Go, Go, Goji … All The Way To The Bank …
If ever there was a berry with so much hype and so little evidence, it’s the Himalayan Goji (or wolfberry).
Goji – The Hype – From the Himalayas to Hollywood … A Star is Born
The media hype started in July 2006, when Himalayan goji berries were crowned “breakout” (whatever that means) superfruit of the year by Time magazine.
This tiny berry became the centre of attention – lauded by celebrities including Madonna, Miranda Kerr, Mischa Barton, Kate Moss, Elizabeth Hurley, Victoria Beckham and Mick Jagger (to name a few).
From the Himalayas to Hollywood, a star was born – some celebrity endorsements and a simple sentence in a magazine propelled the humble Goji berry out of relative obscurity, and onto the superfood stage.
The Los Angeles Times jumped on the bandwagon: “Tibetan and Chinese legends tell of people who lived century-long lives while retaining the strength and beauty of youth – thanks to Lycium (goji).”
New Woman Magazine remarked: “The latest super fruit to take Hollywood by storm is the Himalayan goji berry.”
And BBC news magazine in London noted: “Celebrities have been singing the praises of goji.”
Seemingly without concern for accurate research, the media shamelessly fell in love with these tasty morsels.
Then, like many other “super-food” and “super-life” enhancements, Goji berries appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show (in 2007).
Chicago Bulls basketball star Ben Gordon asked Dr. Oz for nutrition advice to help him get through his gruelling thrice-daily workouts.
“I’m a professional athlete. I train anywhere between two and three times a day. What kind of foods can I add to my diet to help me maintain high energy levels throughout my diet and not crash after I’m finished working out?” Gordon asked.
The good Dr. Oz advised Gordon he would benefit from eating more antioxidant-rich foods to reduce oxidation building up in his muscles. Dr. Oz claimed that the Himalayan Goji is “the most potent antioxidant fruit that we know.”
If Time magazine initiated the hype, Oprah and Dr. Oz escalated it.
But … what the media failed to report was that in an international publication discussing the scientific evidence for wolf berry’s bioactivities, gaps in scientific evidence were identified, and it was cautioned that no evidence exists “to support claims for a quasi-miraculous potion for longevity”.
And this: “Clinical evidences and rigorous procedures for quality control are indispensable before any recommendation of use can be made for Goji products.”
And this: “Further investigations and in particular well-designed clinical trials with phytochemically well-characterized extracts are required before the potential of Goji as a medicinal plant can be definitively assessed. Concerning the numerous products found on the health food market, there are at the moment no scientific evidences to sustain the claims made for Goji juice as a “cure-all” or a miraculous drink for well-being and longevity. The development of rigorous quality control procedures for Goji products is urgently needed.”
Goji – The Botany
Goji belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshade) plant family – which also includes eggplants, potatoes, tomatoes, chill peppers and tobacco.
Where do Goji Berries Come From?
Major Asian varieties – Lycium barbarum, Lyceum chinensis. There are an estimated 85 species in Asia, including China and Tibet.
Major American varieties – Lycium andersonii, Lycium berlandieri, Lycium brevipes, Lycium californicum, Lycium carolinianum, Lycium cooperi, Lycium exsertum, Lycium fremontii, Lycium halimifolium, Lycium macrodon, Lycium pallidum, Lycium parishii, Lycium puberlum, Lycium torreyi (Note – Lycium is also often spelled Lyceum). There are an estimated 15 species in North and Central America – mostly in the desert Southwest of the United States (Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Texas) with some species also present in the western deserts of Mexico and South America.
The lyceum berry was an important food source for nearly all Native American tribes in the desert Southwest including the Hopi, Apache, Supai, Hohokam, Pima, Anasazi, Navajo, Zuni, and many others.
Common Names – Goji Berry, Wolfberry, Fructus lycii, Boxthorn, Matrimony Vine, Desert Thorn, Duke of Argyll’s Tea Tree
Parts Used – Berries, Seeds, Flowers, Leaves, Roots
What Do Goji Berries Taste Like?
