Is Pesto Vegan? The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Vegan Pesto

Pesto sauce on a cutting board
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A majority of traditional pesto recipes call for a handful of Parmesan cheese to complement the sauce’s fresh, savory flavor, meaning that most pesto you’ll see in stores will likely contain dairy—and will therefore not be vegan.

That being said, vegan options are certainly not impossible to find. Fresh pesto is also quite easy to make at home, and there are many different styles and flavors to choose from.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this classic Italian sauce must be limited to pasta dishes, either. Pesto also makes a delicious dipping sauce or spread, flavorful addition to soup, and topping for roasted vegetables.

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Nutritional yeast—an inactive, powdered yeast that’s a favorite in vegan kitchens—makes a wonderful substitute for cheese in a homemade pesto recipe. Apart from giving your pesto that cheesy flavor without any dairy, nutritional yeast will add a good amount of B12 and other B vitamins to your dish.

Why Most Pesto Is Not Vegan

Most pesto is not considered vegan for the sole reason that basic recipes call for some kind of hard cheese like Parmesan or pecorino, which is not suitable for vegans. Some authentic Parmesan is even made using rennet, an enzyme found in the lining of a goat or calf's stomach.

Because of this, a majority of the pesto you’ll find stocked in grocery store shelves and on restaurant menus won’t be vegan-friendly.

On the other hand, with awareness of vegan diets and plant-based recipes increasing in popularity, there are more and more vegan basil pesto alternatives appearing out there that are made using nutritional yeast or simply leave out the Parmesan cheese in lieu of extra olive oil.

Types of Vegan Pesto

Pesto made with kale
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Pesto made with fresh basil leaf, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, salt, and cheese originated in Genoa, in northwest Italy. The word “pesto” is derived from an Italian word meaning “to pound or crush,” which refers to the way that the sauce is made—by pounding the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle.

The original recipe has inspired a number of similar sauces with different combinations of flavors, some of which may be vegan friendly.

  • Biona Organic Pesto: Made with all-organic basil, extra virgin olive oil, and pine nuts.
  • Trader Joe’s Vegan Pesto: Vegan pesto sauce made with kale, cashew butter, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper.
  • Zest Vegan Basil Pesto: Made with brazil nuts, cashew nuts, and hazelnuts.
  • Amore Pesto Paste: Vegan pesto in a paste form that’s perfect for adding to sandwiches.
  • Organico Jarred Vegan Pesto: Made with tofu instead of Parmesan cheese and a combination of cashew nuts and walnuts instead of pine nuts.

Types of Non-Vegan Pesto

Pesto sauce with cheese
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Unfortunately for vegans, a vast majority of the popular jarred pestos found in grocery stores and restaurants will include cheese. Be sure to check the ingredients list for non-vegan ingredients while shopping or ask your server if the pesto is vegan while dining out.

  • Classico Traditional Basil Pesto: Made with Romano cheese.
  • 365 by Whole Foods Pesto Basil: Made with Parmesan and Romano cheese.
  • BARILLA Rustic Basil Pesto Sauce: Made with Grana Padano and Romano cheese.
  • Prego Basil Pesto Sauce: Made with Romano cheese.
  • Cucina & Amore Genovese Basil Pesto: Made with Grana Padano and Parmesan cheese.

Products to Avoid That Include Non-Vegan Pesto

Pesto pizza with cheese
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While you’re bound to find pesto on any number of pasta dishes, the sauce also finds its way into a slew of other Italian favorites including soups, sandwiches, spreads, and dips. Pesto may also be added to bread dough for an elevated flavor and color, or used to top pizzas instead of tomato sauce. 

Pesto Alternatives

Fresh tomato sauce on a cutting board
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In addition to opting for vegan varieties of pesto that don’t include cheese, there are a couple of alternatives to omit pesto altogether in certain dishes. You can also use vegan cheese or make your own pesto at home using vegan ingredients.

Basil Oil

A simple basil oil is often the easiest substitute for classic pesto, since it will give you a similar, lighter taste. Basil oil is made by finely chopping basil leaves and mixing with extra virgin olive oil until it becomes a paste. You can also make other types of herb oils using parsley, mint, oregano, cilantro, or a combination. 

Different Sauces

Most tomato-based sauce is already completely vegan, so it's the perfect substitute for pesto if you’re eating out at a restaurant or making a dish at home.

Another option is a vegan alfredo sauce made with nutritional yeast, cauliflower, and cashews, or a simple drizzle of good olive oil mixed with roasted vegetables on top of pasta.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can you make vegan pesto with cashews?

    Since unsalted cashews closely resemble pine nuts in color, flavor, and texture, they can easily be swapped in a pesto recipe. Pesto can also be made with walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans, sunflower seeds, and even macadamia nuts.

  • Can you use vegan pesto on pizza?

    Yes, pesto pairs well with pizza as a substitute for traditional tomato sauce. Opt for vegan cheese or just stick to extra veggies to keep it vegan.

  • Does pesto contain eggs?

    Although the majority of pesto sauces do not contain eggs, there are a few on the market that use egg lysozyme as a preservative. However, the preservative is almost always paired with cheese, so the product wouldn’t be vegan anyway.