Goji Berries / Wolfberries Review: Benefits and Information
Goji berries are the fruits of Lycium barbarum—an Asian shrub cultivated for both food and medicine. Also known as “wolfberries,” the tart, orange-red fruits are traditionally eaten fresh or dried; or used to make juice, wine or tea.
Goji berries have become quite popular here in the West, thanks to the growing market for novel and exotic “superfruits.” Although the marketing isn’t quite as outrageous as it is for certain other superfruits (notably acai), it can still be tough to sort out the truth about goji from the spin (not to mention, the outright fantasy).
So what is the truth?
For starters, goji berries are, in fact, highly nutritious. According to “The Berry Doctor,” Paul M. Gross, Ph.D., the fruit is rich in beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A), as well as other valuable carotenoids, such as zeaxanthin and lycopene. Goji berries are also a good source of the antioxidant mineral selenium; and provide other vitamins and minerals as well. According to Dr. Gross’ article, “Comprehensive Criteria for Superfruit Status,” goji is one of only eight fruits to actually merit the superfruit title.*
In addition to their micronutrients, Goji berries are noted for their polysaccharide content. Dubbed “LBP” (Lycium barbarum polysaccharides), preliminary research suggests that these polysaccharides may have therapeutic uses. LBP preparations exhibit immune-enhancing, antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-tumor, fatigue-reducing and hypoglycemic effects in cell cultures and animal models.
Unfortunately, there are no human studies on LBP, so it’s difficult to predict how relevant these results are for humans. This is doubly true when it comes to claims that goji polysaccharides can prevent and/or treat cancer.
The ability to inhibit the growth of cultured colon cancer cell lines is one thing; the ability to do the same within a human body is quite another. As Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center pointed out:
“Despite many marketing claims of cancer preventive potential, the efficacy and safety of Lycium products for cancer treatment in humans have not been established.”
A few human studies on goji do exist, but provide little insight on its potential for treating cancer… or any other serious disease, for that matter.
So far, it appears that the zeaxanthin in goji is bioavailable, and might help mitigate changes associated with age-related macular degeneration.
Goji juice (in the form of “GoChi”—a commercial product) may also provide a modest boost to plasma antioxidant capacity and (certain) markers of immune system function.
While the results of these studies are positive, they’re hardly miraculous. In addition, 3 of the 4 linked studies were conducted and funded by product manufacturers, and have not been replicated by independent researchers. This is particularly relevant for the studies using GoChi. As one recent review put it:
“The name GoChi is a combination of go from Goji and the Chinese word chi meaning life energy. The advertising for this product draws on a recent clinical study supposed to have demonstrated the general effects of the product on health . However, considering the highly subjective parameters, the small number of participants and the relatively short-term study, the relevance of this study is highly questionable.”
In addition, the effects documented in the above studies are not unique to goji—there are other medicinal foods that contain immunomodulatory polysaccharides and antioxidants, too.
Thus, it may be worth it to consider (potentially more cost-effective) alternatives before jumping on the goji berry bandwagon, particularly if the products you’re considering are available only on the internet, or from a multi-level marketing company.
There are plenty of alternatives within the goji market too, that range from expensive to (more) affordable. In North America, goji berries are available in the form of dried fruit, juices/juice blends, freeze-dried powders, tinctures and capsules containing fruit powders or extracts. Flash frozen goji berries (Himalania brand) are even available in some stores (such as Whole Foods).
Because it’s trendy, a number of prepared food products and beverages also include goji as an ingredient. The amount of actual goji in—say—a “natural” energy bar or box of granola may be small, however. And chocolate- or yogurt-coated dried berries are likely to have more calories than most people would want. Read labels carefully to make sure that the goji in the product you’re buying is more than “label decoration.”
As a food, goji berries are safe for most, although drug interactions are possible, particularly with warfarin (Coumadin). Allergic reactions are also possible, although reports are rare.
To sum up, goji berries are healthy and nutritious, and contain substances with therapeutic potential. They aren’t a miracle cure, however. As Chris Kilham, “The Medicine Hunter” wrote:
“And forget the testimonials that assure “My Aunt Minnie drank goji and returned from the dead.” That never happened.”
* The other seven (in alphabetical order) are: cranberry, fig, mango, orange, papaya, red grape and strawberry.
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One of our favorite online retailers, iHerb.com, offers a number of goji berry products.