Goji berries have garnered interest through their use in various diets and role in helping to improve certain imbalances. In traditional Eastern medicine modalities, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Himalayan medicine and Ayurveda, foods are recognized for their medicinal qualities and have been used for centuries as medicine to treat imbalance and illness. This ancient practice has gained attention in the West and is influencing diet choices. For example, the raw foods trend focuses on consuming foods that are not cooked, thereby retaining their enzymatic qualities and providing the body with essential components to support digestion, energy production and overall health. This type of diet and lifestyle is used to attain a variety of health benefits including weight loss, energy support and disease prevention.
While many of the goji berry’s health benefits are derived from the historical use of the plant as a medicine, it is uncontested that these tiny berries contain a wealth of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, phytosterols, prebiotic fiber, EFAs and amino acids. Goji berries also contain a rich supply of linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (LNA). The oil extracted from the goji seed is reported to contain 67.8 g LA and 3.4 g LNA per 100 g of seed oil. The standard American diet is sorely lacking in these important fats; prolonged deficiency of LA and LNA can result in hair loss, kidney and liver failure, miscarriage, tissue inflammation, high blood pressure and edema.
Goji berry is also noted for its high level of antioxidant carotenoids that can protect the body from damage by neutralizing free radicals. Goji berry (Lycium barbarum L.) has been revered as a king of plants for thousands of years. Its use in Asia as a nutritive food dates back nearly 5,000 years and may even predate some of the Egyptian pyramids. Since its introduction to the West, the goji berry has joined other exotic fruits like açaí, mangosteen and noni to achieve “super food” status. Similar to other dried fruits, goji berries can be eaten right out of the bag, added to baked goods and smoothies, or tossed into salad, cereal or yogurt. Often described as mild and slightly tangy, the goji berry has a great taste sensation and a characteristic chewy texture. This tiny pink fruit, which is about the size of a raisin, has become a featured “hot” ingredient in a wide range of new products and is rapidly making its way into the American diet.
The most abundant carotenoid found in goji is zeaxanthin, which has a protective effect on the eyes. Goji berries contain 162 mg of zeaxanthin per 100 g of fruit; this is considerably higher than other edible carotenoid-rich plants such as spinach, which only contains 12.2 mg of zeaxanthin per serving.
Goji berries are also rich in polysaccharides, chains of sugar molecules that may support the regulation of the immune system. In addition, polysaccharides are an excellent source of prebiotic fiber, which is the fermentable or soluble fiber that gets processed into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the intestinal tract, and provides food for beneficial intestinal flora (probiotics) that aid digestion and nutrient absorption. Daily intake of prebiotic fiber is associated with a reduced risk of several prevalent diseases including obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and a variety of digestive imbalances.
The goji berry fruit is surrounded by a rich native history, with numerous anecdotal tales adding to the plant’s mysticism. For example, there is an old tale of a well under a goji vine that was said to possess youth-restoring waters. One of the most incredible legends surrounding goji is also a major influence in the plant’s high status in TCM. The legend tells of a man named Li Qing Yuen, who is said to have lived to be 252 years old; his long life was attributed to his daily intake of a goji berry soup, Taoist yoga and brisk walking.
While these tales are only legends, the increasing popularity of goji berries is becoming a reality. Health and wellness trends are evident across the country and consumers will continue to become more aware of foods with “functional” and “super” qualities, including these small but powerful berries.