Is Pesto Healthy?

A healthy basil plant

Short answer
Yes, dieticians agree that if consumed in moderation, pesto is a healthy sauce and a good source of antioxidants, vitamins, calcium, and heart-healthy fats.

Long answer
Did you know there's a way to safely eat medium-rare chicken? Don't bother. We've tried it and it was revolting, but that's not the point. If a chicken breast is held at 136°F for at least 68 minutes, it will be as well pasteurised as a chicken breast held at the government's recommended safe internal temperature of 165°F for a microsecond.

It's a message that flies in the face of everything we've been taught. However, it illustrates how most government advice relating to food is a blunt instrument, primarily designed to prevent hospitals from being inundated with food-poisoned patients. Complexity and context pay no part in public-facing food policy. The messaging must be clear, categoric, without nuance and understandable by the masses.

What has all this got to do with whether pesto is healthy or not? Actually, quite a lot. If you scan the barcode of a jar of supermarket pesto with an app like Yuka, you'll almost certainly be presented with a red traffic light warning accompanied by a suggestion that you may want to consider buying a healthier alternative.

Unhealthy pesto

So, is pesto's unhealthy red light really deserved? Does it belong in the same camp as candy floss, tinned hotdogs, and pork scratchings? Well, most pesto sauces contain more salt and fat than the government's recommended limits, but without context, that information is largely meaningless. It doesn't tell you much about all the good things that are in pesto, and it doesn't consider how much of the stuff you are going to be eating.

Raw pesto containing herbs, olive oil, cheese and pine nuts makes it a great source of vitamins, calcium, monounsaturated fats, and antioxidants, yet the government's classification system means that some ultra-processed crisps are given a green light, and that's a dangerous message to give out.

Healthy crisps

It won't come as any surprise that we have very little time for the UK government's HFSS (high fat, salt, and sugar) messaging. Like most food policies, its heart is in the right place, but its execution is hopelessly simplified.

Dieticians agree that consumed in moderation, pesto is a healthy sauce. After all, if salt is so bad, why don't we all live a zero-sodium diet? (Spoiler: because you will develop the condition hyponatremia which can be fatal.) If fat is so deadly, why do nutritionists prescribe people cod liver oil? If sugar is so awful, why are we not told to stop eating peas, onions, and beetroot?

Apart from cigarettes and illegal drugs, pretty much anything we consume can be done guilt-free provided it is done in moderation and as part of a balanced diet made up of plants, protein, complex starch, unsaturated fat, and a little dairy.

Pringles

That brings us back to the crisp comparison and the dangers of overly simplistic messaging. If the public starts to believe that crisps are good and pesto is bad, then people will simply skip the pasta aisle in favour of the crisp aisle. Take the worst offender in that category, Pringles. Their chips clock in at over 500 calories per 100g, are 30% fat, and contain all kinds of synthetic flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate, disodium guanylate and disodium inosinate.

Some of their wackier products contain guanylic acid, inosinic acid, annatto norbixin, and potassium chloride. In terms of real nutrition, you won't find much of it in that enticing red tube.

On the flip side, our recommended portion size of 50g of pesto per person clocks in at under 200 calories, about the same as two slices of bread. Most importantly though, it contains ingredients which are known to help with cholesterol, cardiovascular health, good skin, and cell health. We would consider that a pretty healthy food, wouldn't you?

It's true that eating large amounts of pesto every day could lead to weight gain. It could also introduce too much salt into your diet which is known to contribute to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. However, in moderation it can absolutely feature in your diet once or twice a week without you having to lose any sleep over it.