Depending on the variety and the method of processing – some say lyceum berries are similar in taste to raisins, cranberries, strawberries, and combinations of these.
One recent study noted – “Goji products sold outside Asia contain, according to the suppliers, exclusively L. barbarum berries. However, distinction of wolfberries from different species and varieties is difficult so that substitution or adulteration in commercial products cannot be excluded.”
Goji – The Nutrition
What are the health benefits of Goji berries?
Most of the available nutrition information on the Goji is either – 1. Regurgitated claims on the internet, mostly without any credible sources or attribution; 2. Industry-sponsored studies conducted by manufacturers of Goji health products.
Let’s address the first case first.
Many websites provide a detailed analysis of the wolfberry’s nutrient profile, and reference either no source whatsoever – or one particular source – the Beijing Nutrition Research Institute. A study in 1988 is said to have determined a detailed chemical analysis and nutritional composition of the dried Lycium fruit.
The problem? There is no record to be found of the existence of the Beijing Nutrition Research Institute, and no trace of the original study, from which all these claims originate. We know absolutely nothing about the alleged study – how it was conducted, who conducted it, etc.
Even if we know the quantities of these nutrients, we don’t know in what quantity we would need to ingest them to derive any benefit (or, indeed, if there is any benefit to be had by ingesting them).
According to the plethora of sources citing the Beijing Nutrition Research Institute analysis, the fruit allegedly contains:
- More beta carotene than carrots, and 500 times more vitamin C by weight than oranges (more recent studies refute this claim)
- More than 18 amino acids, 21 trace minerals, and substantial amounts of vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B6 and vitamin E
- Essential fatty acids
- Carotenoids (more than any other known food)
- Selenium and Germanium – well-known anti-cancer agents
- Beta Sitosterol – this anti-inflammatory agent has been found to lower cholesterol, and has been used to treat impotence and prostate enlargement
- Zeaxanthin and Lutine – believed to improve vision and protect the eyes
- Betaine – produces choline in the liver, which assists the detoxification process. It is also believed to protect DNA, enhance memory, encourage muscle growth and protect against fatty liver disease
- Cyperone – used in treatment of cervical cancer. Known to benefit blood pressure, heart and menstrual problems
- Solavetivone – an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent
- Physalis – a compound believed to boost the immune system. Also found effective in treating leukemia, cancer and hepatitis B
Seemingly on the basis of this unidentifiable and unverified study, a slew of sometimes outlandish and completely unsubstantiated claims of the Goji’s almost-magical properties ensued.
Fast forward to 2007 … the Goji is making headlines … new industry-funded studies emerge … and so do lawsuits.
The problem with industry-funded studies is that they are not always as accurate or as impartial as we might like.
But, to date, there have been no independent studies detailing the nutritional components of Lyceum berries – they are still nowhere to be found in the USDA National Nutrient Database.
According to the website of goji supplier, Navitas Naturals: “Goji Berries provide a number of important nutrients including complex carbohydrates and complete proteins. There’s even more to this sweet little red berry including 18 amino acids, free-radical fighting antioxidants, carotenoids, vitamins A, C, and E, and more than 20 other trace minerals and vitamins including zinc, iron, phosphorus and riboflavin (B2). Ounce-for-ounce, goji berries contain more vitamin C than oranges, more beta-carotene than carrots, and more iron than soybeans and spinach.”
Interestingly, the label’s Nutrition Facts state that Goji berries contain “Total Fat: 0 grams”, yet the stated “Health Properties” include: “Essential Fatty Acids”. So which is it?
As for the trace minerals and amino acids, these must be so small, they are not even included on the label.
Nativas Naturals also tells us that 28 grams (1 ounce) of wolfberries comprises 21 grams of carbs, 3 grams of fibre and 4 grams of protein. You’ll get roughly the same nutrients from a quarter of a cup of chickpeas – at much less cost.
Goji is “celebrated” by suppliers (and superfood groupies) for its Vitamin A content – 140% of the Daily Value per 28 grams – this is similar to other red and orange fruits and vegetables.
But … at what cost? A 28 gram serving of goji berries contains 100 calories – a medium-sized carrot contains only 25 calories – yet the goji provides only two-thirds the amount of Vitamin A of the carrot.
