Traditional pesto is a bold combination of fresh basil, olive oil, pine nuts, cheese, salt and garlic, and the sauce jazzes up the taste of pasta, meat and salads. Part of why it tastes so yummy is the sodium that's added to it. Despite the rich taste of pesto, all that salt isn't really good for you. You don't have to swear off pesto, however, because it does have some redeeming qualities, but you probably shouldn't eat large amounts either.
Sodium in Pesto
A serving of pesto is equal to 1/4 cup, and that amount of the average commercially prepared pesto contains about 580 milligrams of sodium. That's one-quarter of the 2,300 milligrams you should stick to as your upper limit of sodium consumption each day. If you have high blood pressure, are over age 51 or follow a low-sodium diet for another reason, that 580 milligrams of sodium is almost 40 percent of the 1,500 milligrams you should limit yourself to each day.
Drawbacks of Sodium
It's virtually impossible to completely eliminate sodium from your diet, and you actually need tiny amounts to support the normal function of your nervous system. It's far easier to eat much more sodium than you need, and most people fall into this camp. Regularly consuming too much sodium increases the volume of your blood, which raises your blood pressure and makes it harder for your heart to work normally. Too much sodium puts extra strain on your kidneys, as well, which causes them to work overtime trying to get all that extra salt out of your body. Over time, that can lead to kidney disease. Sodium in large doses can also raise your risk of stroke.
Additional Nutrition Facts
Another drawback to commercially prepared pesto is the amount of fat the sauce contains. A 1/4-cup serving of pesto has 23 grams of fat, of which 4 grams are saturated. That's 20 percent of the 20 grams of saturated fat you should limit yourself to each day. It's also 36 percent of your total fat limit for the day. Despite the sodium and fat content of pesto, you do get certain essential nutrients from a serving of the sauce. A 1/4-cup serving of pesto supplies one-quarter of the vitamin A you need on a daily basis. Vitamin A plays a key role in the health of your eyes and immune system. Pesto also supplies small amounts of iron, calcium and dietary fiber. You'll also get 19 grams of unsaturated fats from the olive oil and pine nuts. Unsaturated fats are healthy fats that contribute to heart health, and they should make up the bulk of your total daily fat intake.
If you enjoy the taste of pesto and don't want to give it up, look for reduced-sodium versions. Certain brands sell versions that contain less sodium, which improves the nutritional value. Another alternative is to make your own pesto. Puree fresh basil, a small drizzle of olive oil, pine nuts and fresh garlic in a food processor. Add a pinch of salt for flavor, but don't go overboard. Your homemade version will be lower in sodium than most commercial varieties.
Sara Ipatenco has taught writing, health and nutrition. She started writing in 2007 and has been published in Teaching Tolerance magazine. Ipatenco holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in education, both from the University of Denver.