Watching Calories in Food? Use Pesto Sparingly.

You needn’t worry about calories in a tomato sauce or even most alfredos (unless they’re cream laden). But a traditional pesto—made with olive oil, fresh basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, and garlic—packs 250 to 350 calories into a quarter cup. So you’re talking 450 to 550 calories for every cup of topped pasta. Ouch.


Oil coats well, so a quarter cup of pesto should be enough for a cup of pasta. That means you’ll have to double the numbers on the Nutrition Facts labels of Le Grand, Mezzetta Napa Valley Bistro, and any other brand that lists half that much (just two tablespoons). And you’ll have to quadruple the numbers on Whole Foods 365 Traditional Basil Pesto, which uses a one-tablespoon serving. Seriously?

Since pesto’s fat comes largely from heart-healthy oil, our saturated fat limit goes up to 4 grams. But between calories and sodium (which ranges from 150 to 850 mg per quarter cup), we only found a few brands we would recommend.

You can find lower-calorie pestos. Classico Sun-Dried Tomato and Le Grand Roasted Red Pepper have only about 100 calories. But neither trims the salt, and they may not satisfy your itch for a traditional basil pesto. If that’s what you want, try Trader Giotto’s (Trader Joe’s) refrigerated Genova Pesto. It will cost you 260 calories per quarter cup, but it has just 140 mg of sodium.

Tip: Stretch your pesto by thinning each quarter cup with a tablespoon or two of the pasta cooking water. Bonus: it should coat the pasta even better.


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One Reply to “Watching Calories in Food? Use Pesto Sparingly.”

  1. Traditionally pesto is used sparingly to toss with pasta to coat it, not piled on top like pasta sauce. One tablespoon is plenty for a cup or more of pasta., or to layer in a sandwich.

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