A 28 gram serving of goji berries might provide more Vitamin C, gram for gram, than an orange, but your waistline (and your wallet) might not like the “logistics”. You would need to eat 140 grams (5 ounces) of berries to obtain the 106 % of your daily Vitamin C that an orange provides. That equates to a whopping 500 calories – compared to only 60-80 calories for an orange. And depending on where you buy your goji, that could cost you up to $10.
The Nativas Naturals website does not profile any of the other more exotic nutrients – the selenium, zeaxanthin, lupine, betaine, etc – so, we’re still none the wiser about these.
Goji – The Evidence
There have been around 50 lyceum studies conducted on mice, rats, diabetic rabbits and zebrafish. In their zeal to endorse yet another “superfood”, many websites and manufacturers neglect to mention this in their glowing reviews, and fail to note that these results do not apply to humans.
While animal studies can provide valuable information, and serve as a springboard for studies in humans, it is important to remember that test results in animals do not always replicate in people. Many of these studies have also used wolf berry extract at extremely high concentrations in order to achieve favourable results.
So, what of the human studies? Unfortunately, there are less than a handful and very few have been independent – they are almost all industry-funded, so we need to consider the reliability and potential for impartial findings.
As you might imagine, all these studies have shown favourable results.
Let’s look at the studies published by GoChi, a company which markets goji juice, and has faced legal problems for “misrepresentation and deception”.
The first study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2008, documents the results of 34 subjects who drank a half cup of GoChi every day for two weeks. The participants reported “increased ratings for energy level, athletic performance, quality of sleep, ease of awakening, ability to focus on activities, mental acuity, calmness, and feelings of health” versus placebo.
On the surface this looks good – but these are entirely subjective measures. The study included no objective tests – such as changes to antioxidant blood levels, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, etc. It cannot really be considered a serious study.
The relevance of this study was deemed “highly questionable” by other researchers, considering the highly subjective parameters, the small number of participants and the relatively short-term study.
In another study, improved testing was utilised. A group of 50 Chinese adults were given a half cup of GoChi juice every day for a month. They reported higher levels of antioxidant markers (known as superoxide dismutase, or SOD, and glutathione peroxidase, or GSH-Px) than those on a placebo. They also had less damage (peroxidation) to some of their circulating lipids (fats).
But the study failed to prove what effect (if any) these increased levels of antioxidants actually had on the health of the participants. And it did not compare the effects with any other berries or fruits.
There have been many claims about the wolfberry’s role in weight loss. But so far, there has been only one study conducted on humans – by the makers of GoChi.
In this study, 29 otherwise healthy overweight adults were given a half cup (120 ml) of GoChi juice every day. Their waistlines apparently shrunk by about 5 cm (2 inches) after two weeks, versus those taking a placebo (dummy drink).
The researchers found that those taking GoChi burned 10% more calories (known as post-prandial energy expenditure) in the hour after taking 1/2 cup of GoChi. Again, these results look promising – they suggest that goji could assist in weight loss by burning energy at rest – but they need to be validated by independent research. From reading on various forums, it seems these results have not been so spectacular for the general public.
The nutrients found in goji juice itself will vary from what is found in the actual berries. The seeds of the berries are what contain the essential fatty acids, for example, but these presumably do not go into the juice.
Many websites extoll the virtues of goji berries as a natural treatment for macular degeneration. But are they?
A study conducted by Nestle in Switzerland, manufacturers of a milk-based formulation of goji (known as Lacto-Wolfberry), sought to evaluate the effects of goji on declining vision.
Macular degeneration is a degenerative eye disease that can lead to loss of vision, particularly in the elderly. The participants drank goji juice for 90 days, after which they exhibited higher circulating levels of zeaxanthin, a compound also found in egg yolks and believed to play a role in eye health (and possibly in the prevention of macular degeneration).
The researchers concluded that goji consumption “increases plasma zeaxanthin and antioxidant levels as well as protects from hypopigmentation and soft drusen accumulation in the macula of elderly subjects”, against a placebo group which showed no improvements.
