Is Pesto Safe to Eat During Pregnancy?

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Written by Gina Wagg BA, Dip.

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When you’re pregnant and hungry, pesto is super convenient and easily turns plain pasta into a tasty meal. Understandably, pregnant women sometimes have concerns about whether or not pesto is safe.

Pesto is generally safe during pregnancy, but good food safety practices should still be used when handling as pesto can be prone to contamination if it’s fresh. Pesto in a can or jar is almost always pregnancy-safe as it’s sterilized or pasteurized. When opened, pesto should be stored correctly to prevent bacterial growth.

I’ll walk you through the safety considerations of pesto during pregnancy and how you can add it to your favorite meals during pregnancy, too.

Is Pesto Safe During Pregnancy?

Pesto is generally safe to eat when you’re pregnant. That said, it CAN be prone to contamination and needs to be used and stored properly.

The main concern with pesto during pregnancy is more to do with its texture rather than the usual ingredients – which are covered further down in this article.

Pesto has a fairly short shelf life, so it’s best to try to make it fresh at home. If using store-bought pesto, you should use it up completely after opening within a few days, after storing it in the fridge. Homemade pesto can last up to seven days in the fridge, and refrigerated pesto can last up to two weeks (source: eatbydate).

However, if your pesto starts to smell bad or if the texture or color changes sooner than this, it’s best to be safe and discard it. One common issue is mold at the top of the pesto where some ingredients separate from the oil. To combat this, you can top your partly-used pesto with extra olive oil, and discard when spooning it out.

Unpasteurized vs Pasteurized Pesto During Pregnancy

Generally, brands will combine the pesto ingredients raw but then they are pasteurized before packaging to increase shelf life (source: Packworld).

Freshly made pesto from a farmers market (or homemade) may not be pasteurized, so make sure to ask first. If in doubt, make sure it has been heated until hot enough to kill any pathogens to be on the safe side. Heating foods to at least 165°F/75°C for 30 seconds should kill bacteria.

Shelf-stable pesto from a store is safe but should be refrigerated after it has been opened. Fresh pesto from a market or that was made at home needs to be refrigerated at all times.

Pesto has a short shelf life, and goes bad quickly after opening. This is because the olive oil and pine nuts are prone to spoilage more than most other foods, due to their high fat content.

pesto sauce in a glass jar

Ingredients in Pesto When Pregnant

Pesto typically contains basil, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil, all of which are safe during pregnancy.

Cheese is also a common ingredient which can be a concern during pregnancy. Hard cheeses are safe as the lower water content makes it difficult for listeria and pathogens to thrive.

Pesto is usually made with parmesan or romano. Parmesan and Romano cheese are safe during pregnancy because they are hard cheeses. Should soft cheese be listed in the ingredients (for example, ricotta), then check if it’s pasteurized. Bear in mind that cooking food to 165°F/75°C kills pathogens, even in unpasteurized cheese.

Why Listeria Can Grow in Pesto

Pesto has sometimes been the subject of food recalls. Some instances have been because of cross-contamination, rather than the pesto itself (source: Allergen Bureau). While pine nuts are common in pesto, many recalls have been due to the presence of undeclared pine nuts (source: Indiana Department of Health).

However, in 2017 pesto was recalled due to listeria contamination (source: food safety news). In fact, listeria can commonly be found in low percentages in unpasteurized pesto.

Pesto can be easily contaminated due to its high water content and low pH. This makes ready-to-eat dips like pesto prone to listeria and contamination from other pathogens (Source: Plos One).

To be on the safe side, choose pasteurized pesto (usually found in a jar, unrefrigerated) or heat up the pesto with your pasta or other ingredients until steaming hot. To help out when shopping, here are a handful of common pesto brands that pasteurize their products:

Pasteurized pesto brands:

To save you some time in the grocery store, here are pesto brands available in the US that have been pasteurized:

  • Retailer own brands (eg. Walmart, Target, Wholefoods) that are shelf stable
  • Artisola
  • Classico signature recipes
  • Rao’s homemade
  • Prego
pesto pasta with basil on a plate

Safe Ways to Eat Pesto During Pregnancy:

Pesto is safe if it has been heated through (hot, not just warm) in pasta dishes. As heat kills bacteria, hot pasta dishes with pesto are generally safe. This is a better option than mixing pesto into a cold dressing for pasta or salad.

However, if using pesto as a cold dressing, it’s best to get a fresh jar from a brand that is pasteurized.

  • Pesto makes a great replacement for pizza sauce, and is safe if it has been cooked in the oven.
  • Pesto can also be spread on toasted bruschetta with diced tomato, garlic and onion. A taste of the Med!
  • Pesto can even be added to vegetable or chicken soup for an additional kick. I like to stir it into white bean soup.

Can Pregnant Women Eat Pesto Sauce?

Pesto sauce, which usually has added cream, is another food I’m often asked about. As long as the cream has been pasteurized as well as other common ingredients such as cheese it should be safe during pregnancy.

As with normal pesto, store-bought pesto sauce is usually pasteurized. If the pesto sauce is homemade or made in a restaurant in pasta dishes – as long as the meal has been cooked to 165°F/75°C and good food safety has been practiced it should be perfectly safe.

In the US, it is illegal in many states to sell unpasteurized dairy products across state lines (source: CDC). Most store-bought brands of pesto sauce should be pasteurized but some artisan brands may not be (source: FDA). Always check the label if you’re not sure.

Overall, pesto is generally safe during pregnancy but it is not immune to contamination so make sure to eat fresh, or buy from reputable brands. Once opened, use it up within a few days and store in the fridge, topped up with oil if need be. Enjoy your pesto!