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Home arrow Nutrition arrow Healthy Eating arrow Is Pesto Healthy? Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

Is Pesto Healthy? Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

HR_author_photo_Edna
Fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
Last update: January 15, 2024
8 min read 942 Views 0 Comments
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Pesto is a traditional Italian recipe made with fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, parmesan cheese, and pine nuts. But is it healthy?

is pesto healthy

Pesto is one of the most popular condiments around. It’s versatile, sweet, and goes well with a variety of foods, including pasta, sandwiches, and salads.

Pesto can provide several potential health benefits due to its composition of nutrient-rich ingredients. However, as with all foods, it’s important to consider the nutritional value and serving size to determine if it’s a healthy addition to your diet.

This article covers everything you need to know about pesto, including its health benefits, different types, and delicious recipes you can use every week.

Is Pesto Healthy?

Pesto can be a healthy food option when consumed in moderation and made with wholesome ingredients. Basil, the main ingredient, is a nutrient-dense herb rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.

Olive oil, another key ingredient in pesto, contains healthy monounsaturated fats to help reduce the risk of heart disease. Pine nuts are a good source of protein, fiber, and healthy fats, while cheese provides calcium and protein.

However, store-bought pesto can often contain added preservatives and salt, diminishing pesto’s health benefits. Additionally, pesto can be high in calories and fat due to the large amounts of oil and cheese used.

What Is Pesto? 

Pesto is a thick, green, aromatic sauce made by crushing fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, and extra virgin olive oil in a food processor or mortar and pestle. 

Pesto originated in Genoa, Italy. The word “pesto” is an Italian word meaning to crush or pound.

This tasty sauce is often used as a condiment or seasoning for pasta dishes, sandwiches, soups, and salads. It’s a versatile sauce that can add depth and complexity to many dishes.

Although a mortar and pestle is still an option, modern home cooks may find it more convenient to blend the ingredients in a blender.

Types of pesto

While the classic pesto recipe includes basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, and olive oil, many variations of pesto incorporate different herbs, nuts, and cheeses. 

If you don’t have basil leaves, you can use fresh herbs or leafy greens like spinach, Tuscan or baby kale, Thai basil, arugula, parsley, or oregano leaves.

You can also make a sun-dried tomato pesto by sun-drying tomatoes, garlic, basil, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil.

If you want to be creative and add more creaminess to your pesto, you can blend the flesh of an avocado with basil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and oil.

When preparing it at home, you can change these ingredients. You may leave out the cheese or use nutritional yeast if you’re vegan. You can also switch up the nuts you use. If you don’t eat nuts, leave them out or substitute them with sunflower or pumpkin seeds.

5 Health Benefits of Pesto 

Not only does pesto taste great, but it also has many health benefits, from reducing inflammation to providing essential vitamins and minerals. Learn how you can benefit from this condiment.

#1 Good for your heart 

Pesto contains heart-healthy ingredients such as olive oil and pine nuts, which are good sources of monounsaturated fats. Foods rich in monounsaturated fats can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the blood and reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Olive oil also has cardiovascular benefits. You may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by replacing other high-fat foods such as butter, margarine, mayonnaise, and dairy with it.

Pesto contains basil, a good source of vitamin K, an important nutrient for heart health. Vitamin K helps regulate blood clotting and prevent calcification of the arteries, which can lead to heart disease. 

#2 Good for diabetes 

In addition to pesto being a low GI food, oleuropein, a polyphenol found in olive oil, an ingredient in pesto, may promote the health of the beta cells that produce insulin. The hormone insulin lowers blood sugar levels, and oleuropein is also linked to better insulin sensitivity

Research likewise suggests that olive oil is related to a considerably decreased incidence of type 2 diabetes. Garlic, an ingredient in pesto, is also essential for controlling blood sugar levels

Of course, your blood sugar may increase if you eat pesto with white pasta. Still, when combined with other supportive foods in the right amounts, pesto may lower blood sugar levels.

#3 Good for your skin 

Tomatoes are used to make a certain type of pesto called pesto alla Trapanese. These vegetables are a good source of vitamins A and C, which are good for the skin. They make your skin look younger and help with collagen formation. They can also enhance liver function and assist with body detoxification. 

Olive oil in pesto can also help keep your skin hydrated and moisturized. Additionally, pesto is rich in garlic, which is known for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. These properties can help reduce inflammation in the skin and prevent acne and other skin irritations.

#4 Lowers blood pressure 

The garlic in pesto can help lower blood pressure by increasing the body’s nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide contributes to the widening of arteries, also known as vasodilation, which lowers blood pressure.

Consuming a lot of salt can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure. Reducing salt intake can be accomplished by using flavorful herbs like basil and spices in your regular diet. Basil and olive oil also have flavonoids, which have been shown to help lower blood pressure by enhancing blood vessel function and decreasing inflammation.

#5 Fights inflammation 

Basil is a common ingredient in traditional pesto, and it’s believed to contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory qualities that strengthen the immune system. Basil is also antibacterial and is often used in natural cold and flu treatments. 

Is Pesto Good for Weight Loss? 

Pesto can be a healthy addition to a weight loss diet, but consuming it in moderation and as part of a balanced diet is essential. 

