How Is Supermarket Pesto So Cheap?

A commercial basil farm

Short answer
As is the case with everything we buy from supermarkets, economies of scale and the quality and quantity of ingredients explain how they can sell products, including pesto, unfathomably cheaply.

Long answer
The process of making pesto on a commercial scale isn't too dissimilar from how you'd knock up a small batch at home. What is very different, though, is how the size of the operation, the choice of ingredients, and the resulting cost savings enable supermarkets to sell pesto at such low prices.

Economies of scale
The buying power of huge multinational supermarkets cannot be underestimated. Being able to procure everything from glass jars and labels to ingredients in the millions of units brings costs down hugely. The only way Lidl has the slightly dubious honour of selling the UK’s cheapest supermarket pesto for just 55p and still turning a profit is through their sheer size. Artisan pesto makers would struggle to just buy an empty jar for that sort of price.

Along with buying power comes efficiency savings. Having a dedicated production site with high-tech, computer-controlled machinery means fewer people are involved in the operation and it is cheaper to run. On the flip side, small scale producers will tend to do many things by hand. If they're sharing a production space with others, there is the hugely time-consuming issue of constantly washing down equipment and re-calibrating things like labelling machines to suit other producers' jars.

Plenty of TV channels and YouTubers have gone inside pesto factories to see how things are done. The BBC series Food Unwrapped saw Matt Tebbutt make an enviable road trip around the Italian region of Liguria to find out how mass-market pesto is made. He discovered that the biggest cost savings are to be had by sourcing the cheapest possible ingredients. As you might expect, it all starts with basil.

The Ligurian countryside is home to dozens of small-scale producers who still farm basil the traditional way. It's backbreaking work, with skilled labourers spending up to 8-hours a day lying on wooden planks, hand-picking young basil plants, and wrapping them in specially branded paper to prove their quality and provenance.

The basil produced in this region, Basilico Genovese, is so unique that in 2006 it was granted protected designation of origin (PDO) status, which safeguards it from inferior copycats. Its scarcity, plus the fact that the plants are picked roots, soil, and all to ensure that only juvenile leaves make it into pesto, makes it extraordinarily expensive and something that only premium, artisan pesto makers can justify using.

In a promotional video, one of the biggest pesto producers, Sacla, offered a brief glimpse into how they farm basil very differently. Their seemingly never-ending fields of basil are produced just outside the Ligurian borders and, therefore, not afforded the same PDO status. Combine harvesters cultivate the leaves from the top of the plant, picking them and leaving the plants intact so they can grow a fresh set of leaves and be harvested again and again.

The official basil pesto recipe (as determined by the Pesto Genovese Consortium) must contain Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Fiore Sardo, both of which have the same PDO status as Genovese basil. Significant cost savings can be had by using the much cheaper Grana Padano or Pecorino Romano cheeses, which haven't been aged as long and are therefore considerably more affordable. Some producers cut corners further by simply using a generic "hard cheese."

Oil is another ingredient where huge cost savings can be made. While small producers use the highest-quality extra-virgin olive oil, big producers replace some or all of it with much cheaper sunflower oil.

A similar trick is used with the choice of nut. Italian pine nuts are considered the finest in the world and are therefore eye-wateringly expensive. To make cost savings, many big producers source their pine nuts from China. Not a big issue, you might think, but these pine nuts are notorious for leaving a metallic aftertaste for some people, and that can last weeks. Some companies use the much cheaper cashew nuts, while others leave out nuts altogether.

The official basil pesto recipe dictates that only expensive sea salt from Trapani should be used. It has a superior taste to standard table salt, which can often be cut with anti-caking agents like the slightly scary sounding-sodium ferrocyanide.

Even the choice of garlic can make a big difference in the final taste of a pesto. The small mountain village of Vessalico in the north-west of Italy is garlic's spiritual home, but it sets artisan producers back at least 4 or 5 times as much as sub-standard Chinese garlic which Tesco has previously been slammed for selling.

Other bulking ingredients
The meat industry is notorious for increasing the weight (and therefore cost) of their products by injecting them with brine. Sadly, the sauce industry isn't much better. A Which? investigation found some pesto producers bulking out their sauces with all kinds of cheap ingredients such as water, potato flakes, bamboo fibres, and sugar.