They're talking about matters of life and death. They're lobbying Congress and have an education program for local students. They're delivering pizza.
They are a trio of New Orleanians doing business as World's Healthiest Pizza. They opened in October, making pizza that comes with a lot of health-advocacy literature and toppings like pepperoni, sausage, ground beef and ham.
Even the "meat combo" pizza, including all those toppings plus mozzarella cheese, lives up to the claim inherent in the name World's Healthiest Pizza, explains company co-founder Jeff Leach. Sausage and cheese may have a lot of fat, but Leach says the real health culprit of the pizzas most people get from the big pizza delivery chains is the highly processed dough underneath all that tasty stuff. So the World's Healthiest Pizza piles cheese, meat and vegetables on a crust that Leach and his partners promote as a fiber-rich tool for helping fix what's wrong with the typical American diet. This crust is made from at least 10 different grains with the addition of inulin, a fiber-rich supplement extracted from chicory root and known as a "smart fiber" for its benefits to the digestive system.
"People say, 'what about the salt, what about the sugar?' Well, we can't do all of it, so we're focusing on the main problem, and that's the crust," says co-founder Pharon Wilson.
Leach borrows an affectation from Louisiana's own James Carville to describe the nutrient problem he says his pizzas address: "It's the fiber, stupid," he says, smiling. It's an expression he likes so much he's using it as the title of a book he's writing about nutrition. His first book, Prebiotics: Optimal Health and Well-Being, is scheduled for release this spring.
In addition to this venture in the pizza business, Leach is an anthropologist and a science writer whose syndicated column is published in newspapers and magazines around the country and online at www.gutfeelingcolumn.com. In September, he delivered a keynote address at Harvard University Medical School during a conference on smart fiber. Pizza, he says, is just another delivery channel for him to talk about fiber.
"You get a pizza, but you're also getting education," Leach says at his take-out-only pizza shop in the Carrollton area. "That's why we put messages on the box, messages on the menu, messages on our Web site. We're getting it to you any way we can."
World's Healthiest Pizza is certainly the only shop I've ever seen that brings up the specter of death on its pizza boxes. "Our pizzas will not kill you. Promise," it reads in bright red print. There's a lot more printed on there, offering a large-print primer on the effects of proper fiber intake on the digestive system, but with the type of urgency you usually get from religious tracts handed out on the street. Leach also describes his company's modus operandi as "fanatical."
"We hear things like 'well, what if people copy you?'" says Leach. "That's exactly what we want. That's what we're trying to do. We want to raise the bar on what is the most popular food in America. We're trying to turn it on its head and make it healthy."
The pizza boxes will soon feature pre-addressed postcards printed with messages urging lawmakers to make fiber a more prominent part of the government "food pyramid" charts for healthy nutrition.
"Senators and agriculture officials are going to be getting postcards with pepperoni stuff stuck to them from crazy New Orleans people," says Leach. The company is also offering local schools an educational "pizza day" with a discounted lunch for students that comes with a talk about healthy nutrition from Leach.
Leach founded World's Healthiest Pizza with Wilson, who ran the health food deli Melonheads in the Faubourg Marigny, and their friend Randy Crochet. They're so enthused with the early reception for their product that they are now converting the 1860s-era building that housed Melonheads as an expansion site for World's Healthiest Pizza. They expect to open there in November, adding a dine-in option to their take-out operation and expanding their delivery range. They're also adding salads to their short menu, which now has only pizza and breadsticks made with the same dough and likewise carrying the promise that they "will not kill you."
Of course, the crust is the thing with this pizza and, under all the familiar toppings -- with options like the pineapple and ham-laden Hawaiian, the spicy "Fiesta," and the loaded "Creole Cajun Throwdown" -- this is what makes this pizza taste quite different. It is dense with a slight nuttiness to it. It has a heartiness that tastes like what I think of when I think of health food.
I've eaten quite a few pies from the World's Healthiest Pizza and would certainly order it over anything put forth by the national chains. But I had the nagging feeling that maybe I liked it in part for the same reason I feel proud of myself for taking vitamins. Maybe I wanted to like it because it was supposed to be good for me. So I rigged a blind tasting, of sorts, giving slices to people and soliciting their opinions without getting into the whole fiber mission.
"It's good," said my friend's 6-year-old, who might have been paying more attention to the alligator sausage on her slice than the constitution of the crust.
"Es bueno, gracias," said my contactor, who perhaps was just being polite, as people tend to do when someone buys their lunch and when a language barrier is in play.
At the end of the day, where the pizza meets the palate, this is a pie that can trick the unwitting into eating a healthier meal and delight those who are seeking better nutrition delivered to their door.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Randy Crochet, Jeff Leach and Pharon Wilson have created a stealthy healthy pizza crust that makes a difference.