Is Pizza Hut's New All-Gluten-Free Pizza Healthy or All Hype?

The nation's leading pizza chain tries to capitalize on our collective confusion over the protein that allows breads to rise.

(Photo: Courtesy Pizza Hut)

Jan 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It somehow seems oxymoronic to order a gluten-free pizza for your Super Bowl party, akin to swapping out the buffalo wings for crudités. Nevertheless, Pizza Hut is rolling out an all-gluten-free pizza at about a third of its stores come Jan. 26, less than a week before kickoff.

That Pizza Hut would debut the pie right before a major televised sporting event (i.e., a pizza-delivery bonanza) is no surprise: Two decades ago the chain unveiled its game-changing stuffed-crust pizza just before the NCAA’s Final Four weekend.

The 20-year gap is significant. Whereas Pizza Hut’s “revolutionary” stuffed crust boosted the chain’s sales by $300 million, its jump-on-the-gluten-free-bandwagon move hardly seems poised to have anywhere near the same impact for a company struggling to stay on top. That hasn't kept CEO David Gibbs from claiming the new crust will bring in the bucks, as he did in an interview with USA Today, saying the purportedly healthier pie “will get new users into the brand and existing users to visit more frequently.”

On its face, that would seem absurd: “existing users” suggests there’s some significant number of Americans out there who are fastidious about their gluten intake yet, paradoxically, still visit Pizza Hut with some regularity. Yet as Jimmy Kimmel’s three-and-a-half-minute riff on the whole gluten-free fad suggests, there’s plenty of ridiculousness to go around when it comes to gluten.

As is typical of so many “healthy” food fads, science has taken a backseat to the hype when it comes to substantiating the benefits of skipping out on gluten. No matter that what has passed for the “gluten sensitivity” reported by many non-celiac patients may be linked not to gluten—a protein found in a number of grains, including wheat, rye, and barley—but instead to a type of carbohydrate, as NPR reported last spring. Food makers have continued to flood the market with gluten-free products: 3,000 new ones from 2008 to 2010, according to market-research firm Mintel, which also tallied sales of gluten-free products surpassing $10 billion in 2013 and predicts the market will grow to $15 billion next year.

No doubt, Pizza Hut put some serious effort into developing its new pie. Unlike the gluten-free crust offered by competitor Domino’s, Pizza Hut’s pizza is certified to be 100-percent gluten-free, from crust to toppings. The chain partnered with the world’s largest manufacturer of gluten-free foods, Udi’s, and it has implemented a strict gluten segregation policy for the 2,400 stores that will sell the gluten-free pizza: All ingredients will be stored in designated Gluten-Free Kits on separate shelves in the fridge, the pies will be prepared on parchment paper, and employees must wear gloves and use a separate “gluten-free” pizza cutter.

Of course, Pizza Hut hasn't gone through all this trouble out of a noble desire to provide made-to-order pizza to the 1 percent of Americans who are believed to suffer from celiac disease and must forswear gluten forever. Like so many restaurant chains and food makers, Pizza Hut is looking to capitalize on the widespread confusion among so many of the rest of us that has given “gluten-free” its hazy association with “healthy”—a misapprehension all too readily on display when the Kimmel team asked a number of random gluten-free dieters the simple question, “What is gluten?,” only to be met with deer-in-the-headlight stares and befuddled answers.

Thus, so much marketing buzz drowns out all appeals for reason, such as those of two prominent celiac researchers who, back in 2012, lamented in the Annals of Internal Medicine the proliferation of vague gluten-free health claims “with no adequate scientific support to back them up.” As Dr. Antonio Di Sabatino and Dr. Gino Roberto Corazza of the University of Pavia in Pavia, Italy, wrote, “This clamor has increased and moved from the Internet to the popular press, where gluten has become ‘the new diet villain.’ ”

Three years later, and Pizza Hut’s gluten-free pizza shows the clamor shows no signs of abating.