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Is pesto vegetarian?

vegetable salad on white ceramic plate

Is pesto vegetarian?

Pesto, a popular Italian sauce made from fresh basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil, is a versatile and flavorful addition to many dishes. However, for those following a vegetarian diet, the question arises: is pesto vegetarian? While the traditional recipe includes Parmesan cheese, which is made with animal rennet, there are variations and alternatives that make pesto suitable for vegetarians.

Traditional pesto ingredients

The classic pesto recipe consists of the following ingredients:

  • Fresh basil leaves
  • Pine nuts
  • Garlic
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Olive oil

These ingredients are blended together to create a smooth and vibrant green sauce that is commonly used in pasta dishes, sandwiches, and as a dip. However, it is the inclusion of Parmesan cheese that raises concerns for vegetarians.

Animal rennet in Parmesan cheese

Traditional Parmesan cheese is made using animal rennet, an enzyme extracted from the stomach lining of young calves. Rennet helps coagulate milk during the cheese-making process. As a result, strict vegetarians who avoid animal products may choose to avoid Parmesan cheese altogether.

Vegetarian alternatives

Fortunately, there are several alternatives and variations of pesto that cater to vegetarians:

  • Vegan pesto: Vegan pesto recipes omit the Parmesan cheese altogether, making it suitable for both vegetarians and vegans. Nutritional yeast or vegan cheese substitutes can be used to add a cheesy flavor.
  • Vegetarian-friendly Parmesan: Some brands produce vegetarian-friendly Parmesan cheese that is made using microbial or vegetable rennet instead of animal rennet. These options provide a similar taste and texture to traditional Parmesan cheese without the use of animal products.
  • Alternative cheeses: Instead of Parmesan, other hard cheeses like Pecorino Romano or Grana Padano can be used in pesto recipes. These cheeses are often made with vegetarian-friendly rennet.
  • Nut-based pesto: For those with nut allergies or preferences, pine nuts can be substituted with other nuts like almonds, walnuts, or cashews. These variations offer a unique twist to the traditional pesto flavor.

Commercial pesto products

When purchasing pre-made pesto from the store, it is essential to read the label carefully to determine if it is vegetarian-friendly. Some commercial pesto products may contain animal-derived ingredients or non-vegetarian cheese. However, many brands now offer vegetarian or vegan options, clearly indicating the absence of animal products on their packaging.


While traditional pesto made with Parmesan cheese may not be suitable for strict vegetarians, there are numerous alternatives and variations available that make pesto a vegetarian-friendly sauce. Whether it’s using vegan pesto recipes, vegetarian-friendly Parmesan cheese, alternative cheeses, or nut-based variations, individuals following a vegetarian diet can still enjoy the delicious flavors of pesto without compromising their dietary choices.