When I was a kid, my mom would set a small glass of orange juice on the table every morning (it came from a frozen concentrate back then, and the taste was best described as a tangy, watery slush). Even if I was late for school and didn’t have time for a bowl of cereal or a piece of toast, I dutifully downed the OJ. “You’ll get sick if you don’t drink it!” my mom would warn me.

But once I became an adult in charge of my own breakfasts, I stopped drinking the sweet stuff. Every book or article I read about maintaining a healthy diet cautioned against sugary beverages, and what is orange juice if not a glass full of sugar? (It contains about 21 g per cup). In fact, on the new Weight Watchers diet plan, a cup of orange juice will cost you 6 smart points, about the same as a small bowl of pasta or a couple of chocolate cookies, whereas an actual orange is a freebie at zero points.

So I always think of OJ as a treat — preferably mixed with champagne at a festive brunch. But somewhere in the back of my mind, my mom is still saying, “You’ll get sick if you don’t drink it!” So I decided to ask a nutritionist: Do the health benefits of orange juice outweigh the extra calories?

“I always prefer when someone can eat the real fruit rather than drink the juice, because it takes longer to peel and section the orange, and there are more interesting mouth sensations, so it’s more satisfying and filling,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table. “But the great majority of Americans don’t get enough fruits and vegetables, and orange juice can provide a lot of the vitamins and minerals we need in a more convenient package.”

So the answer to my pressing query is a qualified yes.

The health benefits of orange juice:

  • You get a full day’s worth of vitamin C: Just one small glass (about 6 ounces) of 100% orange juice provides you with 93 mg of vitamin C, which is more than 100% of the RDA for both men and women (pregnant and nursing women need a little extra, so go for that slightly larger glass). The only foods that come close to that power-punch of C are red and green bell peppers, grapefruit, and kiwi. What’s so great about vitamin C? Well, my mom was right in that it does boost your immune system, helping you fight off colds. Vitamin C is also crucial for helping wounds heal, and research suggests the antioxidant properties of vitamin C may help prevent or delay certain cancers and cardiovascular disease. Taub-Dix points out that vitamin C also enhances the way iron is absorbed in the body.
  • It’s one of the best natural ways to get folate: The CDC encourages all women to consume at least 400 mcg of folate (found naturally in food) or folic acid (the lab-created version, found in supplements and enriched food) each day to prevent neural tube defects in any future babies— it also helps keep your own blood healthy by promoting red blood cell growth. A cup of orange juice has about 15% of your RDA of folate, so drink that along with some fortified bread or cereal, spinach, nuts, and beans, and you should be good to go. (Talk to you your doctor to see if you need a supplement, especially if you’re pregnant or thinking about it.)
  • It has a lot of other powerful vitamins and minerals: Though vitamin C gets all the attention, orange juice is also rich in potassium, magnesium, vitamin A, and several B vitamins. “Many brands are also fortified with calcium and vitamin D,” Taub-Dix points out.
  • It can reduce your risk of kidney stones: Drink up your OJ every day, and you may reduce your risk of developing painful kidney stones by 12%, according to one study. OJ has a high level of potassium citrate, which binds to calcium in the urine, preventing stones from forming.

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    How to pick the best orange juice:

    In order to maximize the nutritional benefit of your morning cup of orange juice without overdoing the calories, Taub-Dix has these recommendations:

    • Always choose “100% orange juice,” which has no added sugar: If you see anything labeled “orange juice cocktail,” orangeade, orange drink, or orange soda, leave it on the shelf. “The new regulations about food labeling make it easier to tell what has added sugars and what has natural sugars,” says Taub-Dix.
    • Go for the pulp: Though you may prefer the smoother texture of “no pulp” OJ, the pulp is the part that contains fiber, says Taub-Dix. And fiber is crucial for maintaining digestive health and lowering your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
    • Keep it to 1 small cup: Save that giant souvenir cup from Disney for guzzling down water. An 8 ounce pour of OJ has all the vitamin C you need, and it’s a reasonable 110 calories. If you want to cut calories (and you eat plenty of other fruits and vegetables), pour half as much juice and fill up the rest of the glass with sparkling water, suggests Taub-Dix.

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