Can Diabetics Eat Pesto Sauce?

Teaspoon of sugar

Short answer
In moderate quantities, there is nothing in most pesto sauces that should cause any major concern for diabetics. We do, however, advise anyone living with diabetes to always read the label and keep an eye on the levels of salt, carbohydrates, and sugar as they can vary widely between similar looking products.

Long answer
The Mediterranean diet is famous for being the healthiest in the world - and you won't find many foodstuffs more Mediterranean than pesto. This makes it a great contender for not just being safe - but actively encouraged - for diabetics to include in their diet.

Type 1, type 2, gestational or any of the rarer forms of diabetes all carry their own dietary recommendations, so there is no "one size fits all". However, the days of strict rules about what is allowed and what isn't are long gone. Food producers are no longer allowed to display "suitable for diabetics" labels on ready meals, and improvements in insulin regimes mean the condition is far more manageable than it once was.

Broadly speaking, the dietary and heath recommendations for those living with diabetes are the same as for everyone else. Namely, eat a balanced diet with a combination of all the major food groups, quit smoking, cut down on alcohol and get regular exercise to maintain a healthy body weight.

You will find several of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) red and amber warnings on jars of pesto. However, you will be eating relatively small quantities of the sauce and for that reason most dieticians consider pesto to be healthy. Here, we've broken down the main food groups one-by-one.

Sugar
Despite a popular misconception, sugar doesn't directly cause diabetes, nor does a diabetic have to completely exclude it from their diet. Cutting down on sugar (especially refined sugar) has more to do with managing weight than specifically managing the condition. Added sugar has no place in high-quality pesto but watch out for some budget brands who bulk out their sauces with sugar, water, potato flakes and all other kinds of garbage.

Fruit
With the exception of sun-dried tomatoes that give red pesto its vibrant colour, you are unlikely to find fruit in pesto. However, even if you did it is not off-limits; it just needs to be eaten in moderation.

Herbs and vegetables
We're always being told to eat a more plant-based diet, and the large quantity of herbs (and sometimes vegetables) in pesto are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fibre and perfect for diabetics to consume.

Starchy foods
The carbohydrate content of pestos can vary from 2% to 15% and may be high or low glycemic. People living with type 1 diabetes are no longer advised to follow a strict low-carb diet. Instead, it's more about effectively controlling insulin levels and making sure they opt for healthier carbohydrates. For this reason, we don't see why the carbohydrate content of pesto needs to be a major concern for diabetics.

Fats and oils
It's no great surprise that a sauce made with large quantities of olive oil, nuts and cheese is going to be a high-fat, high-calorie foodstuff. You will be getting some saturated fat from the cheese, but most fats obtained from olive oil and nuts are considered good for your heart and therefore fine for diabetics. Plus, if you follow our recommended portion size of 50g pesto per person, the amount of fat and calories you consume is not at a level that needs worrying about.

Proteins
Fatty red and processed meats are best avoided by those living with diabetes, whilst oily fish, raw nuts, beans, pulses, and eggs are actively encouraged in moderation. Apart from one unusual pesto on the market that contains 'nduja (a spicy, spreadable pork sausage), diabetics will not be getting any bad proteins from pesto.

Dairy
Dairy contains plenty of calcium which is good for bones, teeth and muscles. Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino are the two cheeses used in the official recipe for classic basil pesto, and despite having relatively high levels of saturated fat, they also contain lots of vitamin B6 and B12, phosphorus, and zinc, so can be eaten by diabetics fairly guilt-free.

Salt
As a nation we eat too much salt and in the process are putting ourselves at risk of high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease. We've researched over 50 different pesto sauces available in the UK and concluded that on average, they contain around 1% salt. That's enough for the FSA to give them an amber warning on their food traffic light system meaning they should be "eaten in moderation as part of a healthy and balanced diet".

Having said that, we've found a pesto containing a shocking 5.1% salt, so always check the label. Thankfully The Department of Health's HFSS (High in saturated fat, salt and sugar) policy has led to food producers reformulating many of their recipes. This has seen one producer launch a pesto that contains just 0.08% salt, so pesto no longer needs to be off limits for diabetics.