Fresh Clips: What Are Goji Berries?

| December/January 2010

  • Dried goji fruits are marketed as a high-antioxidant alternative to raisins. A 2009 study indicates the juice is beneficial.
    Photo by Steven Foster
  • DID YOU KNOW: Goji berries are common throughout eastern Asia and the Middle East, where barrels of the inexpensive dried fruits are staples in every market.
    Photo by Steven Foster

In natural food stores, you will find goji berries in profusion—goji juice, goji-laced chocolate bars, whole dried goji berries ready to replace your raisins. Before the explosion of marketing hype, the goji berry was better known as Chinese wolfberry, Chinese boxthorn or Chinese matrimony vine. The name “goji” was never used for the plant or its fruit until it was popularized in the American market in the past decade. “Goji” is a phonetic twist on the Chinese name for the fruits: gou qi zi.

The fruits were not commonly called “berries,” either. In Herbs of Commerce (American Herbal Products Association, 2000)—a book that lists more than 1,600 herbs found in the American market with their scientific names, common name synonyms and “standard common name”—Lycium barbarum and L. chinense are both listed under the standard common name lycium. This work has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the source for standard common names for use in the herb trade. However, successful marketing has made the fanciful name “goji” stick in the American marketplace.

Where Goji Grows

The dried fruits proliferating in the market are either from Lycium chinense or L. barbarum. L. chinense has wide distribution in East Asia, and L. barbarum is found primarily in the central Chinese province of Ningxia. Both species are widely naturalized outside of China.

L. chinense is found in at least 15 states east of the Mississippi and five states west of the Mississippi. It grows as a weed at the edge of my yard, and perhaps yours as well. L. barbarum is found in almost the entire continental United States and half of Canada.

The Goji Hype

Most studies on goji fruit and its health benefits are from foreign countries. Some clinical studies have been published. One published earlier this year looked at the antioxidant effect in 50 healthy Chinese volunteers in a double-blind placebo-controlled study by measuring antioxidant markers in the blood. The volunteers received about four ounces of goji berry juice a day for 30 days. After 30 days, the blood was measured for antioxidant indicators, and the authors suggested that continued use for beyond 30 days could help produce an antioxidant effect by reducing conditions related to the proliferation of free radicals. (A four-ounce glass of red wine daily at about the same price will produce similar benefits.)

This follows the first double-blind, placebo-controlled study on the effects of “goji berry standardized juice” conducted outside of China. The treatment group (16 individuals) received about four ounces of juice a day for 14 days. The placebo group had 18 volunteers. Volunteers were examined by subjective self-questionnaires, along with measures of body weight, body mass index, blood pressure, pulse rate and visual acuity (before and after treatment).

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