There’s a timeless Bill Cosby standup routine about cake–specifically, letting his kids eat chocolate cake for breakfast after considering that the ingredients are mostly healthy: eggs, flour, and milk. It’s hilarious because Cosby had a point. Cake is almost a health food. But of course, because of all that sugar and fat, it’s not.
Such Cosby logic fuels the fundamental approach of Eat Balanced, a company created by ex-triathlete and M.D. Donnie Maclean. Eat Balanced has created a 600-calorie pizza in the U.K. that they say is healthy enough (low in fats and sodium, and high in protein, fiber, and 40+ other nutrients) to be eaten three times a day.
“Who’s going to cook a pizza, eat a quarter, and leave the rest?” asks Maclean, calling out manufacturers who hide high calorie and fat counts by making portion sizes unrealistically small. “Our concept is a relatively small pizza, but you shouldn’t feel like you need another one when you finish, because high protein and fiber give you satiety.”
“But does it taste good?” you might ask. We haven’t tried it for ourselves, but the pizzas are made with the natural crispy and full-fat ingredients that make pizza appealing. Just check the ingredient list for yourself:
Unbleached, untreated wheat flour (white and wholemeal), water, crushed tomatoes (18%), mozzarella and cheddar cheeses (13%), cherry tomato (12%), red pepper, rapeseed oil, yeast, Seagreens® seaweed, oregano, salt and garlic powder.
Nothing funky, right? Except for one odd twist: Seaweed, which has been added to replace salt while boosting iodine and B12.
“Once you apply the toppings, the flavor and smell of the seaweed is gone,” Maclean assures us.
The product was designed in part by University of Glasgow professor (and aptly named nutritionist) Mike Lean–whose research has affected policy for both WHO and the NHS. Together, Maclean and Lean analyzed 25 different frozen pizzas, identifying the components that made a relatively simple combination of bread, tomatoes, and cheese so gut-busting.
“The Italian origins of pizza were straightforward. There were few ingredients, and they weren’t dripping with cheese, so it was about the quality of ingredients,” Maclean explains. “It’s actually the Americans that corrupted pizza–obviously we’re not going to have hot dogs stuffed in the crust.”
A cheap shot at American cuisine? Maybe. But dairy subsidies have given the U.S. an affordable cheese surplus, which make their way into all of the “it’s not delivery!” frozen pizzas at the supermarket. Cutting back on the cheese was the simplest way to make the product healthier and, as a bonus, cheaper to produce. But maintaining the traditional ingredients–in moderation–was key to the product’s authenticity.
“I focused on flavor. It’s full-fat mozzarella and we’ve got some serious mature cheddar,” Maclean says. “But it’s a relatively small amount.”
As they tweaked the recipe, the team fed pizza prototypes to roughly 20,000 people before launch. Their big strategic mistake is one that they spotted early: keep the toppings familiar. When they added unusual and healthy toppings, it tended to rub people the wrong way. In the pizza world, they couldn’t buck convention.
“There was one recipe that was sort of Mexican themed, spicy, and with sweet corn and also kidney beans for protein and fiber,” Maclean tells us. “But as soon as you put kidney bean under a grill or in an oven, the skin burst, and it starts to look like a little creature.”
Instead, the flavors they opted for–like cheese and cherry tomato, or ham and pineapple–look a lot like pizza you are used to. And that’s entirely the point.
“If I were to make a broccoli and cabbage pizza, no one would want it,” Maclean says.
Now, with about a year of market experience under their belt, Eat Balanced is turning its attention to recruiting young eaters. Next, they will release a line prepared specifically with kids in mind. For this market, their psychological hacks–to package a healthy product in a junk food package–take great care not to raise the suspicion of young eaters. They call it “health by stealth,” in that a child doesn’t care if a product is “healthy,” only that it tastes good.
“Kids are naturally fussy,” Maclean says. “If they see something green or red, they’ll try to pick it off without trying it.”
In this regard, Maclean is on a crusade. He wants to make sure kids consume all those healthy ingredients in theie pizza. So the upcoming kid’s line will feature no toppings that could just end up in the trash, and since many children won’t like crusts, they’ve simply eliminated that part of the pizza by running sauce end-to-end.
Eventually, Maclean would like Eat Balanced to be a true, three-a-day meal program (including breakfast foods, etc), and they’re sitting on recipes for a product line expansion to make that happen. But in the meantime, Eat Balanced is still fighting for shelf space across the U.K. while trying to find a U.S. partner to license and distribute their pizzas.
“A lot of people assume that as soon as you’re in the supermarket, you’re going to drive a Ferrari at the end of the year,” Maclean says. “But when you’re in the supermarket, you have to fight even harder to compete with the thousands of products that are screaming at every customer when they’re going up and down the aisle.”