Why Will You Be Craving Pizza by the End of this Article?

Admit it, you’re already thinking about it

February 9th is National Pizza Day, but honestly, at least in the U.S., every day is pretty much pizza day!  A person can get a slice in almost every country in the world, but Americans’ pizza consumption stats are particularly impressive: 350 slices are consumed every second, and 40% of Americans eat pizza once a week!  What began in Italy as a quick snack made for Neapolitan laborers has become a delicious, gooey, piping hot, world-dominating juggernaut.  Why do we love pizza SO much?  Are we actually addicted to it? 

There’s a reason your mouth might be watering a little now

It’s no secret that there is a lot of science behind the food industry, particularly in the area of what we call “junk food.”  Neuroscientists such as Francis McGlone study the brain’s reaction to foods as subjects eat inside MRIs.  Sensory scientists such as Herbert Stone calculate and test the exact right amount of salt, sugar and fat that give us the sensations and flavors that keep us coming back for more.  Psychologists connect eating behaviors to emotional and mental experiences, and chemists have broken down and reproduced several of the exact compounds that make certain foods delicious.  All of these fields of science have turned their attention to tasty, tasty pizza, and the general consensus is that although pizza is not exactly addictive in the way a drug would be, it can trigger “addictive-like” eating patterns.  Pizza is a perfect storm of flavorful compounds that do indeed light up pleasure centers in the Amygdala region of your brain every time you take a bite.

Your Brain on Pizza

So what are the molecular culprits in pizza that make our mouths water just from looking at pictures of it?  The ingredients in pizza contain very high levels of certain brain pleasing compounds, and pizza also undergoes chemical reactions while baking that render it even more incredibly wonderful.  The combination of fat, salt, sugar, and carbohydrates that is pizza certainly does not appear in nature, and the combination of those four molecules is already heavenly for our brains, which are still in the “take all the calories you can get” mode that helped humans survive for most of our existence.  But what takes pizza to a whole other level of satisfying is a little molecule known as Glutamate.  Yes, the one that is found in Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG. 

Monopotassium Glutamate

We here at High Touch High Tech are not breaking the news of a worldwide MSG-in-pizza conspiracy, we promise!  Commercial MSG is a synthetic version of Glutamate, which is a very abundant compound in nature that has many types, many of them already occurring in food.  All of the flavors of food come from particular molecular compounds:  sucrose makes sweet flavors, quinine brings us bitter flavors, and hydrochloric acid is sour.  Glutamate is responsible for the flavor more recently identified as “umami,” a flavor that is rich and savory.  Glutamate also enhances flavors, making people crave it and want to eat it more.

Tomatoes = red glutamate bombs

As it happens, pizza’s ingredients mean that it is layer upon layer of high-glutamate ingredients.  Tomatoes are very rich in natural glutamate, and on top of that (literally), so is cheese, especially the aged cheeses like parmesan or asiago that find their way onto every good pizza.  On top of THAT, mozzarella and tomatoes both contain a less common compound, 4 Methylpentanoic Acid, that enhances flavor even more.  Add some glutamate-rich mushrooms on your pizza and your brain’s perception of deliciousness goes into overdrive.  And that’s just the raw ingredients in your pizza.  When a pizza bakes it goes through a process known as caramelization, when sugars in food become brown.  When ingredients are caramelized it makes them richer, sweeter, and more flavorful, especially in the crust.  Even the brown bubbly goodness on top of a pizza is a result of something called Maillard’s Reaction, whereby amino acids in foods react with sugars when heated. 

Mmmm… Maillard’s Reaction
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Craving pizza yet?  If you are, it’s not exactly a fault of your willpower.  Pizza is an unusually perfect mix of incredibly delicious compounds and chemical processes that are very hard for our brains to resist! This is why for many of us, we’d be very glad if it was pizza day, every day.

Sources and Further Reading:

Introduction to the Amazingness that is Pizza: https://theconversation.com/why-does-pizza-taste-so-good-125618

More about the Amazingness that  is Pizza: https://us.cnn.com/2018/12/06/health/pizza-addictive-food-drayer/index.html

Compounds and Flavors in Pizza: http://specertified.com/blog/view/why-does-pizza-taste-so-good-the-science-of-the-5-basic-tastes-and-pizzas-c

Intro to the Difference Between Food and Substance Addiction:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHNB8icGMf0

Study on Food vs. Substance Addiction: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4334652/

NIH Compound Summary for Glutamic Acid: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Glutamic-acid

One thought on “Why Will You Be Craving Pizza by the End of this Article?”

  1. I enjoyed reading this informative article. Just so happens we had pizza for dinner tonight. It was a frozen pizza and I added 8 oz of fresh mushrooms on top before baking. Mushrooms are healthy but I wouldn’t do this again. The juice poured out all over the pizza and parts of it were soggy even though the edges were very crisp. You know how much we enjoy a good pizza. A lesson was learned tonight.

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