Pesto contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, which can help you feel full and satiated. This may help you eat fewer calories overall and support weight loss. 

Pesto, a traditional Italian dish, is consumed as part of a Mediterranean diet. According to research, following a Mediterranean diet can result in long-term changes in weight and waist size.

Studies also suggest that those who consume more olive oil in their diet have lower BMIs and a lower risk of dying from any cause.

However, pesto is also high in calories and fat, so watching your portion sizes is important. 

Additionally, some store-bought pesto varieties may contain added salts or fillers, so it’s important to read the labels and choose a high-quality, fresh pesto made with simple ingredients or make it yourself at home.

Nutrition Facts of Pesto 

Pesto is a great source of healthy fats and antioxidants. It also contains vitamins A and C and minerals such as calcium and iron. Here is its nutritional value per 100g, as provided by the USDA.  

  • Calories: 464kcal
  • Carbohydrates: 3.57g
  • Fat: 46.43g
  • Protein: 7.14g
  • Sodium: 786mg
  • Calcium: 214mg
  • Vitamin A: 1429 IU
  • Vitamin C: 150mg
  • Fatty acids (saturated): 7.14g
  • Cholesterol: 18mg
  • Iron: 1.29mg

High in unsaturated fat 

Pesto contains a lot of unsaturated fat, which is a healthy fat. It has 46.43g of fat, which are monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids, shown to help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Low in carbs

Pesto does not contain enough carbohydrates or dietary fiber. A 100g serving of pesto contains almost 4g of carbohydrates. This makes pesto a suitable option for people who need to limit their carbohydrate intake, such as those with diabetes or following a low-carbohydrate diet.

Moderate amount of protein

Pesto is not considered a major source of protein. A 100g serving of pesto contains 7g of protein. While this is not a large amount, it can contribute to your daily protein needs when consumed as part of a balanced diet. 

However, other sources such as lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, and nuts may be more appropriate to increase your protein intake.

Rich in minerals 

Pesto can be rich in minerals. It contains 214mg of calcium, 786mg of sodium, and 1.29mg of iron. 

Good source of antioxidants

Pesto contains several ingredients that are rich in antioxidants. Basil is a good source of flavonoids, while olive oil contains polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants that can help protect against chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Pine nuts are a good source of vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the body against cellular damage.

How to Make a Healthy Homemade Pesto Sauce

You only need a few basic tools and ingredients to make pesto at home. Start by using the recipe below. Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, apply the above-suggested swaps to produce your preferred version.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups fresh, washed, and dried basil leaves
  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup pine nuts 
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper and salt

Instructions

  • Toast the pine nuts or walnuts in a dry skillet over medium heat until lightly browned and fragrant. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
  • Combine all ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor and pulse several times.
  • With the processor running, slowly pour in the olive oil in a steady stream. Continue to process until the mixture is smooth and well combined.
  • Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  • Store the pesto in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week, or freeze in small batches for longer storage.

FAQs

Is pesto good for people with diabetes?

Pesto can be a good choice for people with diabetes because it contains basil, garlic, olive oil, and pine nuts – ingredients considered healthy for people with diabetes because they are low in carbohydrates and high in healthy fats and protein.

Does pesto have protein?

Pesto has protein, but not in high amounts. If you want to increase your protein intake, you may consider pairing pesto with high-protein foods.

How many calories are in pesto?

A 100g of pesto made with cheese, basil, extra olive oil, salt, garlic, and pine nuts has 464 calories. More than half of the calories come from fats.

Is pesto hard on the stomach?

Pesto sauce has numerous health benefits when consumed in moderation, but eating  too much can upset your stomach.

A Word From a Nutritionist

Pesto sauce is safe to eat, but it can cause some allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to dairy and nuts. It contains parmesan cheese, a dairy product, and pine nuts, a tree nut, which are common food allergies.

Some signs of food allergy include swelling, hives, nausea, itching, shortness of breath, vomiting, difficulty swallowing, and dizziness. Consult your doctor if you experience any of these allergies after consuming pesto.

Store-bought pesto may also contain a lot of salt. Ask your doctor before dipping into your pesto pasta if you’re on a low-sodium diet or taking heart medication. Consider creating a homemade pesto recipe that uses less salt if you want to control the sodium in your sauce.

Conclusion

Pesto is a traditional Italian sauce that can be enjoyed with a variety of foods. Its traditional ingredients include fresh basil, aged parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and extra virgin olive oil. 

Most of the pesto’s health benefits, which include lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar and improving skin health, are derived from the ingredients used in its preparation. Pesto is generally safe to consume, although people with nut allergies should avoid those with nuts.

Making pesto at home is easy. Experiment with different ingredients and keep a batch in the freezer for summer treats.

Lucy Nongari is a freelance health writer, editor, and content strategist. She has a passion for wellness and a dedication to promoting a healthy lifestyle. Lucy translates complex health and medical information into accessible and engaging content to educate, inspire, and empower people to make positive changes and take control of their
well-being.

Lucy believes in progression and empowering individuals, and that’s why when she's not writing or researching, you’ll find her mentoring teens or spending time with family.

The article was fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
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HR_author_photo_Edna
Fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
Last update: January 15, 2024
8 min read 942 Views 0 Comments
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