Is Pesto Keto-Friendly?

author avatar Dr. Eric Berg 05/15/2024

Pesto is a nutritious sauce and condiment available in many tasty variations, but is pesto keto-friendly?

Yes, traditionally prepared pesto is low in carbs and can be a great way to add depth of flavor to various keto recipes. 

Discover the benefits of regularly incorporating pesto into a ketogenic diet and learn how to make the best Healthy Keto® pesto recipe.

Fresh bowl of homemade pesto

What is pesto?

Originating from Genoa, Italy, authentic pesto sauce is crafted from simple ingredients, including fresh basil leaves, garlic, parmesan cheese, pecorino cheese, pine nuts, olive oil, sea salt, and pepper.

The name pesto comes from the Genovese word pestare, which means to pound or crush. It depicts the traditional method of preparing pesto using a mortar and pestle to combine ingredients.

Here are common ingredients used in different pesto varieties.

Common herbs used in pesto

The original pesto recipe, Pesto alla Genovese, exclusively uses Genovese basil as the primary herb due to its unique sweetness.

Basil is a delicate herb, and using the mortar and pestle instead of harshly chopping or blending with a food processor slows down the oxidation of the leaves. This not only helps preserve the sauce's vivid green hue but also enhances its flavor and aroma.

However, pesto has evolved to encompass a broader range of ingredients.

Here are some other common herbs used in many pesto recipes:

  • Italian flat-leaf parsley

  • Cilantro

  • Mint

  • Oregano 

In addition to herbs, many pesto sauces incorporate ingredients such as arugula, spinach, kale, lemon juice, or tomatoes. 

Common nuts used in pesto

Similarly, some recipes replace the traditional toasted pine nuts with other types of nuts to add a unique twist to the classic dish.

Here are some commonly used nuts used to prepare pesto:

  • Almonds

  • Cashews

  • Walnuts

  • Pecans

  • Pistachios

Keto-friendly pesto zucchini noodles

Is pesto keto-friendly?

Traditional pesto is low in carbohydrates and contains less than one gram of net carbs per tablespoon. This makes pesto an excellent keto-friendly option that offers impressive flavors.

However, since there are many different pesto variations, it’s crucial to read labels to check that there are no added sugars or hidden carbs that could interfere with ketosis.

For those following Healthy Keto, a low-carb diet that focuses on nutrient-dense whole foods, checking the ingredients list is essential, as many pre-made pestos can include potentially harmful additives and preservatives.

Watch this video to discover the health and nutritional benefits of basil.

Amazing Health & Nutritional Benefits Of Basil

4 health benefits of pesto 

Authentic basil pesto combines several superfoods high in nutrients, offering many potential health benefits. 

Here are four reasons why you should incorporate more pesto into your meals.

1. Anti-aging properties

Research published in Frontiers in Nutrition shows that healthy fats, particularly the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids found in olive oil, can improve brain function and help reduce the risk of cognitive decline. 

These fatty acids are also vital for supporting eye health and contribute to healthier skin by improving skin barrier function and hydration. 

2. Supports the immune system 

According to a study published in Foods, Genovese basil is particularly rich in polyphenols, including rosmarinic and caffeic acid. 

These health-promoting compounds have been linked to potent anti-inflammatory effects that support immune system function and may lower the risk of chronic diseases.

3. Potential anti-cancer effects 

Key ingredients in pesto, including basil, garlic, and olive oil, are exceptional sources of antioxidants that may help lower cancer risk. 

Antioxidants can counteract the effects of free radicals, thereby preventing oxidative stress, which is linked to cellular and DNA damage, a leading cause of cancer.   

4. Promotes digestive health

Parmigiano Reggiano, widely considered the best cheese for pesto, contains digestive enzymes and beneficial gut bacteria, also known as probiotics. 

Probiotics help maintain a healthy gut microbiome essential for nutrient absorption, digestive health, and overall well-being.

Research published in Food Technology and Biotechnology found that Parmigiano Reggiano also contains oligosaccharides, which act as a prebiotic food source for beneficial gut bacteria.

Couple reading ingredients on a jar

Store-bought vs. homemade pesto

Italians will be the first to tell you there's no comparison between store-bought and homemade pesto sauce.

Pesto is a delicate sauce that’s best consumed fresh, as its flavor and quality can deteriorate quickly, becoming bitter and dull as the enzymes released from basil oxidize. 

To help extend pesto’s shelf life, store-bought versions often contain preservatives and additives that can negatively impact the flavor and quality of the sauce and may harm your health.

Additionally, many store-bought pestos will substitute critical ingredients, such as extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), cheese, or fresh garlic, with cheaper alternatives or omit them entirely, leading to a bland or unpalatable flavor and a significantly lower nutritional value.  

