Goji berries — superfood, scam, safe?

Originally Published: December 12, 2008
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Hi Alice,

I really need your help with this one. I have started incorporating goji berries into my diet, mostly because they taste good and they seem to have lots of vitamins and minerals, in addition to some protein. Now there's a lot of information out there on the inter-web touting these things as a "superfood," and I'm certainly not falling for that. But I do wonder, is it safe to eat them everyday? Some days I may eat up to half a cup of these things. I can't find unbiased information on this anywhere... you're the only one I trust!

—goji lover

Dear goji lover,

It can certainly be difficult to navigate the world of health foods, especially given the differing information out there. In a nutshell, goji berries are like other berries in that they contain certain vitamins and antioxidants, may boost certain functions in the body, and are considered safe for daily consumption.

Lycium barbarum, or the goji berry, is an Asian fruit, used in China, Korea, and Japan for more than two millennia as a traditional herbal medicine. Gojis are considered to have protective benefits related to aging, as well as vision, kidney, and liver functions. Contemporary studies have tested the effect of goji berries and goji juice intake, with encouraging results for goji lovers. One study found that daily consumption of goji juice increased feeling of general well-being, psychological functioning, and gastrointestinal regularity, all of which are consistent with traditional uses. Some participants in this study also reported increased energy levels, athletic performance, quality of sleep and waking, mental acuity and focus, and calmness or contentment following their regimen of daily goji juice intake for a two-week period. One study does not a verdict make, however with results like these, it's no wonder some are touting goji berries as a superfood.

Among the chemical properties of lycium barbarum fruit are a group of unique compounds called L. barbarum polysaccharides (LBP), which are estimated to make up five to eight percent of dried goji berries. Researchers consider LBP to be the compound responsible for the positive health effects that have given goji berries their reputation.

Like other berries, goji berries contain antioxidants, vitamins, folate, fiber, minerals, and a class of molecules called phenolics. Phenolics are of particular interest to researchers, as they may have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Watch for future clinical trials testing curative powers of berries, including goji berries.

It's normal to be enticed with the latest craze in health food — consider other "berry-type" fruits that have become en vogue recently: pomegranates, Brazilian açaí berries, the Chilean maqui berry, and so on. Keep in mind that further research is needed to flesh out the chemical, biological, and physiological functions of berries to get beyond the hype. Goji products are safe for consumption on a daily basis, as long as they're part of a balanced diet (think other fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins), and as long as you aren't expecting to develop superpowers from eating those little red nuggets.

Alice