The other day two dudes dressed like Mormon missionaries drove past me in a very small car as the guy riding shotgun hand-fed the driver pizza. For obvious reasons, this image was seared into my brain. It raised so many questions.
Did the guy riding shotgun lose a bet? Were they boyfriends and this was part of how they get kinky? Was the driver a recent lottery winner who was still in the “what if?” phase of spending his new wealth.
The one aspect of that strange scene that I never questioned: Why was he eating pizza? That part totally made sense because everyone loves pizza.
How much do we love it? Last year, according to Pizza Magazine (which is an actual thing, because America is great), our nation spent $38 billion on pizza. For comparison’s sake, we spent $11 Billion on guns. On a more personal note the USDA tells us that one in eight Americans will eat pizza today.
And I’m sure you’ve noticed that second only to cats, the Internet loves pizza. Much like marriage, it’s something people do on every continent on Earth. But why? Why do we love pizza? What about pizza is so damn satisfying?
Some people like to say that it’s due to our positive childhood associations. Pizza is often a central part of a party, a family night, social event, or, perhaps, a victory celebration for kids’ sports. But that answer doesn’t explain why babies love pizza.
I worked as a delivery driver at Pizza World—it’s a kosher pizza place in Los Angeles—and I saw countless Orthodox Jewish families come in to enjoy pizza. With large families, often there was an infant, and I saw how, second to breast milk, Orthodox Jewish babies love pizza.
People will cheer when they learn they’re about to eat pizza. There’s a reason adult films never feature the Indian food delivery guy; it’s always a pizza guy. We desire pizza. There is some super strong biological pull that lies deeper than mere psychology. We want pizza. We don’t know why we want it, but we crave it.
And it’s hard to get tired of pizza. I once ate it every day for a month, and I still love it. I’d eat some right now.
Of course, not all pizza is the same.
Perhaps you prefer deep dish while I prefer New York/Philly-style thin crust. Or maybe you only ever order pepperoni pizza, while I prefer sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms. You may like a sauce that’s sweet and tangy, while I like it hot and peppery. You may prefer a light, flaky crust, while I hunger for a heavier pull-apart doughy crust that would make a son of Chicago sing its praises. Yet, despite all these possibilities, all these variations on a theme, we can agree: we both love pizza.
Why is that? What is this essential quality that makes pizza delicious?
Not to get overly philosophical, but it seems there is something like an “essential quality of pizza” that makes us love it so deeply. It’s this “essential quality of pizza” that explains why our bodies find it the most satisfying food ever.
If you ask the Internet: “Why is pizza so satisfying?,” once you wade through the personal opinions, the Tumblr-based gif essays, and pie-eyed listicle paeans to pizza, you will find some legit science-y appraisals of what makes pizza so universally loved. The self-proclaimed pizza experts and food writers tend to say: it’s the combo of dough, tomato sauce and cheese. The general wisdom holds that those three components form a holy trinity of goodness. Each one makes the other better. Okay! Sure. That explains some of the appeal of pizza. But, that’s not it.
We’ve already dismissed the emotional/psychological/Freudian framework that some say motivates our love of pizza. The trouble with Freud is he can’t explain why Orthodox Jewish babies love pizza. Obviously, our positive associations are part of the appeal. But they’re not what provides our feelings of satiety. We’re not “scratching an itch” in order to feel emotional relief from pizza. We feel a satisfaction that’s more similar to the deep biological joy of an orgasm. Pizza is often compared to sex for good reason.
Scientists have tried to explain that pizza is a perfect food due to “flavor combinations.” They posit that pizza hits all the sweet spots on our tongue, so to speak. And as much as that sounds like what’s happening, that still fails as a proper explanation because it’s not simple enough. The same “flavor combinations” don’t appeal to all the cultures around the world. For example, obviously, eaters in Europe and Asia prefer different “flavor combinations.” Which means the answer must be simpler.
Albert Einstein once said any truly satisfying answer should be simple. The mystery of why we love pizza requires an answer as simple as E=mc2. And, wouldn’t you know it, it has one.
The answer is just one word.
Yes, like monosodium glutamate (the former bad boy of the spice aisle). Back in the 1990s, long before people were so sensitive to gluten, they were paranoid about the effects of MSG. You see, scientists led the public to believe that MSG was terribly bad for them. Soon, there were marketing campaigns by Asian restaurants to prove that they used no MSG.
Well, more recent research has overturned this earlier flawed understanding of glutamate and how it affects the human body and the experts have had to rethink MSG, as well. Recently, Dr. Nirupa Chaudhari, from the University of Miami, discovered there’s a taste receptor specifically for glutamate. It’s the one sometimes referred to as umami. If you used a single base chemical to represent each of our five major tastes that our tongues detect, it works out like this:
Sweet = sucrose (common sugar)
Sour = acetic acid (common vinegar)
Salty = sodium chloride (table salt)
Bitter = quinine (preservative)
Savory = glutamate (savory/animal flavor)
Unlike those other base chemicals, your body makes glutamate. It needs it to function. Like, for example, glutamate runs your brain. It’s the single most prevalent neurotransmitter in your head.
Now, guess what food typically offers the tastiest and highest concentration of glutamate?
That’s right, pizza!
Here are some examples to compare how much glutamate you find in different foods:
This chart shows the difference between “bound glutamate” and “free glutamate” aka the freely-interacting version of the chemical that aids flavor. “Free gluatamate” is what your tongue responds to, while your stomach will happily liberate the bound variety. As far as your body is concerned, all glutamate is good glutamate.
Notice how Parmesan cheese is off the scale? And you probably also notice how tomato juice also packs a heavy punch of glutamate. Add a buttery dough, maybe some mushrooms for a topping and guess what: you’re loading up on more glutamate. This mother lode of glutamate is why pizza is such a delicious, tongue-teasing orgy of flavor. It’s why we crave it and why it satisfies us so deeply.
Pizza is the reason why I could never be a vegan. I mean, let’s be real, you could use vegan cheese to grout a tub. Life’s way too short to have bad sex or eat bad pizza. Based on our new understanding of glutamate and the deeper biological appeal of pizza, now it all makes sense. Pizza satisfies your body and mind, your emotions and memories, and thanks to glutamate it tastes like the heaven of an orgy.