sealPurdue News

November 2001

Purdue researcher finds pizza is food for body and mind

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – A Purdue University nutrition researcher has turned children’s seemingly unending appetite for pizza into an interactive educational tool.

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The Pizza Explorer, a CD-ROM, will soon make its Web debut on the Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum site.

Pith-helmeted cartoon character Peter Oliver Pizzaro "P.O.P." guides users through pizza history, nutrients, chemical content, food science and reasons scientists investigate the health benefits of foods used as toppings.

For instance, 100 grams of mushrooms contains just 28 calories but more than twice the amount of protein (2.7 grams) as most fruits and vegetables, though less than meat. The same weight of olives has 129 calories but only 1.1 grams of protein. Scientists are studying both vegetables for their possible anticancer benefits and olives also for their possible contribution to preventing heart problems related to cholesterol.

Bruce A. Watkins, a Purdue food science professor, concocted the idea a couple of years ago. Watkins, who also is director of the university’s Center for Enhancing Food to Protect Health, envisioned a CD-ROM about the chemistry and nutritional composition of our chow. He took his idea to the Institute for Food Technologists (IFT), which recommended Watkins write a traditional book and suggested he might produce an accompanying CD-ROM.

The institute provided seed money for the work and added impetus to Watkins’ desire to develop an interactive, teen-friendly, computer-based educational tool. The result is The Pizza Explorer, which Purdue has copyrighted and provided for use to IFT and the Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum.

"I thought that kids could relate to pizza, and it would entice them to look at a CD about nutrition and chemistry," Watkins said. "We included activities that would engage them and lead them through the learning process. After all, what kid wants to read a book about food chemistry?"

The partnership between Watkins and the National Health Museum developed when Vivianlee Ward and Kathy Liu of the museum’s Web site for "teachers and learners," Access Excellence, approached IFT about collaborating with the organization to more widely disseminate its learning tools. The institute suggested The Pizza Explorer.

"We thought this was a very interesting approach," said Ward, project director of the 7-year-old Access Excellence, which came under the auspices of the National Health Museum two years ago. "The Pizza Explorer has the potential to interest students who might otherwise fall through the cracks because they aren’t challenged in class."

Liu said pizza was a good science education vehicle because many of the ingredients remain identifiable. In addition, Liu and Ward, both trained as science teachers, agreed it would be especially effective on the Web.

"It’s an example of the multimedia capabilities of the Web," said Liu. The Pizza Explorer also could give students ideas about potential career paths built on their interest in science, she said.

After talking with the two women, Watkins agreed to adapt the program for Internet use. After some experimenting and refinement for technical requirements, Liu and Ward plan to have The Pizza Explorer in full operation on the Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum site by Nov. 5.

The gray-haired, mustached "P.O.P.," who bears a striking resemblance to Watkins, challenges students and adults to an interactive game and a quiz based on the knowledge gained through use of The Pizza Explorer. Meanwhile his cartoon nemesis, "Azzip," attempts to thwart the completion of these tasks.

Though using pizza to teach biochemistry and food science was Watkins’ brainchild, he didn’t do it alone. His wife, Cynthia Watkins, a licensed teacher, made the written sections classroom-friendly. Purdue Department of Computer Graphics Technology lecturer and former graduate student Kellen Maicher developed the visuals and gave them life. Department of Food Science multimedia technical specialist Kevin Hamstra led the development of the new flash Web version of The Pizza Explorer.

Watkins also plans new versions of The Pizza Explorer tailored for different age groups. The current version is aimed at middle and high school-age youngsters, but Watkins says it can be modified for other groups, such as senior citizens.

Teachers interested in previewing The Pizza Explorer should contact Watkins, view it on the Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum site, or on the Center for Enhancing Foods to Protect Health Web site.

Writer: Susan A. Steeves, (765) 496-7481,

Sources: Bruce A. Watkins, 765-494-5802,

Vivianlee Ward and Kathy Liu, 650-712-1723

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes,;

Peter Oliver Pizzare, "P.O.P.," is the guide through the food science of pizza, a CD-ROM and a Web version developed by nutrition researcher Bruce Watkins and his team at Purdue University. The interactive educational tool, called The Pizza Explorer, is designed for middle and high school students. (The Pizza Explorer, artist Kellen Maicher, copyright Purdue University)

A publication-quality graphic is available at

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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