Is Pesto Bad For High Blood Pressure?

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Short answer
Dieticians consider pesto's positive health benefits to far outweigh their negatives, especially when it comes to high blood pressure.

Long answer
We've talked before about the woeful lack of nuance in government food policy, especially how the UK's food traffic light system is a hopelessly blunt instrument in the battle to get people to make healthier choices.

Unlike a deep-fried Mars bar or a tin of spinach, where it's easy to conclude that one is bad and the other is good, pesto is one of those foods that fits in both camps, depending completely on how you choose to look at it.

There are numerous factors at play when it comes to high blood pressure; smoking, drinking too much alcohol, being overweight, and sometimes simply being genetically predisposed to it. However, a poor diet is a key contributor, so here we're looking at the positives and negatives of pesto's effect on your blood pressure and whether you should avoid it or continue to eat it guilt-free.

Argument 1: Pesto is bad for high blood pressure
Blood Pressure UK considers too much salt to be "the single biggest cause of high blood pressure" and warns that much of the salt we consume is 'hidden' in places you wouldn't expect it to find it. You might consider yourself doing the right thing by having toast and Marmite for breakfast rather than bacon and eggs, or tinned soup for lunch rather than a Pot Noodle, but in some cases you'll find that the amount of salt you end up consuming really isn't that much different.

The NHS states that adults should consume no more than 6g of salt per day. Consistently consuming more than this causes your body to retain water in your blood, and this puts extra pressure on your blood vessel walls. This greatly increases your chance of strokes, heart attacks, kidney disease, and even some forms of dementia.

Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) caused quite a ruckus when they reported in 2017 that some pesto sauces for sale in the UK contained more salt than a McDonald's burger. Despite the report and the introduction of some "reduced salt" pestos on the market, salt levels in pestos remain stubbornly high. Here's a snapshot of the salt levels in some of the UK's most popular pestos as of March 26, 2024.

Product Salt
Jamie Oliver Green Pesto 0.9%
M&S Green Pesto 1.0%
Sacla Reduced Fat Pesto 1.2%
Garofalo Pesto Genovese 1.3%
Casalinga Basil Pesto 1.5%
Mr. Organic Basil Pesto 1.9%
Filippo Berio Classic Pesto 2.8%
Belazu Vegan Basil Pesto 2.9%
Sacla Classic Basil Pesto 3.0%
Barilla Pesto Genovese 3.2%
De Cecco Pesto Genovese 3.7%
Average 2.12%

As people who like to indulge in a classic British fry-up every now and then, we're no angels when it comes to enjoying salty foods. Even for us, though, we see absolutely no reason why a pesto should ever contain 3.7% salt. That's saltier than the sea, which means that in a single 50g serving, you'll be consuming almost 2g of salt. And that's before you factor in the salt content of whatever protein you're pairing it with, the pasta itself, and the water you're cooking the pasta in. It's easy to see how these things add up, right?

If you love pesto but your GP has advised you to cut down on salt to lower your blood pressure, then seek out a low-sodium brand like Jamie Oliver's. Alternatively, if you want a completely salt-free pesto you can go one step further and make the sauce yourself, giving you full control of the ingredients. Adding a little acid in the form of lemon juice, lime juice, or vinegar will give the sauce a lift in a very similar way to salt.

Next, we come onto fat, which everyone knows can lead to weight gain, thereby causing high cholesterol and raising your blood pressure in the process. We'll be looking at the different kinds of fats that you'll find in pesto later in this article, but when it comes to weight gain, all fats have roughly the same number of calories in them.

Product Fat
Sacla Reduced Fat Pesto 22%
Sacla Classic Basil Pesto 33%
M&S Green Pesto 34%
Filippo Berio Classic Pesto 37%
Garofalo Pesto Genovese 38%
Mr. Organic Basil Pesto 39%
Jamie Oliver Green Pesto 40%
Belazu Vegan Basil Pesto 44%
Casalinga Basil Pesto 44%
Barilla Pesto Genovese 46%
De Cecco Pesto Genovese 48%
Average 38.1%

No one can realistically expect a sauce containing oil, cheese, and nuts to be low in fat, but the 48% fat offering from De Cecco compared to a reduced-fat pesto from Sacla, which clocks in at 22%, is significant. (For comparison, the UK's best-selling pork scratching, Mr Porky, contains 36.3% fat.)

There's no denying that pesto is a fatty food, so anyone following a low-fat diet should only consume it in small quantities.

Finally, we come to sugar, the third food that people with high blood pressure need to pay close attention to.

Product Sugar
Belazu Pesto Genovese 0.1%
Garofalo Pesto Genovese 0.4%
Sacla Reduced Fat Pesto 0.4%
Mr. Organic Basil Pesto 0.7%
Casalinga Basil Pesto 0.7%
M&S Green Pesto 1.3%
Filippo Berio Classic Pesto 2.1%
De Cecco Pesto Genovese 2.5%
Jamie Oliver Green Pesto 2.6%
Sacla Classic Basil Pesto 3.4%
Barilla Pesto Genovese 5.5%
Average 1.79%

Apart from a few sauces on the list above, the amount of sugar in pesto is generally not of great concern for people suffering with high blood pressure and certainly not as important as salt or fat.

