Is pizza a vegetable?

There was a rumor recently that Congress passed legislation which allowed pizza to be designated a vegetable. My reaction spanned the following emotions:

Great — our highly efficient and productive legislators are now deciding what my child should eat at school.

I can’t wait to take a side of pizza to a dinner party as a vegetable.

Wow! That’s really going to help our obesity epidemic among children.

Before I got too carried away, it was time to investigate further.

The tomato paste debate

The debate was not all about pizza; rather, the heart of the matter was tomato paste. The controversy was over whether there’s enough sauce on a single slice of pizza to qualify it as a “vegetable.” Sounds absurd, but it’s true.

Like many pieces of legislation, it seems there is a loophole with tomato paste. While the USDA determines most fruit and vegetable equivalents in serving sizes of 1/2 cup, the tomato paste increment is 1/8 cup. And when comparing the nutrient make-up of tomato paste versus apples or oranges based on the aforementioned measure, the stats are pretty similar.

So because of the undersized equivalent, there is enough tomato sauce on a slice of pizza for it to be categorized as a vegetable.

The background

This whole debate got started when the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to evaluate the school lunch program back in 2009. (According the LA Times, the current nutrition standards for school lunches are based on federal dietary guidelines from 1989.) It’s no surprise, when they came back with recommendations this year, they suggested cutting back on ingredients like salt and potatoes, reducing saturated fats and total calories, and boosting fresh fruits and vegetables.

Despite these recommendations, a few months ago, Congress inserted language into the annual agriculture appropriations bill that undercut the USDA’s ability to improve school lunches.

And it didn’t stop at tomato paste and pizza.

The USDA also took a look at reducing the number of servings of white potatoes – whether fried, mashed or baked – to make way for a wider array of vegetables, including green leafy ones. Sadly, that the same appropriations bill also prevents any limitation on starchy vegetables, too (and also any increase in “whole grain” servings, because apparently “whole grain” is too vague a term to suggest we might eat more of them).

Corporations win

The net result of these legislative loopholes is simple.  The first proposed changes to school lunches were rejected. The tougher guidelines would have resulted in a 14 cent increase per school lunch. But according to, cost wasn’t the issue. Rather, taste was. “The American Frozen Food Institue, which lobbies for frozen-pizza maker CongAgra Foods, french fries-maker McCain Foods, and other companies, said they didn’t want to ‘change their products in a sway that would make them unpalable to students.’ ”

Guess corporate interests win out again.

Kids lose

According to Nutrition Data, a slice of cheese pizza (from Little Caesar’s) contains 8 grams of fat, 236 calories, 28 grams of carbohydrates and 12 grams of protein. Click here to review the complete nutrient data. The nutrient completeness score is 42.*

A half cup of broccoli contains 27 calories, no fat, 6 grams of carbohydrates and 2 grams of protein (plus some vitamins and minerals). Click here review the nutrition content. The nutrient completeness score is 92.

By comparison, one medium order of McDonald’s french fries (147 grams) has 453 calories, 22 grams of fat, 57 grams of carbohydrates, and 7 grams of protein. Click here to review nutrition data. The nutrient completeness score is 13. And we haven’t even mentioned the sodium content of 290 mg.

A child’s palate changes should start at home. But it’s hard to reinforce good habits with starchy, high fat foods at school. If Congress isn’t going to help, then we have to keep improving school lunches ourselves.

*According to Nutrition Data, the completeness score is between 0 and 100 and is the relative indication of how complete the food is with respect to nutrients.

Sources: Washington Post, LA Times,

Melinda Hinson