I’ve written a lot about pizza, including why cold pizza is the best pizza, whether pizza for breakfast is healthier than cereal and if sausage on pizza is better for you than the crust.
Clearly, I’m obsessed (or at the very least, infatuated) with pizza, but I’m also aware that it’s basically terrible for me. Looking for the healthiest possible option, I reached out to Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and my go-to source for all nutritional queries, to help me rank popular pizza toppings—from most healthy to least healthy.
But before diving into that, Hunnes makes a clear distinction between vegetable and meat toppings. “Most of the vegetables are tied, because they all provide something a little different to compliment each other, so a pizza with all of them is best,” she says. “It’s also worth noting that the portion sizes of these vegetables are usually very low, so the benefits they provide may be outweighed by less healthy toppings. Pizza places usually give more meat and cheese products than they do vegetables—since they tend to be cheaper due to government subsidies as well as agricultural and farm bills.”
With that, here’s her ranking…
1) Spinach: “Spinach has more fiber, folate, vitamin A (which promotes vision, immunity and reproduction), vitamin C (which is a powerful antioxidant), vitamin K (which regulates blood clotting and may reduce the risk of bone fractures), potassium (which supports cardiovascular health), manganese (which promotes normal brain and nerve function) and iron than arugula,” Hunnes explains. All of which earn spinach the top spot on this list. (Also, if you put spinach on pizza, please never order me a pizza.)
2) Arugula: In terms of nutrition, Hunnes says that arugula is sort of like “spinach-lite.”
3) Bell Peppers: “All bell peppers are full of vitamin C, but the red and orange ones may have more antioxidants in them (color usually equals antioxidants),” Hunnes explains. “They also tend to be sweeter.”
4) Tomatoes: “Tomatoes are full of lycopene, a very healthy phytonutrient that may reduce the risk for certain cancers (including prostate cancer),” Hunnes says.
5) Onions: “These contain sulphur compounds that may aid with digestion,” Hunnes says. “They also just taste darn good when caramelized.”
6) Olives: “These contain super healthy fats that are food for the heart,” Hunnes notes.
7) Mushrooms: Mushrooms are a good source of magnesium (which can fight depression) and vitamin D (which helps the body absorb calcium and promotes bone growth).
8) Sweet Corn: Sweet corn is a good source of fiber.
9) Pineapple: “Pineapple is a good diuretic that may help eliminate all that sodium coming from the rest of the pizza,” Hunnes explains. “It’s also a good source of fiber.”
10) Anchovies: “These contain very healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and since they’re small, it’s unlikely that they contain much mercury,” Hunnes explains.
11) Chicken: “Chicken contains the least amount of saturated (animal) fats compared to other meat toppings,” Hunnes says. “It also provides some satiation due to its high protein content.” While the consumption of saturated fat has traditionally been linked to heart disease, it’s worth noting that science continues to go back and forth in regard to whether or not saturated fats are actually healthy. But as the American Heart Association says, “Saturated fats are just one piece of the puzzle. In general, you can’t go wrong eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fewer calories.”
12) Cheese: “Cheese is high in saturated fats, and contains casein, which could potentially be carcinogenic,” Hunnes says.
13) Ground Beef: “Ground beef has fewer additives than meatballs, but it still contains high amounts of saturated fat,” Hunnes explains.
14) Meatballs: “These are higher in saturated fat than chicken,” Hunnes points out. “Red meat is also a potential carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization.”
15) Pepperoni, Sausage and Bacon (tied): “These are processed meats containing nitrites and/or nitrates (which are carcinogenic, according to the World Health Organization) as well as significant amounts of saturated fat and salt,” Hunnes emphasizes.
As far as the sauces under these toppings go, Hunnes says that marinara is the healthiest, since it contains lycopene (from tomatoes) and fiber. Next comes barbecue sauce, which according to Hunnes, “is mostly sugar, so it’s not super healthy when the rest of the pizza is also full of carbohydrates.” White sauce, meanwhile, is the least healthy because it’s high in saturated fat: “Who needs more saturated fat on top of cheese and probably pepperoni?” Hunnes asks.
Basically, as you no doubt predicted, all the best toppings are the worst for you. Woop.