However, things change when you look at pestos that contain very different ingredients from the classic basil pesto that we all know and love.

Product Sugar
Mr. Organic Grilled Pepper Pesto 0.4%
Mr. Organic Aubergine Pesto 1.1%
Sacla Fiery Red Chilli Pesto 4.1%
Jamie Oliver Red Pesto 4.9%
Garofalo Red Pepper Pesto 6.1%
Belazu Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto 6.4%
Jamie Oliver Cherry Tomato Pesto 6.5%
Jamie Oliver Red Pepper Pesto 6.7%
Barilla Pesto Rosso 7.5%
Belazu Rose Harissa Pesto 7.5%
Ocado Red Pesto 7.6%
Filippo Berio Tomato and Ricotta Pesto 7.8%
Daylesford Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto 9.4%
Garofalo Pesto Rosso 11%
Belazu Sicilian-inspired Pesto 12.3%
Average 6.62%

Mr. Organic proves that a pesto made from unconventional ingredients doesn't have to be sugary, but with the majority of these types of pesto clocking in at over 6% sugar, it does start to become a problem for people with high blood pressure. When you consider that regular Coca-Cola is 10.6% sugar, sauces with similar levels are definitely something you want to give a miss.

Argument 2: Pesto is good for high blood pressure
To make the case for pesto being a good choice for people with high blood pressure, we're going to start again with salt.

We've already outlined why too much salt is bad for our bodies, but it's important to note that our bodies simply cannot function properly without small quantities of it. In fact, our bodies need it so much that having too little salt can be just as dangerous as having too much because it puts us at risk of increased cholesterol, heart attacks, strokes, and hyponatremia, which can be fatal.

There is a broad consensus that an average adult needs in the region of 1000mg of sodium per day. That broadly works out as 2g of regular table salt. If you were to buy Jamie Oliver's Green Pesto and eat our recommended 50g serving of it, you'd be getting less than 0.5g of salt, a quarter of the amount your body needs for that day, and less than 10% of the maximum amount for that day according to the NHS's recommended limit of 6g.

Therefore, by making wise choices and opting for low-sodium sauces, people with high blood pressure have no reason to avoid pesto. (Even if you were to eat 50g of the worst offender, De Cecco Pesto Genovese, you'd still have 70% of your daily allowance left to consume that day.)

Next, we come on to fat, the unwarranted bogeyman of the diet industry. The NHS states that "a small amount of fat is an essential part of a healthy and balanced diet," while at the same time warning that "too much fat, especially saturated fat, increases the risk of heart disease."

The key takeaway from this is the issue of "saturated fat." That's the kind you find in butter, red meats, biscuits, chocolate, and, sadly, hard cheeses like Parmesan. That means that every traditional pesto you buy will contain some saturated fat, so we've revisited our snapshot of sauces, but this time focusing purely on their saturated fat content.

Product Saturated Fat
Sacla Reduced Fat Pesto 3.1%
M&S Green Pesto 4.6%
Mr. Organic Basil Pesto 4.7%
Sacla Classic Basil Pesto 5.0%
Barilla Pesto Genovese 5.3%
Casalinga Basil Pesto 5.5%
Filippo Berio Classic Pesto 5.7%
Belazu Vegan Basil Pesto 6.3%
Garofalo Pesto Genovese 6.5%
Jamie Oliver Green Pesto 6.7%
De Cecco Pesto Genovese 7.8%
Average 5.56%

The NHS advises that we should limit ourselves to 20g and 30g of saturated fat per day for women and men, respectively. That means that even if you buy the worst-offending pesto, De Cecco's Pesto Genovese, you'd only be consuming 3.9g of saturated fat if you follow our 50g per serving recommendation. That's under 20% of your daily allowance for women and just 13% for men, so providing you keep a close eye on all the other saturated fat that you are going to eat that day, there is no need for people with high blood pressure to be overly concerned about it.

In fact, research suggests quite the opposite. Although cheese adds some "bad fat" to pesto, it's the oil and the nuts that provide most of the fat, and luckily for us, they largely fall into the "good fat" category.

Dieticians consider nuts to be one of the world's great superfoods. They offer a good source of protein and contain generous amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which help lower cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of increased blood pressure.

It's a similar situation with olive oil, the poster child of the Mediterranean diet. Thanks to the vitamins, antioxidants, and beneficial fatty acids that it contains, olive oil is known to protect against heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer's, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 2 diabetes. It is also thought to be why people from the Mediterranean have a lower risk of cancer than people from other parts of the world. Pesto is packed full of olive oil, which is one of the key reasons why dieticians agree that pesto is healthy.

The final point, of course, regards sugar. Sugar offers a rapid form of energy, but its nutritional content is practically zero. In our survey of UK pestos, we found that, on average, they contain just 1g of sugar per serving; nothing that warrants concern for anyone with high blood pressure.

Non-traditional pestos that contain sweet vegetables like bell peppers, pumpkins, and tomatoes all contain a lot more sugar, so if you have high blood pressure you should consider choosing a lower-sugar alternative. If you do find yourself reaching for the high-sugar option, take solace in the fact that that sugar comes from plants, which is way better for you than the highly refined white stuff that you put in your tea and coffee.