How to choose the best store-bought pesto sauce

Homemade pesto sauce is always preferred, but if you don't have time to make it, the best premade pestos can often be found in the refrigerated section. 

Look for pestos that don't contain artificial preservatives or low-quality ingredients, such as sunflower oil or potato flakes. Instead, opt for certified organic and non-GMO products that use high-quality oil and real cheese sourced from grass-fed and pasture cows.

Fresh pesto with gnocchi

Keto-friendly pesto recipes 

If you're looking for a way to add extra flavor to your keto meals, look no further than pesto. Chicken, fish, steak, and most vegetables pair exceptionally well with this tasty and versatile sauce.

Here are some delicious keto-friendly pesto recipes:

To complete your pesto experience, try experimenting with keto pasta recipes.

Zucchini noodles, keto gnocchi, and keto egg noodles are excellent low-carb pasta alternatives that work well with keto pesto sauce. 

Pouring fresh olive oil

Tips to make the best pesto sauce 

Here are some tips on how to choose the best ingredient to make a nutritious and flavorful pesto at home.

Parmesan cheese

Opt for authentic Parmigiano Reggiano, an Italian staple that’s been in production for over 900 years.

Known for its rich, nutty flavor and granular texture, Parmigiano Reggiano undergoes a meticulous aging process and adheres to stringent production standards, ensuring its authenticity and superior quality.

The Parmigiano Reggiano standard guidelines underscore a commitment to natural production, prohibiting additives and ensuring cows are fed local forage.

This approach not only guarantees the cheese's premium taste but also preserves essential nutrients and probiotics. 

Olive oil

Select only pure cold-pressed EVOO. Many olive oils on the market are diluted with cheaper oils that compromise flavor and can introduce harmful ingredients that may negatively impact your health.

In addition, evidence published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition summarizes, "phenolic content of olive oil is reduced by chemical extraction and refining."

By prioritizing cold-pressed EVOO, you ensure your olive oil is rich in flavor and health-promoting properties.

Fresh Genovese basil

Harvested during early growth stages to ensure optimal flavor, Genovese basil is the prime choice for making basil pesto. 

As Dr. Berg explains, "Basil has some amazing health benefits. It’s loaded with vitamin K, manganese, and flavonoids, which can help support healthy bones, blood clotting, and skeletal health while offering potent anti-inflammatory properties.”

Fresh pesto in mortar and pestle

Key takeaways

Is pesto keto-friendly? Yes, pesto is low in carbs and can be a delicious addition to a keto diet when made with the right ingredients.

Traditional pesto alla Genovese is keto-friendly, but check for added sugars or carbs when buying premade options.

When making pesto from scratch, use only the best ingredients such as cold-pressed EVOO, parmesan cheese, and Genovese basil, to optimize flavor and nutritional content and avoid harmful additives.


1. Are there carbs in pesto?

Traditional pesto sauce is very low in carbs, with less than one net carb per tablespoon (16 grams).

2. Is pesto keto-friendly?

Yes, most pesto is keto-friendly. However, there are many pesto variations, and it’s best to check ingredients for added sugars and hidden carbs.

To ensure your pesto is Healthy Keto®-approved, opt for organic and non-GMO ingredients, grass-fed pasture-raised cheese, and healthy oils such as cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil or pure avocado oil. 

3. Is pesto gluten-free?

Yes, most pesto sauce recipes are gluten-free. 

However, when buying premade pesto, always check the ingredients list. Some brands, although it is rare, may use gluten-containing ingredients as a thickening agent.  

4. Is pesto vegan?

While traditional pesto recipes include cheese as a primary ingredient, many delicious vegan recipes are also available.

Cheese can easily be substituted with nutritional yeast flakes to achieve the savory flavor of traditional pesto recipes while enriching it with various essential B vitamins. 

5. Can you eat store-bought pesto on keto?

There are many variations of pesto. When buying premade pesto, checking the ingredients for added sugars, carbs, unhealthy fillers, and preservatives is critical to ensure the product is Healthy Keto® approved.

However, the best way to eat pesto is homemade. Freshly made pesto has the highest nutritional value and offers optimal flavor. 

6. Can I eat basil on keto?

Yes, you can eat basil on keto. Basil is a nutrient-dense herb rich in antioxidants and other health-promoting nutrients, such as vitamin K, beta carotene, and manganese.

7. Are pine nuts keto-friendly?

Pine nuts are keto-friendly in moderation and offer several beneficial nutrients for a balanced, low-carb diet. 

However, those with nut allergies should exercise caution and consult a health professional before consuming pine nuts to minimize the risk of allergic reactions. 







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