Goji berries — Superfood, scam, safe?

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 every day? 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 loads of differing information out there. Your beloved berries share the stage with a number of other, recently heralded “superfoods,” such as pomegranates, Brazilian açaí berries, the Chilean maqui berry, and so on. In a nutshell, goji berries are similar to other berries in that they contain certain vitamins and antioxidants, may boost certain functions in the body, and are considered safe for daily consumption for most individuals.

Lycium barbarum, or the goji berry, is a traditional Asian fruit, used in China, Korea, and Japan for more than two millennia as a traditional herbal medicine. Gojis are commonly consumed for its purported benefits including anti-aging properties, and support for vision, kidney, and liver functioning. 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 the dried goji berries. LBP contained in goji berries, juice, and extracts, is thought of as the responsible party for the positive health effects that have given goji berries their reputation. Traditional Chinese medicine attributes the high LBP content in the fruit to its powerful medicinal qualities. Also, goji berries contain antioxidants, vitamins, folate, fiber, minerals, and a class of molecules called phenolics. These molecules are of particular interest to researchers, as they may have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Gojis are at the forefront of this ongoing debate — so stay tuned for more research.

Encouraging results for goji lovers have been identified in contemporary studies that have tested the effect of goji berries and goji juice intake on various health-related functions. One randomized study found that daily consumption of a particular brand of goji juice increased subjective feeling of general well-being, neurological functioning, and gastrointestinal regularity, all of which are consistent with traditional uses in Asian societies. Some participants in this study also experienced 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. With such studies out there, no wonder goji berries are being touted as a superfood!

Super or not, everybody reacts differently to chemical components found in certain foods. Therefore, grabbing a handful of goji berries may not be recommended for all. A small percentage of certain populations (six percent of people tested in Spain, for example) have been shown to be allergic to the berries (those who have other food allergies to other fruits due to pollen allergies may be more prone to goji berry allergies). Additionally, there’s some anecdotal evidence published that eating goji berries may negatively interact with blood thinning medication like warfarin. You didn’t mention experiencing any allergic reactions to your daily indulgence, so as long as you aren’t taking anti-coagulants, it’s unlikely that munching on your berry of choice will produce much risk for you!

Further research is needed to understand the chemical, biological, and physiological functions of berries and other “superfoods,” to be informed, beyond the hype, about potential benefits of certain foods. However, it sounds like your love for the fruit is motivated by a genuine enjoyment of eating it rather than the latest write-up in the press. Enjoyment of healthy foods can be the cornerstone to a sustainable, balanced relationship to your nutrition. If you become concerned about the balance in your diet, or want to learn more about foods that have the same combination of great taste and essential nutrients, consider making an appointment to speak with a registered dietician. Remember, despite what the headlines say, (in a sense) tons of foods are “super” because your body miraculously can break them down and metabolize them for energy as well as the building blocks of your body!

Hopefully this information puts you berry much at ease!

Last updated Jul 28, 2015
Originally published Dec 12, 2008

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