The gut health market is growing, driven predominantly by yogurt shots from household names like Dannon, but if the vision and plans of a New Orleans-based archaeologist-turned-entrepreneur come to fruition, the gut-health market could soon be colonized by pizzas.
Naked Pizza started in 2006 and is the brainchild of Jeff Leach, an archaeologist by trade and head of Paleobiotics Lab, a New Mexico-based independent research group investigating the implications of dietary and nutritional evolution and its bearing on modern health.
His knowledge of prebiotics and probiotics led him into a collaboration with business partner Randy Crochet to turn an unhealthy and popular fast food into a healthier and more nutritious product “in a truly meaningful way”.
“I didn’t go into this because I wanted to go into the pizza business,” he said. “The health of America is in free fall,” said Leach.
“What we do in America is sit around talking about posting nutrition labels and calories on restaurant menus. That is not going to change the health of the nation.
“What we have done is come up with a viable concept that makes money and that consumers will embrace,” he said.
Three years and $750,000 later and the company is on the cusp of a major expansion nationwide. Plans are afoot to expand into Europe and the rest of the world.
The power of the crust
Formulating pizza bases with prebiotics and probiotics poses financial and technological challenges, says Leach. The main issue with probiotics and prebiotics is that the ingredients are very expensive, he said, which is why most people don’t do it. “The cost is a barrier to entry,” he said.
The price of the pizza depends on what you order, said Leach. “Naked Pizza is consistent with our competitors with a slight premium given the quality and freshness of the ingredients and the addition of pre- and probiotics.”
Furthermore, there is the technological aspect – like proving that the strains are still viable after baking. A pizza is baked at 500 °C for four minutes, and Leach said that his tests showed that there was no degradation. When quizzed on whether this data has been published, Leach replies: “No published data - yet.”
The pizza crust is formulated with 12 types of whole grain, including amaranth and buckwheat, and fortified with Beneo Orafti’s Synergy1 prebiotic, and Ganeden’s heat resistant Bacillus coagulans strain, said Leach.
A two-slice serving delivers a Bacillus coagulans payload of one billion colony forming units (cfu) and five grams of Synergy1, he said.
The growth of gut-friendly pizzas
The company currently has one outlet in New Orleans. An ambitious and aggressive expansion is planned, with 400 to 500 Naked Pizza franchises planned over the next year. By summer 2010 Leach expects 50 fully operational franchises open across the continental US.
Leach draws comparison to the well-known pizza franchise Papa John’s. “We copied 98 percent of their model. But there is 2 percent of our DNA that is different. But the DNA of chimps and humans differ by only one percent and they are quite different beasts,” he said.
Not content to be a food outlet, Leach and Crochet are now eyeing the home cooks, and are expanding into grocery stores. “We’ve already started this project,” said Leach. “The goodness is in the dough, so what we are doing is to launch frozen dough blanks. Consumers can buy these and put their own sauce, cheese and topping on it.” These are already developed, he said, and a test in the north east US is under way.
Despite the relative success to date, Leach said he has had no enquiries from big food companies. Some companies do not operate in a way that is consistent with Naked Pizza’s missions, he said. “Maybe [we could do business with] the Nestlés of this world because they already have an interest in gut health,” said Leach.
Everyone likes to say the word ‘naked’
So why Naked Pizza? “We started with World’s Healthiest Pizza,” said Leach, “but that scared the hell out of people.” The indication being that people would be eating a pizza that tasted like tree bark, he says. The naked part originates from the concept of natural, additive-free eating and ‘living naked’.