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Should I Drink Tomato Juice?

May 28, 2015
TIME Health
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3/5 experts say yes.

At 30,000 feet, tomato juice is almost as popular as beer, the top-selling beverage. But its health benefits are more up in the air, our experts say.

The very reason people order it on planes is why you should be wary. This stuff is salty—great for flavor while flying, since a new study shows that very loud noise, like the roar of airplane engines, changes our sense of taste by dulling sweet flavors and enhancing umami, the signature flavor of tomato. But most Americans aren't exactly suffering from a salt deficiency.

“Most tomato juice has added salt at a rather shocking concentration,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. An 8-ounce serving can pack 670 mg of sodium: 28% of a person’s government-recommended daily intake, and about as much as four small bags of chips.

A good way to think about sodium, he says, is that the overall diet shouldn’t have more than a milligram of sodium per calorie. Since a cup of tomato juice only has 50 calories, it has about 13 times as much sodium as it should by this standard of measurement.

The real draw of tomato juice is lycopene—an antioxidant found in ruby and orange foods that may help lower risk of stroke, prostate cancer and metabolic diseases. Americans get more than 80% of their lycopene from tomatoes in its various forms. You're in good shape if you regularly eat the whole fruit, especially if it's cooked and with a little healthy fat; fat makes certain nutrients easier for the body to digest and absorb, say Steven Schwartz, PhD, and Robin Ralston, RD, of the Center for Advanced Functional Foods Research and Entrepreneurship at Ohio State University. "But the same health-beneficial compounds in tomatoes are also in tomato juice," they say, while also echoing the importance of paying attention to salt content.

If you don’t regularly eat tomatoes, swapping unhealthy beverages like soda with tomato juice is a good way to get the benefits of lycopene, says Pei-Min Chao, PhD, professor and chair of the department of nutrition at China Medical University in Taiwan. In a small 2015 study, Chao gave 25 healthy young women 9 ounces of tomato juice every day for two months. Compared to their levels before the experiment began, tomato juice was linked to higher levels of lycopene and lower body weight, body fat, BMI and cholesterol blood levels after the experiment ended. And a randomized controlled trial by Gity Sotoudeh of the school of nutritional sciences and dietetics at Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran found that tomato juice reduces oxidative stress in overweight women.

If you’re jonesing for the juice, the healthiest bet is to follow this recipe from Deborah Cohen, MD, senior natural scientist at the RAND Corporation. "Just put tomatoes in a blender," she says, "and drink up."

Tomato-juice Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME 
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