In the late 1970s, the pizza chain, known as Pizza Hut, was in the process of changing its name to Rocky’s Pizza.
Its pizza had a darker, rougher texture, more crust, and more meat.
It was better.
But, the company soon discovered, the darker texture of the dough itself could be bad for you.
In 1976, the New York Times reported that a Rocky’s pizza had “more salt than butter, more moisture than fat, and an unusually high acid content” and was “a very high risk of gastric ulceration.”
The crust itself was a “very high risk” of bacterial overgrowth, the Times said.
But a decade later, the story had changed.
The Times had a new investigator, who found that the crusts at Rocky’s were actually “far more delicate” and “generally less prone to bacterial over-growth than those made by other chains.”
In the early 1990s, a group of doctors led by Robert F. Fink, MD, a gastroenterologist, conducted a clinical trial of Rocky’s pizzas and discovered that “the average pH of the crust is around 6.2, with the average pH at the top being more acidic.”
It’s a pH of about 3.4.
This means that a pizza made from the Rocky’s dough has about 2.5 times the acidity of a crust made from a regular pizza.
Fisk and his team also noted that Rocky’s had “a relatively high concentration of bacteria compared to other chains, which suggests that they may be more susceptible to gastric disease.”
That’s not the case with most crusts, but Rocky’s was not among them.
In 2002, the FDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a report on Rocky’s that was “more critical” of the company.
The study found that, “most people who experience stomach upset at eating a Rocky are not necessarily aware of the severity of their symptoms.”
For instance, Fisk wrote that one person who reported experiencing stomach upset was “slightly over-dosed with drugs,” and another person who was “over-drugged” was “severely over-sedated.”
That meant that, for most people, a Rocky might be good for a week or two, but it could go on for months or even years.
Rocky’s wasn’t a good choice.
In fact, it was one of the first chains to receive a “yellow light” warning from the FDA for its high levels of salt, which Fisk said “could be the source of the illness.”
The FDA was concerned that the “dangerous” nature of the salt could lead to anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction in which people become hypersensitive to certain foods, and, as a result, develop food allergies.
But the agency didn’t give Rocky’s any yellow lights, instead saying that it would have to go through an extensive safety evaluation to find out if the company’s food safety was good.
“The FDA’s findings on Rocky are based on an investigation that found that Rocky had not been adequately tested for salinity, acidity, pH, and other aspects of the Rocky doughs,” the FDA wrote in a statement at the time.
“We have been conducting a number of safety assessments of Rocky over the years to ensure Rocky is meeting the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act, and we are confident that Rocky is safe and nutritious.”
And the FDA’s report noted that “no evidence has yet been found that suggests Rocky’s products cause any other serious illness or death.”
The report also noted: “In contrast, the majority of Rocky products tested had high levels or concentrations of sodium, potassium, and calcium, which may contribute to the adverse effects observed.”
The same year the FDA reported that Rocky was “unsafe,” the company filed a lawsuit against the FDA, alleging that it had violated federal law by failing to provide adequate warnings to consumers about the salinity of the products.
In a case that was later settled, Rocky settled with the FDA in 2012 for $14.5 million, which included a $5.25 million payment for any medical claims that the company made about its products.