The life-saving qualities of pizza
Research – from Italy, would you believe – suggests that pizza can be good for your health
Marc Abrahams Monday 16 August 2010 16.30 BST
Tasty: the benefits of Italian pizza. Photograph: Massimo Borchi/Corbis
A series of Italian research studies suggest that eating pizza might do good things for a person's health.
These benefits show up, statistically speaking and seasoned with caveats, among people who eat pizza as pizza. The delightful statistico-medico-pizza effects do not happen so much, the researchers emphasise, for individuals who eat the pizza ingredients individually.
Back in 2001, Dario Giugliano, Francesco Nappo and Ludovico Coppola, at Second University Naples, published a study in the journal Circulation called Pizza and Vegetables Don't Stick to the Endothelium. The thrust of their finding was that, unlike many other typical Italian meals, pizza does not necessarily cause clogged blood vessels (atherosclerosis) and death.
Silvano Gallus of the Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche, in Milan, has cooked up several studies about the health effects of ingesting pizza.
In 2003, together with colleagues from Naples, Rome and elsewhere, Gallus published a report called Does Pizza Protect Against Cancer?, in the International Journal of Cancer. It compares several thousand people who were treated for cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, oesophagus, larynx, colon, or rectum with patients who were treated for other, non-cancer ailments. Several hospitals gathered data about what the patients said they habitually ate. The study ends up speaking, in a vague, general way of an "apparently favourable effect of pizza on cancer risk in Italy".
A year later, in a monograph in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, Gallus and two colleagues wrote that: "Regular consumption of pizza, one of the most typical Italian foods, showed a reduced risk of digestive tract cancers."
Also in 2004, another team anchored by Gallus published a monograph called Pizza and Risk of Acute Myocardial Infarction, in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. As you would expect from the title, its purpose was "to evaluate the potential role of pizza consumption on the risk of acute myocardial infarction". Gallus and his team "suggest that pizza consumption is a favourable indicator" for preventing, or at least not causing, heart attacks.
Gallus is in no way claiming that pizza prevents all ills. A Gallus-led study called Pizza Consumption and the Risk of Breast, Ovarian and Prostate Cancer appeared in 2006 in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention. These types of cancer are thought to arise differently than the kinds believed to be warded off by pizza. The study puts its message bluntly: "Our results do not show a relevant role of pizza on the risk of sex hormone-related cancers."
The Gallus studies all hedge their bets a bit. Each says, in one way or another (and here I'm paraphrasing them): "Pizza may in fact merely represent a general indicator of the so-called Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to have potential health benefits."
All of this pertains to Italian-made pizza, metabolised in Italy. No matter how accurate the scientists' interpretations turn out to be, there's no guarantee that they hold true for foreign pizza, or for any pizza eaten anywhere by foreigners.
• Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize