by Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
VRG Research Director
The VRG received an email asking us to confirm which pizzas at Papa
John’s were vegetarian or vegan. Our online reader had seen conflicting
information and hoped we could clarify it for her.
Papa John’s is one of the largest pizza chains in the United States
today with approximately 4,200 corporate-owned and franchised locations
in all fifty states and thirty-five countries since its opening in 1984.
The VRG spoke with an employee in the Research & Development Department
at the Papa John’s corporate office in February and March 2014.
We learned that the original dough is all-vegetable. Here is its
ingredient statement along with that for the dustinator used when making
Pizza Dough: Unbleached enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, malted barley
flour, wheat starch, ascorbic acid, enzyme, niacin, iron as ferrous
sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, sugar,
soybean oil, salt, yeast [fungal or bacterial derivatives – NO animal
derivatives]. No trans fat.
Dustinator: Wheat flour, semolina, soybean oil.
The thin crust dough at Papa John’s contains a dairy ingredient:
Thin Crust: Unbleached Flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour), water,
soybean oil, cultured wheat starch, yeast, salt, natural and artificial
flavors (milk), dextrose, calcium propionate (preservative) and soy
The R&D staff member at Papa John’s told us that “L-cysteine is not used
in the pizza doughs…There is no cheese dusted on the crust or baked into
The pizza sauce at Papa John’s is all-vegetable. Its ingredient
statement reads as follows:
Pizza Sauce: Vine-ripened fresh tomatoes, sunflower oil, sugar, salt,
spices [oregano, black pepper, basil], garlic*, extra virgin olive oil
and citric acid. *Dehydrated
A question on the Papa John’s website FAQ page concerns whether animal
fats are used in the sauce. Papa John’s response: “We do not use animal
fats…in our sauce.” (Source)
The most frequently used cheese at Papa John’s is mozzarella. Here is
its ingredient statement:
Cheese: Part-skim mozzarella cheese (pasteurized milk, cultures, salt,
enzymes [chymax – NOT animal derived]), modified food starch [derived
from corn], powdered cellulose (added to prevent caking), whey protein
concentrate, sodium citrate, sodium propionate (added as a preservative).
We were told by Papa John’s that the three-cheese and the two-cheese
blends used on select pizzas contain cheese made with animal rennet. The
small packets of Parmesan cheese are also non-vegetarian for this reason
according to a Papa John’s R&D employee.
Cheese – Three cheese blend: Provolone, Fontina, Fresh Asiago Cheese
(Pasteurized Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Powdered Cellulose
added to prevent caking.
Cheese – Two cheese blend: Parmesan/Romano: Cultured Milk, Enzymes,
Salt, Cellulose to prevent caking, Natamycin to protect flavor.
The last question on Papa John’s FAQ page concerns vegetarian options. The website states:
“The popular Papa John’s vegetarian pizzas are the Garden Fresh pizza
and Spinach Alfredo pizza…You can always build your own vegetarian pizza
to your personal preferences.”
The website description of the Garden Fresh pizza reads as follows:
A veggie lover’s delight! Our Garden Fresh pizza is covered with pizza
sauce then layered with fresh-sliced onions & green peppers, gourmet
baby portabella mushrooms, ripe black olives, fresh sliced Roma tomatoes
and 100% real cheese made from mozzarella.
We asked Papa John’s if the Garden Fresh Pizza could be ordered without
the cheese. Here’s the response we received: You can customize any pizza.
We have many customers who order the Garden Fresh pizza with our tomato
pizza sauce, the vegetables and no cheese.
Papa John’s also offers a Spinach Alfredo Pizza. Its website description: Delicious doesn’t have to be complicated. This irresistible pizza has a rich and creamy blend of spinach and garlic Parmesan Alfredo sauce.
We asked Papa John’s if the Spinach Alfredo pizza is made with one or
both of the cheese blends containing animal rennet. We were told that
“only mozzarella” cheese is on this pizza.
The VRG also asked “Does the Parmesan sauce on the Spinach Alfredo Pizza
contain Parmesan cheese made with animal rennet?” We received this
reply: “Spinach Alfredo Sauce does not contain animal rennet.” (Papa
John’s bolded “does not contain animal rennet.”)
We asked: Can the Spinach Alfredo Pizza be ordered without the Parmesan
Papa John’s told us: The sauce has Parmesan Cheese in it. You can order
the pizza without the sauce. However, the sauce does not contain animal rennet.
The ingredient statement for the Parmesan Alfredo sauce:
Spinach Alfredo Sauce: Skim Milk, Spinach, Cheese Blend [Cream Cheese
(Pasteurized Cultured Milk and Cream, Salt, Stabilizers (Xanthan, Carob
and/or Guar Gum), Cheddar Cheese (Pasteurized Milk, Skim Milk, Cheese
Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Parmesan Cheese (Pasteurized Part-Skim Milk,
Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Romano Cheese (Pasteurized Sheep's
Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes)], Canola Oil, Whey, Natural Flavor
(Contains Milk and Soy Lecithin), Contains 2% or less of the following:
Modified Food Starch, Salt, Maltodextrin, Flavor Enhancer (Hydrolyzed
Soy Protein, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Canola Oil, Natural Flavor), Corn
Syrup, Cultured Milk Powder, Garlic, Sugar, Spice, DATEM, Mono- &
Diglycerides, Xanthan Gum, Dextrose, Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum,
Carrageenan, Caramel Color, Lactic Acid, Citric Acid, Annatto (Color).
*Product does not contain animal rennet
The VRG also asked Papa John’s about kitchen protocols to keep meat,
meat products and dairy separate from vegetables and the original dough.
Here are our questions and Papa John’s responses:
Q: Can you comment on how well kitchen staff keep meats and meat
products away from vegetable-based ingredients/menu items?
A: Products (meats, cheeses, veggies) are opened and placed into
separate, clean and sanitized covered Lexan pans. They are then stored
in the refrigerator.
Q: Are there strict protocols in place regarding utensils, pans, bowls,
cutting surfaces, placement in cold storage, etc.?
A: All Lexan pans, utensils, and cutting surfaces are clean and
sanitized between uses.
Q: Could the same pizza cutter be used to slice an all-vegetable pizza
after slicing a pizza covered with meat products or even after slicing a
A: Separate pizza cutters are used for products with different
sauces. An all-vegetable pizza could be sliced with the same pizza
cutter as used to slice a cheese pizza or a meat topping pizza.
Q: Are cutters always sanitized between uses?
A: Pizza cutters must be washed every two hours, or anytime after
cutting a pizza with jalapeno peppers, anchovies, or banana peppers.
Q: Do you have separate pans used to bake thin crust pizzas and others
to bake original dough pizza?
A: Our pizzas are baked on pizza screens (as opposed to pizza pans). We
do not have separate screens for original and thin crust pizzas.
Q: If the same pans are used for both doughs, are the pans sanitized
A: Pizzas are baked on carefully “seasoned” pizza screens. Placing of
the seasoned pizza screens in water will cause sticking of the crusts to
The VRG asked Papa John’s if a patron could request that only a newly
sanitized pizza cutter be used to slice a pizza made to order without
the cheese. We received this reply:
Yes, you can certainly ask the manager on duty to do this for you. Our
store team members are most happy to help our customers with special
requests for cutting their pizza.
For more information on fast food and quick casual restaurant chains
visit: The VRG website.
The contents of this article, our website, and our other publications,
including The Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal
medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified
health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient
information from company employees or company statements. Information
does change and mistakes are always possible. Please use your own best
judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. Further research
or confirmation may be warranted.