds, beans, nutritional yeast, sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squash, etc. Here’s our comprehensive article on homemade nut cheeses.
All the Veggies!
Your imagination is the only limiting factor when it comes to adding veggies to plant based pizzas. Beyond the well-known vegetable pizza topping why not try adding summer or winter squash, carrots, kale, or sweet potato? You can keep the toppings thin, or stack them up in defiance of gravity. (Word of warning: Really tall veggies stacks will require the use of a knife and fork to eat.)
Yes, fruit can go on pizza! Technically, tomatoes and peppers are also fruit, so it’s not as big a leap as you might think. And since most tomato sauce is full of sugar, why not get the sweetness on your pizza from fruit, the original source of sugar?
Pineapple is the most common fruity pizza topping, often combined with ham in a Hawaiian-style pie. (Fear not, we’ve got a recipe for you below that gives you the best of the Hawaiian without the meat or cheese.) You can also try adding figs, pears, or even sliced apples.
You can go with classic Italian herbs, like oregano, basil, marjoram, and thyme. Or you can mix it up with flavor profiles from lots of other cuisines: Mexican, Thai, Mediterranean, West African, and so on. Lots of stores sell pre-mixed spice blends, so you can get started without investing in a bunch of different spices. If you’re going low-sodium, just be sure to opt for blends without added salt.
Companies like Field Roast, Tofurkey, and Beyond Meat make increasingly convincing plant-based meats, including traditional pizza meats like pepperoni and sausage. Use these sparingly, as they’re usually full of processed ingredients and still relatively high in sodium. It’s funny how, to people who normally love or miss meat, even just a few thin slices of vegan sausage on an entire pie can change the impression from one of lack to one of abundance.
Alternately, you can approximate the umami flavor and texture of meat with more natural ingredients, such as grilled mushrooms or crumbled tempeh. One of the recipes below features barbecued tofu in place of ham.
6 Recipes for Delicious Plant-Based Pizzas
Simple Vegan Gluten-Free Pizza by Simple Vegan Blog
A homemade, gluten-free, dairy-free, low-fat pizza? You’re excused for suspecting that it’s made of cardboard and air. But it’s not thanks to a buckwheat flour (go organic!) crust, homemade vegan mozzarella from tofu and almond milk, and a ton of fresh veggies. This wholesome and hearty pizza checks all the boxes.
Amaranth Flatbread with Fig, Sweet Corn, and Shallot Cream Sauce by Yup, It’s Vegan!
If you ever find yourself thinking, “I’d like a simple slice of plant based pizza that’s also a gourmet masterpiece,” look no farther than this exotic twist on an old standby. The amaranth crust provides a slightly nutty flavor, and the fig and sweet corn blend two familiar tastes in an unexpected and pleasing way. And shallots, long staples in fancy French cooking, are just onions with trust funds. This recipe is both easy and impressive — a great combination!
Have you thought about experimenting with white cannellini beans as a cheese replacement? Now’s your chance! Blend the fiber and protein-packed beans with lemon and herbs to create a delicious and healthy alternative to cheese. Not to mention, the options for vegetable toppings on this pizza are endless!
Vegan Green Goddess Pizza by Connoisseurus Veg
Ready for the next St Patrick’s Day, here comes Green Goddess pizza loaded with veggies. The trick is the white bean hummus in place of cheese, which becomes a vibrant green with the addition of fresh basil leaves. Broccoli, zucchini, and artichoke hearts amp up the greenness of this amazing dish. Notes: For oil free, use a stone pizza pan and substitute cannellini bean brine in place of oil to brush on top of the pizza crust before baking (to get that crispy effect). Use water or vegetable broth in place of oil to roast the veggies. For the cornmeal, broccoli, and zucchini, choose organic if possible.
Best Grain-Free Vegan Pizza with Caramelized Onions + Mushrooms by Simply Quinoa
This pizza dough is made with almonds, so you can make it whenever you invite vegans and Paleo eaters to the same party. The caramelized red onions and mushrooms provide umami goodness. And the chopped kale turns it into a true nutritional powerhouse.
This spread is similar to pesto, but with a little more punch so it can hold its own on a pizza crust along with bold toppings. However, it’s versatile enough for adaption as a pesto or to use as a dip or spread for other snacks and meals. I like an extra dollop alongside my serving of pizza! Spread on a crust, throw on some toppings of your choosing, stick it in the oven (following your typical pizza cooking instructions), and voila, you have a delicious, cheese-free pizza! For oil-free cooking, use water in place of oil. If you’re watching sodium, omit the salt or decrease by half.
A Pardon for Plant-Based Pizzas
I think we’ve done it! We’ve saved pizza, and moved it into the good-for-you and good-for-the-planet column. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty hungry after writing this. I think I’ll go throw a pie as part of a fun and festive family dinner. Hopefully the dough won’t end up stuck to the kitchen ceiling.
Tell us in the comments:
- Have you ever ordered a “hold the cheese” pie at a pizza parlor?
- What’s on top of one of your dream plant-based pizzas?
- Which of the recipes in this article will you try first?
Feature image: iStock.com/LightFieldStudios