Americans consume several billion pizzas each year. More than eight in 10 consumers eat pizza at least once a month, and about half of them are slicing a pie once a week, according to Technomic research. Pizza clearly is one of America’s favorite go-to comfort foods.

Recipe innovation is at the forefront of product development, and to win new customers, traditional combinations (featuring such standbys as pepperoni, sausage, or mushrooms) are giving up space to new meat combinations, as well as novel vegetable crusts, sauces, plant-based toppings, other natural ingredients and spices sourced from the world’s cuisines. 

Another growing category of spirited pizza experimentation is breakfast pizza. According to the product research group Datassential, breakfast pizza popularity is expected to grow 15% in the next four years. Their report also weighed in on the flavor fusion trend, finding that global flavors have seen a 58% jump in menu appearances. Examples range from Mexican, Hawaiian, and Greek to Japanese-American (teriyaki), Korean, and Thai.

The flavor trend has even entered the convenience store space, with one chain launching a beef brisket pizza that includes barbecue sauce, jalapeños, red onion, and ranch dressing. While the unique offering seemingly resonates with consumers, its longevity remains to be seen. Less envelope-pushing but just as creative are dessert pizzas, with toppings such as s’mores and brownies, often on a cookie crust.

Creative Platform

The crust is the key for a good quality pizza. No matter how premium the toppings and sauce are, if the dough is sub-par, the pizza will fail. Technomic has ranked the most popular crusts among consumers as hand-tossed (53%), deep dish/pan (44%), stuffed (39%), and thin (39%). But there are plenty of emerging crust alternatives that are serving up new flavors and BFY (better-for-you) options.

Cauliflower crust, for example, landed a few years ago and rapidly proved to be extremely popular. So much so, it is now the preferred crust of 12% of consumers surveyed. Overall, alternative crusts are found to appeal to nearly a third of all consumers and 41% of Millennials, according to Datassential.

Other BFY crusts gaining traction are those made from chickpea flour, broccoli, tapioca (cassava), and almond flour. These crusts are prized not only for their perceived health benefits but also because they address the continued demand for gluten-free pizza options. While there are numerous rice flour-based gluten-free pizzas, these new legume, nut, root, and vegetable-based versions offer the added marketing point of being grain-free.

In the non-BFY crust arena, stuffed crusts have continued to increase in popularity (see “Fill it Up!”, below), with most forms being cheese-filled. However, more creative developers are filling crusts with other ingredients, ranging from hot dogs and sausage crumbles to pesto and extra sauce. In addition, unconventional crusts such as croissant, Parmesan, and even chicken are increasingly supporting pizza toppings.

Fill it Up!

One of the most popular pizza crusts is stuffed crust, which has been the No. 1 most requested pizza style by many customers. The pizza trend shows more is more, and consumers are seeking more cheese, sauce, and toppings. Overall, however, stuffed crust remains a missed opportunity for pizza makers, Datassential noted. Only 19% of pizza-serving operators offer stuffed crust pizza. More than half of consumers (56%) say they are “extremely” or “very” interested in stuffed crust pizzas, and 72% of millennials find it appealing.

Tops in Toppings

New flavors and other innovations have been exploding on the pizza scene lately, adding much-needed excitement to the pizza category. These enhancements have injected new life into pizza, driving excitement, refreshing the shelves, and bringing new consumers to supermarket pizza aisles.

Mixing things up in the frozen pizza category is the new paradigm, with global flavor mash-ups signaling a fearless attitude among developers to try anything. Some recent examples of flavor fusions—some successful, some not so—that have been tried include Asian-style orange chicken, taco pizza, “Buffalo-style” chicken, mac-‘n’-cheese, black bean and corn salsa, North African harissa, barbecue, Philly cheesesteak, and even pickles. Superfoods like avocado, fire-roasted peppers, kale, and arugula are among the fastest-growing toppings. On the opposite end of the BFY spectrum, bacon as a pizza topping is trending up again.

And let’s not forget the cheese. While mozzarella remains the single most popular pizza cheese, the artisanal cheese trend has thoroughly infiltrated pizza products. It no longer is uncommon to find pizzas dressed with cheeses such as Asiago, Romano, fresh bufala mozzarella, and fontina—or even blue cheese, cheddar, or Gruyère. Goat cheese, too, is trending up again, especially in varieties other than the classic chèvre.

Focus on Faux

The “plant-based” trend has hit the world of pizza toppings, as consumers are reaching for more vegetable-forward pizzas and plant-based meat and dairy analogs are facilitating the rapid expansion of vegan pizza products. Non-dairy cheeses are now sophisticated enough that many of them come close to matching not only the flavor but the melting, stretching, and browning capabilities of a dairy mozzarella or provolone with surprising accuracy.

In fact, according to the Datassential report “vegan” is the fastest-growing pizza type by far, nearly doubling on menus in only the past three years. When it comes to toppings, 29% of total consumers are interested in plant-based alternatives, 37% of Gen-Z, and 43% of Millennials are specifically interested in meat substitutes.

Pizza manufacturers focus on flavor and texture, of course, but also on color. The visual factor is one of the biggest selling points, which means the red sauce must be spot-on, visibly shining through the toppings and cheese. The focus on healthier choices in frozen prepared foods has mainly manifested in replacing artificial ingredients and preservatives with natural ones. For red sauce, this means a high-quality tomato base that has a rich red color that signals flavor.

For some of the newly trending pizza product sauces outside of tomato—such as pestos and white sauces (think: Alfredo)—color remains a key seller, demanding natural ingredients that maintain their clean and bright visual appeal from bench to table.

Convenience, comfort, and quick gratification are critical factors in pizza purchases. Consumers will be looking for products differentiated as “healthier” choices, but they also need to know up front that the pizzas they buy contain high-quality, naturally sourced ingredients. Consumer preferences are changing, so pizzas are changing too, as evidenced by the vegan options, keto crusts, and more artisan-style pizzas.

Millennials have been identified as core purchasers of frozen pizza. Their busy lifestyles, which now include balancing career and family, make convenient meal solutions a priority. Since this is also a food-savvy generation, many manufacturers are using flavor and nutrition innovations to attract the attention of this coveted demographic.

Pizza makers are among the most adventurous culinary artists, starting with a “blank canvas” crust and choosing from an infinite array of colorful, flavorful toppings. Another advantage: The speed with which a new formulation can go from ideation to production. These advantages mean consumers can expect to be treated to a continuous array of new variations of this great comfort classic.

Editor’s note: I wish to thank Mike Levinson, RDN, Director of Sales for Palermo Villa, Inc. (Palermo’s Pizza) for his immense and invaluable inspiration, and hand-tossed help with this article.

David Feder, RDN, Executive Editor–Technical, has been a food and nutrition journalist for more than 35 years, and with Prepared Foods since 2011. The former professional chef and nutrition biochemist lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, son, and an unfathomably spoiled wiener dog named Teeny. He says that his wife makes the best pizza ever.

How Convenient

Frozen pizza is doing well at convenience stores, with unit sales up 9% in the channel, and dollar sales up 21%, according to a recent IRI report. Driving the sales are heat-and-go capabilities at some forward-thinking stores, as well as offerings made for all parts of the day. By coupling those innovations with inventive flavors and BFY options pizza makers will continue to drive sales and excitement.