Is Pesto High In Salt?

Man floating in the salty Dead Sea

Short answer
Pesto contains, on average, 1% salt. That's not enough for it to be labelled a "high salt" food, but it is enough for the government to recommend that it should only be eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

Long answer
"Oh FFS, now pesto's terrible for us too" screamed Metro in 2017 as a reaction to Consensus Action on Salt and Health's Oscar-worthy press release that claimed some pestos were "30% saltier than seawater".

Why does that matter? Well, despite salt being an essential mineral that our bodies need a little bit of to function properly, the British Heart Foundation advises that excessive salt consumption can have numerous negative health impacts. This includes high blood pressure, heart disease, hypertension, osteoporosis, Type 2 diabetes and stomach cancer. In a nutshell, regularly eating too much salt could be catastrophic for your long-term health.

If you've wondered why your favourite bag of crisps are no longer displayed on aisle ends at your local supermarket, you have the government's "High Fat, Salt & Sugar" (HFSS) regulations to thank. Oh, and Boris Johnson, who decided he was too fat and therefore the nation needed to lose weight.

Salar de Uyuni Salt Flat

To be fair, The Liar's plan to steal sweets from children crack down on the promotion of junk food and improve the health of the nation was long overdue considering the spiralling levels of obesity. Few doubt that the HFSS initiative has honourable aims, and where it succeeds most is making people aware of the amount of salt they are consuming without even realising it.

Just like almost every government food policy though, it is deeply flawed due to its complete lack of nuance.

This is one of the reasons a group of Italian delegates at the EU Council of Ministers in 2013 took issue with so many of their greatest exports, including their salty hams and cheeses, being labelled "unhealthy", despite the Mediterranean diet being regarded as the best in the world.

Government guidelines have a duty to be understandable to the masses, but they too often miss the mark. Very few people truly understand the intricacies of the 5 a day concept, and if you tell most people to "eat the rainbow" they'll probably reach for the Skittles.

It is true that as a nation we consume too much fat, salt and sugar, but simply labelling these as serial killer bogeymen is dangerously simplistic.

Take sugar for instance. "Diet" drinks contain lab-manufactured, artificial sweeteners that the World Health Organisation has warned could increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Studies have also shown that rather than help people lose weight these drinks do the exact opposite. Why? Because they trick the brain into wanting to eat more when the "promise" of calories from a sugar-fix never materialises. But because they don't contain sugar, they are classed as "healthy", and that's a desperately flawed message.

The Department of Health’s Nutrient Profiling (NP) is the mechanism used to identify which foods you should and shouldn't be eating regularly. A points-based system based on traffic lights was implemented as a crude but easily understandable way to make the public more aware of what they were eating.

In the case of salt, any food with under 0.3% salt is the class swot and earns a green light. Any food containing between 0.3% and 1.5% salt is a middle of the road student that gets an amber light. Meanwhile, anything over 1.5% salt is the fat kid at the back of the class who's been dealt a red card.

Despite there being some pestos with shockingly high levels of salt (5.1% in the case of the worst offender) most pestos you find for sale in the UK contain in the region of 1% salt. That places them slap bang in the middle amber bracket, meaning they should be eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

However, just looking at the percentage of salt in a food is pointless if you’re not also considering how much of the stuff you’re going to be consuming. Take, for instance, our recommended serving size of 50g of a pesto which is 1% salt. You'll be sitting down to eat 0.5g of salt.

To put that in perspective, adults are advised to eat no more than 6g salt a day, so you still have over 90% of your daily salt allowance left. Does that really sound like it deserves an amber light to scare you into a "healthier" alternative?