UPDATE: NOVEMBER 11, 2013: Wichita, Kansas is now a test market for rolling out the whole wheat pizza crust to their standard menu. Available for testing only in Wichita, the wheat crust option is $1 more, “due to the premium cost on the dough,” said Kym Money, director of marketing for Fugate Enterprises. She expanded, letting us know, “This is the same crust type that we use on our School Lunch pizzas, but topped with our regular toppings. It is very good, and I am hopeful it will be a successful test.”
Pizza Hut is known for its inventive approaches to the delivery pie, but few have been as impressive as their latest innovation. Pizza Hut has never been healthier, a requirement to let them keep up with the newly mandated school lunch nutrition guidelines. The brand expressed their excitement to us about being able to recreate its world-famous pizza in a way that kids could enjoy this Americanized comfort food.
“It’s a healthier option,” says Rachel Huber, MPH, RD, senior nutritionist for the Dallas-based Pizza Hut. While pizza could never be defined as a health food, Pizza Hut has made remarkable strides to make it a better part of a child’s school-day diet.
Stores facilitating the pizza for school lunch programs now have two sets of ingredients – one for the public and one for the public schools. In order for any school lunch program to receive its federal reimbursements they must meet new nutrition guidelines that took effect for the 2012-2013 school year. Pizza Hut didn’t want to miss the huge sales opportunity that is placement in these hungry cafeterias, so they made a better pizza.
A slice of the whole wheat cheese pizza has 270 calories and 8 grams of fat. The pizza beats the school lunch guideline expectations, with 26% of the calories coming from fat – the guideline is at or less than 30%. The slice of cheese also has three grams of fiber, attributed to the 51% whole wheat crust. Pizza Hut did not share the nutrition information for the other options – sausage, pepperoni, and veggie.
To make it, they went back to the drawing board, but not square one.
“We started with a crust everyone knows and loves – our hand-tossed,” said Huber, explaining that they used the formula for their popular crust and worked back from there. They removed most of the refined grains, creating a pizza crust that is now 51% whole wheat with 18 grams of whole grains per serving. Personally, I enjoyed it more than their standard offering; it tasted denser, chewier.
The toppings were reworked, too. Students enjoying Pizza Hut’s school lunch-approved slices will have a lighter mozzarella cheese, with 50 percent less fat and 35 percent less sodium than the whole milk mozzarella used on their other pizzas.
Their original tomato-based sauce goes on a little heavier; this accounts for a 1/8-cup serving of vegetables per the new standards, but Huber assured most schools don’t factor that in to a child’s vegetable servings.
The pepperonis are leaner, with 30 percent less fat and 55 percent less sodium than traditional varieties. They use the same Italian sausage. And the veggie-only pizzas come loaded with white mushrooms, green peppers, red onion, and tomatoes.
I tried it for myself and can safely say I enjoyed it more than any slice Pizza Hut has delivered to me before. For one, that chewier crust had me from the first bite. It helped that the light-brown crust didn’t scream of refined, enriched, bleached white flour. The sauce was as tangy-with-a-kick as ever. But the biggest take away was the lack of grease. I didn’t have to mop my hands off between bites. Huber attributed this to leaner meats and cheeses, as well as the absorption capability of the whole wheat crust.
One franchisee, Fugate Enterprises in Wichita, Kansas (the home of Pizza Hut), is pleased to be serving these better pizzas to students in their area, and with the work the home office has put in to crafting a better pizza. “They created a product that would meet the [school lunch] guidelines and that the kids will actually eat,” said Kym Money, director of marketing for Fugate.
She explained these pizzas that school districts, like Wichita’s USD259, are buying from the restaurants are part of the actual school lunch menu. These aren’t a la carte slices like you may have picked up in high school – this is what’s on the menu. Money explained that if the school wants their reimbursement, the food has to meet all of the new USDA criteria, and if Pizza Hut wants the contract, they have to meet the criteria.
Huber said they had still sold personal pan pizzas in high schools, but because of the new school lunch and a la carte snack nutrition guidelines, they are no longer able to do so. However, not to miss an opportunity, they are working to revamp the personal pan, too, so it can still be available to the students.
“As far as we know, and what we’re hearing in our markets, we’re the only major pizza brand meeting these guidelines,” said Doug Terfehr, director of public relations at Pizza Hut. That’s a sales boon for a highly competitive market that Pizza Hut is getting an early jump on. And if kids like it as much as their testers have, they’ll have carved out a new profit line for themselves. Huber shared that in testing, the kids’ focus group scored the school lunch pizzas on par with their original hand tossed.
What about the rest of us? “We’re constantly innovating,” said Terfehr. “We’re obviously testing those [new pizzas] for a mainstream push as well.”