Is Pesto Bad For Cholesterol?


Short answer
If you suffer from high cholesterol, providing you buy a low-fat pesto, specifically one low in saturated fat, there's no reason why you can’t enjoy it from time to time.

Long answer
It's impossible to generalise about the relationship between pesto and cholesterol because not only does the fat content of pestos vary widely, but the type of fat they contain (i.e. saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans) also varies widely.

Heart UK, a charity set up to provide information and support around cholesterol, recommends that a third of our daily calories should come from fat. That might sound counterintuitive when we’re constantly being told to cut back on fatty foods, but that's only because the food industry has long represented fat as the bogeyman when it should have been sugar (and these days, artificial sweeteners too) all along.

Low-fat, not no-fat
The fact is, fat forms a crucial part of our diets. Without it, our bodies simply wouldn't be able to absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, and E. That's why people living with high cholesterol are advised to follow a low-fat rather than a no-fat diet.

Not all fats are created equal
Keeping control of cholesterol levels is not as simplistic as simply reducing the amount of fat you are consuming. Instead, as well as keeping an eye on your overall fat intake, you must specifically be looking at your saturated fat consumption. That’s because saturated fat, the kind you find in butter, red meat, and pastries, makes your blood cholesterol levels rise, while unsaturated fat, the kind found in olive oil, peanuts, and oily fish, helps to bring cholesterol levels down.

Let's talk numbers
The NHS recommends that people limit their overall daily fat consumption to 70g for women and 90g for men. Crucially, though, only a third of those fats should be saturated, meaning that we should all be consuming no more than 20g and 30g per day of saturated fats for women and men, respectively.

Cholesterol and pesto
Three key pesto ingredients, oil, cheese, and nuts, means it is always going to be a high-fat, high-calorie sauce. When we researched how many calories there are in pesto, we looked at over 100 sauces and found that their fat content varied from 15.6% to a staggering 64.2%.

If you take the lowest-fat pesto on the market (Sainsbury's Light Green Pesto at the time of writing) and follow our recommended serving size of 50g of pesto per person, you'll be consuming 7.8g of fat (about 11% and 9% of the daily fat recommendation for women and men, respectively).

Delve a little deeper, and you'll find that you'll only be consuming 1.3g of saturated fat (6.5% and 4.3% of the daily saturated fat recommendation for women and men, respectively).

This allows you to look at the other foods you have eaten (or will be eating if you enjoy pesto with your breakfast eggs) and budget your calorie and saturated fat intake for your other meals and snacks accordingly.

Unfortunately, Sainsbury’s pesto is a bit of an anomaly because almost every pesto you buy will be over 17.5% fat. That’s enough to be slapped with a red warning on the Food Standards Agent’s traffic light labelling system (if the producer chooses to follow the optional scheme). Because of this, we recommend that anyone suffering from high cholesterol limit their pesto consumption to a couple of small servings per week and opt for the versions with the lowest possible amount of saturated fat.