Creating delicious, healthy recipes is much easier when you’re armed with a few secret ingredients. One such ingredient is pesto, and it’s a staple in my kitchen.
It smells and tastes like summer, and fresh herbs and can take many dishes to the next level. However, when you examine the Nutrition Facts label on a jar of pesto, you might question whether it’s a healthy option.
Here’s what you should know about pesto and whether it’s a healthy choice.
What is pesto?
The word “pesto” is a generic term for any uncooked sauce made by crushing or grinding ingredients into a paste.
Pesto has roots in Genoa, Italy — the Italian word “pesto” means “to pound or crush.” Traditionally, people made pesto by pounding and crushing local, fresh basil with extra-virgin olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and other ingredients using a mortar and pestle.
While you still can use a mortar and pestle, today’s home cooks might find it easier to combine the ingredients in a food processor or blender.
Classic pesto, sometimes called pesto Genovese, is usually made with these ingredients:
- fresh basil
- fresh garlic
- extra-virgin olive oil
- aged Parmesan and/or Pecorino cheese
- pine nuts
It’s commonly used as a sauce tossed with pasta, though it really is a multipurpose condiment. The herbs and garlic add delicious flavor, and the cheese gets warm and melty in hot dishes.
Here are some of the many ways to use it:
- add a small scoop to vegetable or bean soups like minestrone or pasta e fagioli to brighten the flavor
- stir through roasted vegetables
- brush onto chicken or fish before grilling
- use in sandwiches or wraps
- stir through cold or warm pasta salads
- use as a sauce on pizza
- drizzle onto salads
Pesto is a simple uncooked sauce traditional to Italy. It’s made by blending raw ingredients like basil, olive oil, aged cheese, garlic, and nuts. It’s often used as a sauce or condiment to flavor pasta, meat, fish, vegetables, or soups.
Types of pesto
Purists may argue that real pesto should be made from basil. But if you don’t care for basil or don’t have any on hand, there’s no reason you can’t make pesto from other ingredients. Any fresh, flavorful herbs or leafy greens can stand in for basil.
Other greens to include in your pesto:
- baby kale
If you want to get creative, you can also make pesto from sun-dried tomatoes, olives, or roasted red peppers.
Most types of pesto also contain garlic, salt, and aged cheese for flavor; good quality olive oil for moisture; and nuts for some crunch.
If you’re making it at home, you can vary these ingredients. For example, you can skip the cheese or substitute nutritional yeast if you follow a vegan diet. You can also vary which nuts you use. If you’re nut-free, leave them out or use sunflower or pumpkin seeds instead.
Experimenting with different ingredients opens up a world of flavor and uses for this sauce.
Classic pesto is made from basil. You can also make it from other leafy green herbs and vegetables, roasted red peppers, or sun-dried tomatoes. Garlic, olive oil, cheese, and nuts are also common ingredients, though they too can be varied.
Because it’s made with olive oil, nuts, and cheese, classic pesto can contribute a fair amount of fat and calories to your diet. A 1/4-cup (63-gram) serving provides :
- Calories: 263
- Protein: 6 grams
- Fat: 24 grams
- Carbs: 6 grams
Although pesto is high in fat, most of that fat is unsaturated. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats from plants and nuts are believed to have heart health benefits.
A typical serving of pesto provides only small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Still, it’s a good source of antioxidants from basil, olive oil, and nuts. Antioxidants can help protect your cells and DNA from oxidative damage.
Know that the nutrients can vary depending on the ingredients. Also, keep in mind how you’ll be using it, as well as any other components of your dish or meal. Although you can eat pesto on its own, most people prefer to add it to other foods.
Because its ingredients include olive oil, nuts, and cheese, pesto can be high in calories and fat. However, the fat is primarily unsaturated and may have heart health benefits. Pesto is also full of antioxidants that can help protect your cells from damage.
With its bright flavors, color, and aroma, pesto has many culinary uses and benefits. Just a small spoonful can transform a dish, impart a new flavor, and encourage picky eaters to try new foods.
Pesto also has health benefits. Being from Italy, it’s part of the Mediterranean diet. This eating pattern often includes fresh herbs, olive oil, and nuts — some of the ingredients in pesto — and is linked with a lower risk of many chronic health conditions, especially:
- heart disease, heart attack, and stroke
- many types of cancer, including breast, stomach, pancreatic, and liver
- Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
What’s more, studies show that the individual ingredients in pesto may have health benefits.
Healthy fats, antioxidants, and other compounds in olive oil and pine nuts can block the production of inflammation-promoting compounds in your body. Plus, eating more of these foods may improve blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels.
Lab studies on olive oil also show it can prevent the growth of bacteria, other microbes, and maybe even certain tumors.
Meanwhile, garlic’s plant compounds have been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Like olive oil, garlic has antimicrobial properties.
Plus, some animal and test-tube studies suggest that certain compounds in garlic might stop the growth of or even kill cancer cells.
Last but not least, fresh basil is also associated with health benefits. For example, test-tube and animal studies have shown that antioxidants and essential oils from basil leaves may reduce blood sugar levels and prevent the growth of foodborne pathogens.
Besides adding fresh flavor, pesto has health benefits. Its ingredients are part of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Plus, certain compounds in the ingredients may reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Nuts are a common allergen. If you have a tree nut allergy, it’s essential to check the ingredients in pesto, as most types are made with tree nuts.
Accidentally eating pesto that contains nuts could trigger a life threatening anaphylactic reaction in those who are allergic to tree nuts .
Another potential concern about eating pesto is the risk of foodborne illness. Like other fresh foods, fresh pesto — whether homemade or from the refrigerator section at the grocery store — can spoil if not stored properly or stored too long.
Always keep it in an airtight container in the refrigerator. If you don’t plan on using it within a week, you can freeze it. A handy tip is to freeze it into convenient portions using an ice cube tray.
Unlike fresh pesto, the type sold on unrefrigerated shelves has been pasteurized and/or contains preserving ingredients. When it’s unopened, you can keep it in your pantry — just make sure to store it in the fridge after opening it and use it within about 2 weeks.
If you have a nut allergy, be aware that pesto usually contains nuts, so check the ingredients before eating it. Store pesto in the refrigerator, and if you don’t plan to finish it within a week or two, you can freeze it.The bottom line
Pesto is a tasty sauce that complements many foods.
It’s traditionally made with fresh basil, olive oil, and a few other ingredients, though it’s easy to make at home and customize to your taste.
As long as you don’t have allergies, the ingredients used to make pesto are generally good for you. In fact, they may help reduce your blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and cancer risk.
Homemade pesto is easy to make. Experiment with different ingredients and keep a batch in your freezer for a quick pop of summer flavor any time of year.
Just one thing
Try this today: I make classic basil pesto every summer. It’s an ideal way to use up an overgrown basil plant. Remember, you can add more or less of any ingredient or substitute other ingredients.
To make about 1 1/2 cups, you’ll need:
- 3 cups fresh basil leaves, stems removed
- 1/2 cup walnuts or pine nuts
- 1/2 cup freshly grated plant-based cheese
- 3 large cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2–3/4 cup good quality olive oil, depending on how thin you like your pesto
- 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Place the basil, nuts, cheese, and garlic in a food processor and blend until combined. Leaving the processor running, slowly pour in the oil, blending until smooth. Add salt to taste.
Store it in an airtight container in your refrigerator for up to a week or freeze small portions in an ice cube tray.