WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It's the junk food junkie's wildest dream come true -- pizza as health food.
University of Maryland food chemists said on Monday they had found ways to enhance the antioxidant content of whole-grain wheat pizza dough by baking it longer at higher temperatures and giving the dough lots of time to rise.
Antioxidants are substances that protect cells from damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals. Some experts believe antioxidants can lower the risk of cancer, heart disease and other ailments.
Liangli Lucy Yu, a food chemistry professor, said the findings arose from broader research into ways to improve health-promoting properties of wheat-based food products.
"The reason that we chose pizza is just because it is a very popular food product, not only in the U.S. but worldwide," researcher Jeffrey Moore added.
"So we thought if we could find ways to improve (its antioxidant) properties, doing this for such a product could have a larger impact on public health," Moore added.
But Moore had a slice of advice for pizza aficionados who might want to cover their crust with mounds of fatty toppings like extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage and ground beef.
"If you're adding back all these other things that have potential negative health consequences, then you're negating anything that you're adding in terms of (health) value," Moore said.
The research was served up at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago, a mecca for deep-dish, thick-crust pizza.
The researchers experimented with baking temperatures, baking time and fermentation time -- the time the pizza dough is given to rise.
A HOTTER OVEN
Antioxidant levels rose by up to 60 percent with longer baking times and up to 82 percent with higher baking temperatures, depending on the type of wheat flour and the antioxidant test used, they said. The precise mechanisms involved are unclear, they said.
Baking time and temperature can be increased together without burning the pizza when done carefully, the researchers said. They used oven temperatures from 400 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit (204 to 287 degrees Celsius), and baking times from 7 to 14 minutes.
They looked at fermentation times up to two full days, and found that longer periods in some cases doubled the dough's antioxidant levels. This probably stemmed from chemical reactions caused by yeasts in the dough that had more time to release the antioxidant components, Moore said.
A common fermentation time is about 18 hours, Moore said.
The study used only whole wheat dough. Most of the antioxidants in wheat are in the bran and endosperm components that are generally removed in refined flour, Moore said. Thus, longer and hotter baking and longer fermentation likely would be less effective in making more healthful pizza with refined flour, he said.
The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and grain organizations, but not by the pizza industry.