Diet trends come and go, but thick, zesty pesto will always be a staple in traditional Italian recipes.
If you’re looking for reasons to keep pesto on your shelf, you might be wondering, “Is pesto healthy?”
The good news is, you don’t need to make up excuses to keep eating your favorite green sauce. By the end of this article, you’ll have a new appreciation for this nutritious sauce, and tools to make it a wholesome part of your diet.
Is Pesto Healthy? Here are the Nutritional Facts
Traditionally, pesto is made out of extra virgin olive oil, basil, parmesan cheese, garlic, and pine nuts. Every brand has a different mix of ingredients, which means each product has a varying number of calories, fat content and sodium.
For example, Public Goods’ Pesto Sauce adds sunflower oil and creamy cashews to enhance the sweet yet nutty flavor of a good pesto. Always be sure to read ingredients labels to make sure you’re getting high quality pesto.
Generally speaking, the main culprits of pesto’s high fat and calorie content are olive oil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese. Just one tablespoon of olive oil contains 120 calories and 14 grams of fat. A tablespoon of pine nuts contains 57 calories and 6 grams of fat. A tablespoon of parmesan is another 22 calories and 1.4 grams of fat.
As you can see, these figures add up to a high calorie and fat content in a small dollop of pesto. But the question here isn’t, “Is pesto high in fat?” We’re wondering, “Is pesto healthy?”
Rest assured, pesto lovers, that the individual ingredients of pesto provide vitamins and minerals that keep your body healthy.
Each brand’s serving size will be different depending on the ingredients used. In our pesto sauce, one serving is a hefty quarter cup of sauce.
That’s only 260 calories and 26 grams of fat, or 33% of your Daily Value (DV). Keep an eye on your daily salt intake. One portion of pesto sauce contains about 20% DV of sodium.
On the flip side, pesto contains a surprising three grams of protein. You’ll get a bit of calcium, potassium and iron, too.
So, is pesto healthy? It certainly can be in moderation.
Stick to the recommended serving size to manage calorie, fat and sodium consumption. Be aware of what else you’re eating during the day, as well. This mindset will help you stay within the recommended daily values.
Pesto Health Benefits
Once you’ve navigated how much pesto you want to consume, you can revel in the many health benefits of this nutrient-rich food. Because no two pesto sauces are the same, always be sure to read your pesto nutrition facts, too.
An Antioxidant Antidote
Antioxidants protect your cells against free radicals, molecules that damage cells all over your body. Free radicals can cause signs of early aging in your skin and hair, bone loss, heart disease, cancer, and other disease. Antioxidants can reduce or even prevent damage to your cells.
Fortunately pesto is loaded with antioxidants. Antioxidants are measured using the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale. In order from highest to lowest ORAC score per serving size of ingredient: olive oil, basil, garlic, cashews and pine nuts all rank on the antioxidant scale.
Vitamin E and vitamin C are antioxidants. While basil is usually used in negligible amounts, it’s the star ingredient in pesto. Basil contains 1 mg of vitamin C per 2 tablespoons. One tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil or sunflower kernel oil contains an impressive 13% DV of vitamin E.
Enjoy your pesto knowing you’re doing your part to fight cancer and improve your health at the cellular level.
Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs)
Monounsaturated fats have been shown to lower “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and raise “good” cholesterol levels (HDL). That benefit means MUFAs can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke while providing nutrients that support cell health.
According to the American Heart Association, most of the fats in your diet should be mono- or polyunsaturated fats. While all fats have nine calories per gram, saturated fats and trans fats can increase your risk of coronary artery disease by raising LDL and lowering HDL.
The organization adds that monounsaturated fats add vitamin E to your diet, which, they state, is lacking in most American’s diets.
Olive oil in particular contains the anti-inflammatory antioxidants oleocanthal and oleuropein, which protect LDL from oxidation. These antioxidants found in olive oil may reduce your risk of heart disease.
Pesto Contains Vitamins and Minerals Your Body Needs
Many minerals are important for bone health. Public Good’s Pesto contains 6% DV calcium, 4% DV iron, and 2% DV potassium. You can thank garlic, cashews and pine nuts for adding this boost to your bones.
Garlic, pine nuts and parmesan cheese also deliver healthful doses of lesser known minerals, such as manganese, selenium and phosphorus. Your body only needs a small amount of these minerals, but they’re important for your health.
Manganese supports connective tissues, blood clotting, and your metabolism. Selenium acts as an antioxidant. And phosphorus supports bone and tooth health.
Lastly, you can find a small dose of vitamins A and K in basil, and vitamins B1 and B6 in garlic. However, pesto may not provide significant amounts of these energy-boosting vitamins.
How to Make Pesto Sauce Healthier
If you’re still worried that pesto pasta is simply too high in fat, there are ways you can make pesto healthier and reduce your consumption of fats and calories at the same time.
More than anything, be careful with portions. Measure out your pesto with proper serving sizes and be mindful of what you eat it with.
Switch Out the Carbs
Pesto sauce is traditionally eaten with pasta, which is high in carbs and calories. Try switching out pasta with vegetables for a low carb option. For example, spaghetti squash looks a lot like actual spaghetti. Twirl it around your fork and dip it in pesto. It adds a delightful crunch and is much lower in calories.
Instead of eating pesto with carbs like pasta, try it on chicken or tofu. Chicken adds a low-fat, high protein punch to your diet.
Alternatively, use pesto as a flavorful dip for carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes or broccoli. Speaking of tomatoes, you could always get some French bread and mozzarella and make a Caprese sandwich (or salad).
If you are going to eat pesto pasta, be sure to buy whole grain pasta, like Public Good’s Organic Fettuccine. Whole grain carbs won’t cause your blood sugar to spike.
Alter Your Pesto, or Make Your Own
Yes, you are allowed to alter store-bought pesto! Often, pesto sauce is thick. A little does not go a long way.
Extend the life of your jar of pesto by stirring in a bit of chicken or vegetable broth. Use half a serving of pesto and replace the other half with broth. It won’t noticeably alter the flavor, and you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck.
If you’re making your own pesto, beef up the low-calorie ingredients and reduce the high-calorie ingredients. For example, use half the amount of cheese and nuts. Opt for more basil and garlic and reduce oils, cheese and nuts.
You can also substitute these ingredients with low-calorie alternatives like non-fat Greek yogurt, avocado and almond milk for the same creamy, nutty flavor.
And as always, make sure you’re using premium ingredients. For example, extra virgin olive oil is higher quality than pure olive oil. Learn how to evaluate your olive oil.
So, Is Pesto Good for You?
As with all good things in life, yes, pesto is healthy in moderation. Pesto is high in fat and calories, but also contains many nourishing ingredients.
Rich in vitamins, minerals and monounsaturated fats, pesto provides your body with tools to maintain cell health and keep your heart healthy. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy pesto if you remain conscious of your diet.
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