Is Pesto Sauce Healthy?

If rich, garlicky pesto is a regular on your menu, you're probably wondering if there are any health benefits of pesto. Yes and no. Made with the right ingredients, pesto provides some valuable nutrients; however it's also high in fat, calories and sodium.

Pesto sauce is high in calories, fat and sodium, but it also offers some health benefits when eaten in moderation.
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Pesto sauce is high in calories, fat and sodium, but it also offers some health benefits when eaten in moderation.

Pesto Calories, Fat and Sodium

Traditional pesto is a mix of fresh basil, olive oil, parmesan cheese, garlic, pine nuts and salt. But there are hundreds of fresh and packaged pesto variations, and many of them contain additional or different ingredients. This means the pesto's nutritional profile will vary.

According to the USDA, one particular pesto recipe contains canola oil, basil, parmesan, romano cheese, pine nuts, olive oil, rice vinegar, salt, spices, lemon juice and preservatives. One serving, or 60 grams, of this pesto has 250 calories and 25 grams of fat. For about 4 tablespoons of sauce, that's a lot of calories and fat.

Consider the fact that the average adult consumes about 2,000 calories daily, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. That means that just the sauce would provide more than 10 percent of the calories you need in a day. For people who are sedentary or trying to lose weight and need fewer calories, that could make up an even larger portion of daily energy intake.

The recommended daily intake of fat is 20 to 35 percent of total calories. A person eating 2,000 calories a day would need 400 to 700 calories from fat, or 44 to 77 grams. The 25 grams of fat in a serving of pesto would provide one-third to more than half of the fat you need for the entire day.

While the fat in pesto is primarily unsaturated fat, which can improve your cholesterol levels and heart health when consumed in place of saturated fat, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, too much fat isn't healthy. And with 9 calories per gram, as opposed to 4 calories per gram in carbohydrates and proteins, eating too much can cause you to exceed your calorie budget for the day and gain weight.

Next on the list of pesto's potential shortfalls is sodium. Sodium is an important electrolyte mineral you need in small amounts for good health; however, too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease.

The American Heart Association recommends keeping sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams per day. However, it reports that most adults could benefit from an even lower limit of 1,500 milligrams per day. There are 330 milligrams of sodium in a quarter cup of pesto — more than one-fifth of the AHA's recommended lower limit.

Read more: Low Sodium Diet: Easy Tips to Reduce Salt Intake

Health Benefits of Pesto

But pesto also has redeeming qualities. As mentioned, vegetable oils, such as olive oil, contain unsaturated fats that can actually help lower bad cholesterol levels and increase good cholesterol levels.

You'll also get a dose of plant-based protein from pesto — more than 10 percent of the 46 grams recommended for women each day, and a little less than 10 percent of the 56 grams recommended each day for men. Protein is crucial for the formation of strong bones and muscles and for healthy immune system function.

Another nutrient that supports immune function, vitamin C, is abundant in pesto. One serving provides 100 percent or more of the recommended daily intake of the vitamin, which is also important for the formation of collagen and wound healing, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Pesto is also a good source of calcium, which is crucial for maintaining bone health. One serving provides 150 milligrams, or about 13 to 15 percent of an adult's daily requirement, reports NIH.

Read more: 7 Myths About Dietary Fats You Should Stop Believing Right Now

You can reap these health benefits and enjoy all the flavor of pesto by watching your serving size and making sure it fits into your overall intake of calories, fat and sodium for the day.

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