The Story Behind Papa John's 'Better' Pizza

A closer look at what’s inside Papa John’s pizza has emerged piecemeal.

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When Papa John's makes its pizza sauce, it uses a few simple ingredients – vine-ripened tomatoes that haven't been turned into concentrate, sunflower oil, some sugar, salt, garlic, olive oil, some spices and citric acid. Its sausage toppings contain no preservatives, artificial flavors or cheap bulking agents like cornstarch or soy protein. And unlike so many other commercially produced bread products, Papa John's doesn't load up its dough, which isn't frozen, with chemical dough conditioners like sodium stearoyl lactylate or azodicarbonamide. In other words, Papa John's food is not your standard fast food fare. Comparatively speaking, it's more like actual food (fresh and additive-free) and less of what Michael Pollan has termed "edible food-like substances."

Melanie Warner
Melanie Warner

At least that's the story that emerges piecemeal from Papa John's – on their website, in a recent blog and accompanying video, and in emailed answers to me. "Our 'better ingredients' are the hallmark of our business and our brand; it's what we're founded on and of what we are the most proud," the company wrote on its blog. "We fervently stand behind our fresh ingredients and everything that goes into them." This blog posting was a response to an article I wrote two weeks ago, where I questioned Papa John's strategy of building its entire brand on the idea of superior ingredients (its slogan is "Better Ingredients. Better Pizza") without bothering to fully disclose what those ingredients are. Go to Domino's site and you'll see a full listing of everything in its food. McDonald's ingredients are here, Taco Bell's are here and Subway's are here. Among national fast food restaurants, Papa John's is in the minority (though in fairness, most pizza chains don't reveal ingredients). After my story ran, Papa John's shot back that it does in fact disclose ingredients. It pointed to sections on its web site like this one and this one. But these aren't ingredient lists. They're incomplete snippets of info.

[Read: The Myth of Healthy Processed Food.]

I was still left to wonder: Why not go all the way? Papa John's sent me an emailed answer:

"Papa John's takes great pride in its recipes and formulas, and the make-up of many of them is proprietary. There is a fine line between transparency and sharing of proprietary information, unique recipes and trade secrets, and it is not one that we feel compelled to cross."

The company also pointed out that its research indicates that 18 of the top 25 national and regional pizza chains do not detail their ingredients and that only one pizza chain of the top five does (Domino's). But this isn't really a fair comparison because Little Caesar's and Joe's Pizza aren't asking us to believe that their ingredients are "better".

The problem with Papa John's piecemeal disclosure is that it doesn't give the whole story. While the company's sauce, dough and sausage toppings are made with simple ingredients and the veggie toppings are sliced regularly at the stores, other pizza components are not all that Papa John's would like you to believe them to be. The company doesn't list its full ingredients anywhere, but they are printed on the distribution boxes coming into the stores. According to photos of labels sent to me by a former Papa John's store employee, the ingredients in the company's "100 percent real cheese" include modified food starch, whey protein concentrate, sodium citrate and the preservative sodium propionate, all of which are not ingredients with any business in real cheese, mozzarella or otherwise. Papa John's says its "real" designation refers to just the actual cheese, not the cheese blend recipe, which is like saying that Taco Bell's caramel apple empanada is 100 percent real apples. Please ignore all of the other ingredients.

[Read: 5 Food Package Claims That Deserve a Double Take.]

Some of the other information Papa John's gives out to customers about its food is also potentially misleading and might give the impression that its ingredients are a lot more special than they are. The company, for instance, refers to the fact that its tomatoes are grown in "the rich, fertile valleys of California" as if this were a distinction. No less than half of all U.S.-grown produce comes from California. The statement that Papa John's dough uses "high-protein flour" in the pizza dough appears to leverage the fact that most people don't have a technical understanding of wheat varieties. High-protein flour is the standard for pizza dough because of the need for a chewy, crispy crust.

Then there's the claim that Papa John's bell peppers and onions are "sourced locally," which if true is a huge achievement for a company with more than 4,000 stores. Locally grown food has been a big trend in recent years and, while the term has no set definition, many people consider it to be food grown within 200 miles of where it is purchased or eaten by the consumer. Under the widest definition, it is food grown within the same state. For its local sourcing, Papa John's may be applying its own special definition. A former store employee in Louisiana sent me photos of boxes of bell peppers coming from Gilroy, Calif. and onions coming from Las Cruces, N.M. (For the record, Las Cruces is 1,000 miles from that Louisiana store and Gilroy is 2,000 miles.) Another former employee in Arizona said their peppers came from California. I asked Papa John's what it meant for its produce to be locally sourced.

"Our produce is sourced the closest distance possible to our distribution centers," the company wrote in an email.

Sorry Papa John's, but if "the closest distance possible" means thousands of miles away, that's not locally grown.

I'd like to be able to champion Papa John's food. When food companies go the extra mile to provide higher quality or healthier fare, they should be applauded. And while I appreciate that Papa John's doesn't use vacuum-packed vegetables or preservatives in its dough, it's hard to get excited about a company that doesn't carry its principles all the way through, or at least doesn't tell us why they're unable to. I'm part of a growing subset of Americans who are interested in eating food that's free of strange, barely edible additives and food that doesn't taste like it's been manufactured to death. Perhaps one day Papa John's will honor us by actually publishing all of its ingredients.

[Read: Why Is Everyone Always Giving My Kids Junk Food?]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Melanie Warner is a freelance journalist who writes about the food industry. Her book on processed food, Pandora's Lunchbox, was published by Scribner in February 2013. She has worked as a reporter for the New York Times, a senior writer at Fortune magazine, and a blogger for CBSNews.com. Melanie lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and their two boys. Follow her on Twitter or visit her website.