Is Pesto Healthy? A Nutritionist Weighs In.
When we think of the Mediterranean Diet and all its health benefits, Italian food might not be the first cuisine to come to mind. But Italy is indeed part of that region, and Italian food isn’t all pizza and pasta, as we’ve interpreted it to mostly be in the United States. Rather, Italian food is full of healthful ingredients, and many of its sauces are quite rich in nutrients — including pesto.
Typically tossed in pasta, spread on a pizza, or even baked for an easy weeknight chicken dinner, this vibrantly green basil-based sauce may seem healthy — but is it? We turned to an expert for an in-depth answer.
What’s in pesto?
First, what components are required to make pesto? Let’s look at what exactly is in pesto and whether or not those ingredients are beneficial.
Many people don’t think of herbs as being as important to our diets as other leafy greens, but they are. Fresh herbs are full of antioxidants, and basil is no exception. “Basil is high in lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin all of which are anti-inflammatory antioxidants (which are always better to get from food than a pill),” says Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD, a senior clinical dietitian and author of Recipe For Survival.
Pine nuts are the traditional nut to use in pesto, and they make it ultra-creamy. “Pine nuts are a source of omega 3 fatty acids, which are known to support brain health,” says Amy Davis, RD, LDN, founder of The Balanced Dietitian. Of course, pine nuts are also quite costly, so it’s ok to consider branching out. “Pine nuts, (or in our house, walnuts or almonds), are also extremely high in monounsaturated fats, magnesium, plant protein, omega-3 (ALA – walnuts), and vitamin E. All of these nutrients are healthful to our heart and blood pressure.”
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The better the quality of olive oil you choose, the more healthful and tasty your pesto will be. If you have access to high phenolic olive oil, this is an excellent use for it. “Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats which are also anti-inflammatory and heart healthy,” says Hunnes.
It’s such a basic ingredient that you might not realize lemon juice is incredibly healthful. Its polyphenols have been shown to be anti-aging, and helpful to the gut microbiome. Lemon juice adds tartness to pesto, and the vitamin C in it helps prevent the basil from turning black quickly.
Cheese has numerous health benefits; research shows it actually considered a functional food based due to its high-protein content and how it’s easy to digest. To get the benefits of parmesan, purchase it in block form, or at least freshly grated.
A bastion of immunity enhancement, garlic is most potent in its raw form; and that’s exactly how it’s used in pesto. It takes just a clove or two to provide strong flavor and punchiness to pesto, but if you enjoy the taste of raw garlic, adding extra will benefit you even more.
Is homemade pesto healthier than store-bought?
Thanks to its versatility as a topping, sauce spread, and dip, to enjoy pesto you don’t need to make it yourself. It’s available both in fresh format and shelf-stable, so our first important inquiry on the discovery of whether or not pesto is healthy is to discern the differences between homemade and store-bought. Is homemade always better?
“It depends on the ingredients used in the specific food product,” says Davis. “Typical store-bought pestos may include preservatives such as citric acid and lactic acid, which are considered natural preservatives but may alter the taste of the pesto.” This is worth noting because the flavor of pesto is so specific that it might not take much to lose the fresh flavor.
Lastly, the oil in store-bought pesto may be different than what you’d use at home. “It is common for soybean or canola oil to be used in pesto instead of the classic, higher-quality olive oil,” Davis explains.
In addition to preservatives and lower quality oil, other ingredients in store-bought pesto may be less than ideal.
“Many store-bought brands will likely contain added salt,” says Hunnes. She adds that there may also be more health benefits to making it yourself. “What you make is fresh, thereby retaining most of the basil flavor and phyto(plant)nutrients.”
Is pesto too high in fat?
A chief concern about whether pesto is healthy comes from the fact that it contains a lot of olive oil, plus additional fat from the cheese.
“Because it is rich in fats, being mindful of the portion is key,” explains Davis. “Pesto contains healthy fats, but too many fats (regardless of the type) can add up in calories fast.”
If you are worried about the amount of fat in pesto, you can always sub out a small quantity of the oil for avocado, hummus, aquafaba (chickpea water), or Greek yogurt. David even says it’s possible to bulk up a pesto with vegetables such as zucchini or cauliflower.
The Bottom Line
We’re happy to say that yes, pesto is a healthy food overall.
“It can provide a lot of flavor in a small portion to lean proteins such as chicken breast or fish, and be used as a healthy sauce for high-fiber starches like bean-based pasta or quinoa,” says Davis.
If pesto is a favorite sauce of yours, go ahead and have a scoop on us. And if you haven’t tried it yet, consider its health benefits a great reason to start.
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