But … the researchers were unable to correlate these higher circulating levels with actual prevention or slowing of macular disease – though the media wasted no time turning this into a pro-goji story.
At this stage, goji supplementation cannot claim to be a treatment for actually improving vision disorders.
In one of the most noted clinical studies on Goji, its effect as adjuvant in cancer therapy was investigated. The 1994 study was conducted in China on 75 patients with various advanced cancers. It claimed that a combination of IL-2/lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) therapy and L. barbarum polysaccharides afforded significantly higher response rates and longer remission rates than IL-2/LAK therapy alone. Unfortunately, insufficient information was provided about the design of the study and the wolfberry supplements included in the diet to fully appraise the relevance of the data.
The IL-2/LAK cancer therapy was a once-popular therapy that is now rarely administered. There are also numerous unanswered questions about the standards employed in the study. Among them including:
What is considered significant improvement? Can the study be replicated? Were there any side effects? Did the results diminish over time, and were any follow-up studies conducted?
Goji – The Law
Like many other superfood supplements, Goji juice has been prominent in MLM (multi-level marketing) platforms. Some distributors of goji berries have been the subject of legal action from the FDA for making claims that are consistent with drugs.
During 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) placed two goji juice distributors on notice with warning letters about unproven therapeutic benefits. These statements were in violation of the United States Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act because they “establish the product as a drug intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease” when wolfberries or juice have had no such scientific evaluation. Additionally stated by the FDA, the juice was “not generally recognized as safe and effective for the referenced conditions” and therefore must be treated as a “new drug” under Section 21(p) of the Act. New drugs may not be legally marketed in the United States without prior approval of the FDA.
In January 2007, marketing statements for a goji juice product were the subject of an investigative report by CBC TV’s consumer advocacy program Marketplace.
By one specific example in the CBC interview, Earl Mindell (then working for direct-marketing company FreeLife International, maker of GoChi) falsely claimed the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York had completed clinical studies showing that use of wolfberry juice would prevent 75% of human breast cancer cases.
In 2009, a lawsuit was brought against FreeLife International on the grounds of “misrepresentation and deception in the marketing and sale” of some goji products. FreeLife’s products include the aforementioned GoChi Juice, Himalayan Goji Juice, and a goji-based weight-loss supplement known as TAIslim. This lawsuit sought remedies for consumers who had purchased these products over the past several years.
Goji – The Side Effects
Goji has been added to the list of natural health and food products that can interfere with the drug warfarin, a commonly prescribed blood thinner. There have also been reported cases of allergic reactions to goji, one of which was anaphylactic. The reaction seems to be triggered by a protein shared by both goji and tomatoes, which are part of the same family of nightshade plants. A single case of sun allergy (also known as photosensitivity), has been reported in a man who consumed wolfberries for five months. Although the allergic and sun reactions to goji are rare, it is a relatively unstudied fruit, and other reactions may yet to be reported.
In Chinese medicinal books some caution is advised to pregnant women. Also, it is recommended that patients suffering from diarrhea, fever, arthritis and strong inflammatory conditions should avoid the consumption of the fruit. However, no rationale is given to substantiate these recommendations.
Past investigations of Barbary wolfberries from India had expressed concern about levels of atropine, a toxic substance, in the berries. In September 2006, scientists at the University of Graz in Austria took eight samples from wolfberries grown in China and Thailand. Once analyzed, the samples showed levels of atropine, but they were far below toxic levels.
The Verdict – Go-ji or No-ji?
I eat goji berries (and, in fact, most other berries) frequently. Why? Because I like the taste and, of course, they do contain valuable nutrients. If they happen to provide additional above-average health benefits, that’s a welcome bonus.
Potentially, wolfberries seem to have a lot going for them – they just don’t have a lot of valid research to back up the claims, and there are too many unknown variables in the products currently on the market. At this stage, the marketing would seem to be exaggerated. And paying exorbitant prices for unsubstantiated claims, doesn’t make good sense to me.
I wouldn’t be surprised if future, independent, human studies were to make positive findings – but until they do, I advise restraint.
