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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Savoring More Healthy Pizza: Gluten-Free Options for Conscious Pizza Lovers

Feb 27, 2014 04:09AM ● By Ariana Rawls Fine

With growing demand for healthier pizza and gluten-free options in particular, national chains and local restaurants are striving to fill a new product need. Celiac disease, a genetically-based autoimmune disease, affects 1 out of every 133 people in this country, according to The Center for Celiac Research and Treatment. It is believed the disease is twice as common as Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis and ulceric colitis combined. Gluten sensitivity, although less severe, can still cause a variety of different gastrointestinal and behavioral symptoms, which often remain undiagnosed or even reported. It is estimated that 6 percent of the U.S. population or 18 million people suffer from the sensitivity. With these statistics in mind, it is encouraging to see the list of gluten-free menu options growing. For those suffering from gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, this budding pizza sub-industry can be a way to enjoy the nation’s favorite take-out food. For others trying to live a healthier lifestyle or lose weight, the question becomes whether a gluten-free pizza actually is a better option.

“People assume that gluten-free is better for weight loss but they can be compensating for the taste with other things and possibly eating more caloric food. Gluten free is not a diet; it is for reducing inflammation in the body,” states Meredith Mulhearn, a nutrition therapy practitioner and owner of Cucumber and Chamomile in Ridgefield.  She recalls with amusement an experience she had in high school while taking a nutrition class. The instructor informed her that pizza was a complete, balanced meal because it contained grains, dairy, protein and vegetables. Now, looking back, Mulhearn finds it troubling that regular pizza was once thought to be wholesome and nutritionally sound.

Understanding what is in a pizza and, specifically in this case, a gluten-free pizza, is key to eating a healthier pie. As Mulhearn indicates, all gluten-free pizzas are not created equal. In most cases, it is better from an anti-inflammatory perspective but can be higher in calories and fat with possible increased sugar levels. Many places are substituting rice flour for wheat, but rice can be as over-processed as wheat flour,  with a lack of whole grain and nutritional value. She suggests trying to find better alternatives such as nut flours, which are higher in protein, or other whole grain flours. Although whole grain, gluten-free oats are a great alternative, it is important to note that most oats do have potential gluten cross-contamination during growing or processing.

Many people do not tolerate gluten well even if they don’t have a defined sensitivity. At Savor Healthy Pizza in Norwalk, co-owner Rex Bobi reports that at least 30 percent of the restaurant’s customers are requesting gluten-free pizza, entree and wrap options. These are handmade daily on the premises using separate workspaces, ovens and utensils with natural and organic ingredients from environmentally-conscious vendors and local farmers. Gluten-free options for pizza include brown rice/flaxseed and grain-free almond/flaxseed dough. Due to the high demand, the restaurant also offers unbaked, prepared pizzas for customers to bake or freeze at home.

Still Riding Pizza, a Connecticut-based gluten-free pizza, pasta and breadcrumb supplier founded in 2010, has filled a need for local restaurants to have gluten-free pizza options without needing to adhere to the stricter preparation standards. The company’s New York-style, par-baked crust, made using bean, rice and tapioca flour, among other ingredients, is made at a dedicated gluten-free facility certified by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization and then delivered to local establishments. “When we partner with your local restaurant or pizzeria, the result is a delicious and safe solution for celiacs and others who avoid wheat and gluten, but still want to eat real pizza,” states the company. Many Fairfield county pizzerias offer the Still Riding gluten-free pizza crust. There are resources to help consumers find gluten-free friendly businesses, including the Gluten Free Registry.

A common complaint regarding gluten-free foods and pizza, in particular, is the need to sacrifice taste for this healthier option. “They have to come and try it. I love for my product to do the talking. I see customers licking their fingers when they are done,” Savor’s Bobi expressed. To add to both the taste and the nutritional value, Mulhearn encourages customers to ask which vegetables and other additions are actually fresh or organic versus canned or packaged. Coalhouse Pizza in Stamford proudly sources most of its vegetables from local farms and other restaurants should be willing to divulge similar information about where their ingredients come from.

Asking questions about what is actually in the gluten-free pizza and what has been used in place of the wheat is important to keeping this potentially healthier pizza option healthy. Those needing or wishing to avoid gluten completely should also inquire whether the pizza as a whole is actually gluten-free because some toppings may include items that do contain gluten.

Ariana Rawls Fine is Assistant Editor for Natural Awakenings Fairfield County. She resides in Stratford with her family.

For more information, GlutenFreeRegistry.com