Is Pesto Healthy?

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Jar of freshly made pesto
Jar of freshly made pesto (Image: icetocker/iStock/Getty Images)

When it comes to delicious dishes made from fresh, wholesome ingredients, Italy has a wealth of culinary gems. Fresh pesto makes the mark -- the fragrant no-cook sauce from Genoa is just as flavorful as it is nutritious. It takes its name from the Italian word “pestare,” which means to crush or pound. While the traditional variety is made by grinding sweet basil with pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, garlic and olive oil, you can make pesto with other ingredients, too.

Major Nutrients

With its olive oil and pine nuts, pesto is an excellent source of unsaturated fatty acids -- particularly the monounsaturated type. The American Heart Association suggests that a diet that includes mostly unsaturated fats can help reduce high cholesterol levels and decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke. Pesto made with copious amounts of fresh basil is generally rich in beta-carotene, too. Your body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, a fat-soluble nutrient that plays a major role in eye health and immune system function. Parmesan cheese is high in bone-building calcium, while garlic has antibacterial properties that support immunity.

Serving Size

Because virtually all of the calories in pesto come from fat, portion control is important. The standard size for a serving of the sauce is 1/4 cup, or 4 tablespoons. The amount of calories in either homemade or store-bought pesto depends on how it’s made -- some may contain more oil, while others may contain a higher proportion of cheese or nuts. One major brand that supplies about 240 calories and 23 grams of fat per 1/4-cup serving contains no nuts and only one type of cheese. Another brand -- which happens to contain pine nuts as well as two types of cheeses -- provides closer to 270 calories and 26 grams of fat per 1/4-cup serving.

Fresh is Best

Fresh pesto is generally more nutritious -- and arguably better tasting -- than the commercially prepared variety. When you make it at home, you can control calories and boost vitamins and minerals by using more basil and less olive oil. Although adding extra Parmesan cheese will get you more calcium, it will also significantly boost the amount of sodium that’s in the sauce. This is the main nutritional pitfall of store-bought pesto and why you should generally avoid it if you can make your own. The commercial variety tends to be high in sodium -- one leading product has about 580 milligrams per serving -- because it’s often made with one or more types of cheese as well as salt.

Recipe Variations

You can make a traditional pesto that's heavy on the basil and easier on the calories by pulverizing the leaves of four large bunches of basil with about 1/3 cup of olive oil, a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts, 1/2 ounce of Parmesan cheese and two or three cloves of garlic. It's easy to adjust the recipe to suit your tastes, and you can also use different kinds of leafy greens and nuts. Arugula with pistachios, kale with walnuts and watercress or mint with almonds are classic combinations. Use sun-dried tomatoes as the main ingredient in a high-potassium, lycopene-packed red pesto, or add them to traditional pesto for zest.

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