Goji – How To Buy
Purchase organic berries. Non-organic and/or “wild-crafted” berries are often sprayed with chemical pesticides and/or sulfur dioxide.
Select moist berries—but not overly moist, as this may indicate they have been soaked in sugar water, then re-dried. The goji berry should be reasonably soft and slightly moist. Hard and excessively dry berries should be avoided.
With goji berries, size and shape does not appear to affect taste – though the nutrients could vary. Berries can range in color from pale yellow to dark sunfire orange to deep red, though it is the red variety you will usually find on the shelf. The shape can also vary – from spherical to oblong.
Select berries that have a rich red color, but not unusually so. Unusually red conventionally-grown berries (especially those that are sold at low prices) may have been dyed red with chemicals.
Goji- Legend & Lore
The goji berry was categorized under the Linnaean Latin categorization system under the genus Lycium (or Lyceum). From its Greek root, the word Lyceum means “school of learning.”
The masters of Chinese herbalism believed the goji berry could provide deep insight and understanding. Legend has it that one can tune into a pharmacopeia of herbal data contained within the plant simply by eating wolf berries. Further, some believe that if one studies, grows, and eats the goji berry, it is able to teach you the fundamental principles of Chinese herbalism.
Goji berries are known as “got qi” or “key tze” in China, where they are revered. The wolfberry fruit has been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for more than 2000 years. Its first use was recorded about 200 BCE in Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, an ancient book detailing the medicinal and agricultural knowledge of the mythical Chinese emperor Shen Nong.
The Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing is the oldest book on Chinese herbs, and records 365 traditional herbs that are classified into three grades: top, middle, and low. Goji is one of the 120 herbs belonging to the top grade, which was believed to have remarkable health benefits and to be harmless to humans.
Long-term use of wolfberry was considered beneficial for strengthening the body, promoting fitness and prolonging life. Another classic TCM treatise, the Compendium of Materia Medica, a collection of books by Li Shi-Zhen from the sixteenth century, is considered the first pharmacopoeia in the world and the most important one ever written on TCM.
In this volume, the morphological identification, health benefits, indications, and relevant prescriptions of the goji are elaborated. Besides the fruit, use of other parts of the wolfberry plant, including flower, leaf, seed, and root bark, are also recorded. From a TCM point of view, the nature of wolfberry is “calm,” and its flavor is “sweet.” According to TCM theory and practice, wolfberry can act on both the “liver channel” and the “kidney channel,” and the major health benefits of wolfberry are its ability to nourish and tonify the liver and kidney, improve jing (the basic elements that constitute the body and maintain life activities), and improve eye function.
The famed Li Qing Yuen, whom legend has it popularized both goji berries and ginseng, is said to have lived to the age of 252 years (1678–1930), and to have consumed wolfberries daily. The life of Li Qing Yuen is the most documented case of extreme longevity known. The legend of Li Qing Yuen says that when Li was 11 years old he met three Taoist sages who were purported to be over 300 years old. They taught Li about spring water and the science and fine art of longevity, proper diet, and herbalism. Later in his life, at the age of 50, he was said to have met another Taoist sage who told Li he was 500 years old. When Li inquired about the secret of his extreme longevity, the sage taught him to consume a goji berry soup each day. His daily tea is said to have consisted of goji berries, ginseng, and reishi mushrooms.
Li Qing Yuen is said to have given a lecture at the University of Beijing at the age of 200. When the emperor of China discovered such a long-lived person within the empire, he invited Li to the royal court. Within a few months of living in Beijing, Li Qing Yuen was dead, apparently either from eating the processed food provided by the royal kitchen or from exposure to the toxicity of the city.
The famed elixir of longevity in Chinese medicine is said to have consisted of goji berries and flowers picked in spring, leaves picked in the spring or summer, and the root picked in autumn. All of these mixed together into a super tonic were said to keep one young indefinitely.
Wolfberries are also grown in Tibet and have been recognized by the Tibetan School of Medicine in Lhasa as a superfood for 250 years. The Lycium barbarum variety of the goji berry is said to have originally been from Tibet.