What Makes Pizza So Special?

Birthdays, graduations, holidays and even anniversaries are often celebrated with a big slice of pizza. For some, pizza brings back memories of spending time with family or pulling an all-nighter at college. You might think your love of pizza is all in your head, but there is an actual science behind what makes pizza so delicious.

Your taste buds are the primary factor in what makes pizza special. Along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter, there is a fifth "taste" called umami. Umami was pinpointed by a Japanese chemist who took his observations into a lab and determined exactly what "umami" was and how it affected your taste buds. Umami is best known for signaling "savory" flavors. People taste umami through glutamate receptors. That is, when we ingest glutamate, we will be hit with a savory flavor.

Glutamate is found naturally in many foods, including pizza. Animal proteins, such as chicken or beef, are high in glutamate. About 3 ounces of beef can contain more than 5 grams of glutamate. The same portion of chicken contains nearly 4 grams of glutamate.

Tomato sauce also contains glutamate. Approximately three tablespoons of tomato sauce, which is about the serving size on a slice of pizza, contains 140 milligrams of glutamate. Parmesan cheese also contains glutamate.

Veggie pizza toppings like mushrooms and fresh tomato also contain copious amounts of glutamate.

Along with the glutamate, during the pizza cooking process, the maillard reaction brings forward the flavor compounds that give pizza its distinct flavor. During the cooking process, the sugars and amino acids in the dough and pizza toppings converge to create the flavor compounds. The maillard reaction is also known as the browning reaction, and can be seen on the crust and toppings and cheese. If you find yourself liking your pizza more on the well-done side, then you are definitely a fan of the maillard reaction.

So there you have it, the scientific reasoning as to what makes pizza special. Next time someone asks what makes pizza so special, you will have an answer to provide.

And did you know that by ordering a large pizza, you could even save money? Planet Money on NPR crunched the numbers and found that ordering a large pizza every time always gets you more for your money. Enjoy those leftovers!