The FDA Finally Acts on Chemicals in Pizza Boxes, But Why Not Just Make Your Own?

A homemade pie is never going to be at risk of contamination from long-chain perfluorinated compounds.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jan 20, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Some people do not eat pizza because of the gluten. Or cheese. Or carbs. Or fat. Or nitrites in hard-to-resist toppings like sausage or pepperoni. Now, it seems we should have been more concerned about the sturdy, grease-repellent box that contains the pie itself.

On Dec. 31, the FDA announced that it was revoking its previously approved food additive regulation for use of three long-chain perfluorinated compounds, which are resistant to oil and grease, in response to a Food Additive Petition filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Breast Cancer Fund, the Center for Environmental Health, the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Children’s Environmental Health Network, Clean Water Action, the Environmental Working Group, and Improving Kids’ Environment.

“Although it appears that manufacturers generally have stopped using these products [chemicals], FDA’s action means that any continued use of the PFCs covered by the regulation is no longer permitted,” the federal agency said in a statement about its final rule (81 Fed. Reg. 5), which went into effect on Jan. 4, when it was published in the Federal Register.

This is welcome news, although idioms such as “Too little, too late” and “Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted” come to mind.

“The FDA’s belated action comes more than a decade after EWG and other advocates sounded alarms and five years after U.S. chemical companies stopped making the chemicals. It does nothing to prevent food processors and packagers from using almost 100 related chemicals that may also be hazardous,” said a Jan. 4 statement issued by the Environmental Working Group. According to EWG President Ken Cook, “Industrial chemicals that pollute people's blood clearly have no place in food packaging, but it’s taken the FDA more than 10 years to figure that out, and it’s banning only three chemicals that aren't even made any more.”

I’m not a knee-jerk FDA basher; the federal agency has been beleaguered for years. But yikes.

According to the Bloomberg Bureau of National Affairs, SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, which represents BASF and other companies that have made long-chain perfluorinated chemicals similar to those covered by the FDA’s rule, said the chemicals having their allowable uses revoked by the FDA are no longer used as food-contact substances. Because PFCs are stable and highly repellent to liquids, however, they’re still valued in other countries for use in textiles and other products. “Environment agencies are nervous about PFC production, use, and export elsewhere in the world,” read a 2012 briefing from Chemical Watch: Global Risk & Regulation News. “Meanwhile, little to no information is available on the toxicity of new shorter-chain compounds billed as greener alternatives.”

Interestingly, PFCs aren’t mentioned in an otherwise enlightening 2011 piece on pizza box technology in The Atlantic. “In the traditional story of the pizza box, Tom Monaghan's pizza empire, Domino's, developed the corrugated box in the early 1960s, marking a major advance in pizza technology,” wrote Alexis Madrigal. “These wonder boxes could be stacked. They had vents. All around, the flat-packed, foldable corrugated pizza box was one of those small inventions that seem almost inevitable after someone comes up with it.”

When my husband and I decided to trim our food budget by eliminating take-out meals and cooking more at home, I must admit that pizza was the most difficult thing to give up. The family-owned pizzeria in our neighborhood turned out old-school brick-oven pies with a crisp, thin crust and fresh-tasting tomato sauce, and we occasionally gave in to temptation—at least until the place vanished without any warning last summer. I feel mournful every time I walk down the block.

The upshot, though, is that we’ve been forced into making our own pizza, and it’s become a solid player in our culinary repertoire. Many supermarkets and specialty stores carry fresh or frozen pizza dough, and flour tortillas, first toasted directly on a gas or electric burner, are a speedy substitute.

But our pizza dough of choice is homemade and based on that of Arizona chef Chris Bianco, whose Pizzeria Bianco, in Phoenix and now Tucson, has achieved genuine cult status. What is so captivating about a good pizza crust is that it’s not simply a vehicle for cheese. Instead, it enhances the toppings, and the toppings return the favor. Happily, the dough can be frozen for a month; simply thaw it in the refrigerator, then bring to room temperature before shaping.

Bianco makes some of the best pizza on the planet, and I’ll never forget a master class he gave to the food editors at Gourmet. His pizzas are casual and rustic but never sloppy. Below are a few of his tips and tricks for a delicious, foolproof pie.

A wet dough equals a crisp crust. It may seem counterintuitive, but if the dough feels wetter than what you’re used to, it’s probably perfect. If you work the dough by hand, it’s impossible to over-knead, which results in a tough crust.

Easy does it. After the dough has risen until it’s doubled in bulk, don’t punch it down, as you would a bread dough. Keeping some of the air in the dough will give the crust its characteristic bubbly, blistered texture. This dough is soft, pliable, and a pleasure to work with, so flour your hands lightly yet thoroughly and gradually stretch the dough without compressing it.

The weight of the dough will do most of the work. Simply hold the mass of dough by the edge and let it hang perpendicular to the work surface, with the bottom touching the surface. Turn the dough with both hands, like a steering wheel, just allowing it to graze the work surface as you go. If it’s difficult to stretch, it likely wasn’t proofed enough, but don’t despair. Just leave the round smaller and pull the edges out as much as possible after you top the pie. Bianco doesn’t advise using a rolling pin, by the way. The dough has worked hard to leaven and get that cell structure, he explained. “Don’t press everything that’s good out of the dough.”

Two simple tools make life easy. A pizza stone is the key to delightfully chewy, blistered edges and a bottom crust that’s crisp all the way across. If you have a gas stove, put it on the floor of the oven; if you have an electric stove, put it on the bottom rack. Turn on the oven an hour before you plan to put the pizza in; it will take that long to properly heat the stone. A floured baker’s peel and a smooth thrust-and-release motion (it’s all in the wrist) make transferring a pie on and off a hot stone no big deal. You can find both tools at cookware shops or online sources.

Less is more. Distribute toppings with a light hand, so you don’t overload the dough. Bianco always recommends assembling the toppings in a balanced way, so that they cook evenly or melt properly and don’t become too soupy or dry. If using fresh herbs such as basil or oregano, put them on after the pizza comes out of the oven. The heat will cause their fragrance to bloom, but the leaves won’t blacken. You can do the same thing with a tangle of watercress or arugula—an easy way to sneak fresh greens into a meal without making a salad.

When it comes to toppings, let seasonality and the contents of your refrigerator (not to mention your imagination) be your guide. This time of year, I tend to gravitate to classic toppings—mushroom, sausage, and onion, for instance—but I wouldn’t quarrel with kale, sweet potato, and red onion. And to my mind, a white pie skim-coated with buttery, garlicky mashed potatoes and gilded with a fried egg is one of the world’s great Sunday-night suppers.

Come spring, I’ll take advantage of green garlic and onions, and by the time summer rolls around, I’ll be hungry for the utter perfection of pizza Margherita, created, in case you were wondering, in honor of the Italian queen Margherita’s visit to Naples in the late 19th century. The red of the tomato, the white of the mozzarella, and the verdant green of the basil were emblematic of the relatively new tricolor Italian flag. If company’s coming, I might make this sophisticated eggplant pizza, courtesy of a Gourmet reader. In other words, it’s all good.