About twelve years ago, marketers started touting goji berries as a wondrous new cure-all, a super antioxidant. At the time, when I looked into it, I didn’t find many studies to support these claims.
A lot of time has passed, a lot of new research has been published. I decided to take another look to see if these expensive, exotic berries pack as big a punch as some health experts claim.
After all, the market is flooded with “superfoods” from all over the world, but are they any better than blueberries or other familiar (and modestly priced) superfoods?
Here’s what I found (and the news is pretty impressive). . .
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The goji berry, also called wolfberry (Lycium barbarum), is a member of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, eggplant and chili peppers. The berries have been prescribed in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years.
Early in this century, they were almost unknown in the States, but these days you can find dried goji berries and goji berry juice everywhere… in specialty stores, grocery stores, online, even at major “big box” convenience retailers.
The goji berry is a nutritional powerhouse
Goji berries are rich in compounds necessary for all around good health as well as cancer prevention. Just one-quarter cup of dried goji berries contains:
- 140% daily recommended intake (DRI) vitamin A
- 100% (DRI) vitamin B2
- 91% (DRI) selenium
- 18 amino acids (including 11 essential amino acids – those your body can’t produce for itself)
- Omega-3 oils alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid
- Carotenoids like beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, lycopene, lutein and cryptoxanthin.1
A diet rich in fruits and vegetables high in these carotenoids has been linked to overall better health and reduced cancer risk.2 Cryptoxanthin in particular has been shown to reduce the risk of lung cancer.3
Beta carotene and vitamin A are essential to good health and help prevent a variety of cancers, including lung, oral cavity, gastrointestinal, prostate, skin, breast and bladder cancers.4
As for goji’s omega-3 oils, a study published in the European Journal of Cancer found a relationship between high levels of alpha-linolenic acid and reduced risk of breast cancer.5
Goji berries are also rich in what’s called L. barbarum polysaccharides (LBPs). As you might guess from their name, these molecules are unique to this berry (as far as scientists know at this point) – and they have wide ranging anti-cancer effects. LBPs have shown promise in inhibiting tumor growth and inducing apoptosis in cancer cells in mice.6
Beyond these nutrients, goji berries have shown particular promise in promoting liver health and reducing the risk of developing liver cancers.
Goji berries and your liver
Goji berries have traditionally been used in TCM for cleansing and detoxifying the liver, which is one of the hardest working organs in your body. An unhealthy liver becomes a storage facility for toxins, excess hormones, sugar and fat. Instead of all these things flushing out of your body, they accumulate and can cause serious problems.
Science has shown hard evidence for the goji berry’s ability to boost liver health and reduce the risk of liver cancer as well.
Research at Taipei Medical University found that Lycium barbarum extract (LBE) induced natural cell death and reduced cell proliferation in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cells.7 HCC is the most common form of liver cancer. Please note that this study was conducted on cells cultured in labs. The next step would be to test in animal subjects.
Similarly, a study published in the journal Life Sciences found that L. barbarum polysaccharides (LBPs) induced cell cycle arrest and stopped the proliferation of human hepatoma cell lines.8
In Umbria, Italy, researchers discovered that an extract of goji berries protects against DNA damage and modulates the expression of genes involved in oxidative stress and the development of liver cancer cells in lab cultures. It also “turned on” the tumor suppressor gene MT3.9
Goji tackles other kinds of cancer
Goji berries also show promise for treating. . .
A study published in 2010 found that a juice of just 5% goji berries reduced swelling and inflammation associated with sunburns. It also boosted antioxidant activity in the skin to protect from free radical and UVA radiation damage. The study concluded that the juice increases immune function and provides photoprotection (i.e. sun damage protection) for “susceptible humans.”10
A study published in the journal Medical Oncology determined that L. barbarum polysaccharides (LBPs) significantly inhibited growth and stopped the spread of human cancer cells. The researchers claim “the results suggest that LBP is a candidate anticancer agent.”11
LBPs have also been shown to reduce the tumor volume and weight of prostate cancer. The same study found that LBPs induced apoptosis in two different lines of prostate cancer cells.12
Buying, eating and drinking goji
As mentioned above, dried goji berries are available just about anywhere. They’re also available frozen, powdered, juiced and in supplements. You can find them in granola mixes, cereals, food bars and other prepared snacks.
Dried berries have a sweet-tart taste similar to dried cranberries. The flavor has earthy, vegetal undertones as well, so you can use them in savory dishes as well as in sweeter-tasting preparations. Or just enjoy them as a snack by themselves.
The berries can be grown wherever you can grow nightshade plants. They’re not widely grown commercially in the United States, so if you’re interested in fresh goji berries you may have to grow your own or find a local farmer. The plants are available online from various nurseries.
As far as antioxidants go, you can get just as much or more from organic, domestically grown fruits like strawberries and blueberries. But I have to say – and normally I’m a skeptic – the rich array of nutrients in goji berries make them a good addition to your diet, if you can afford them.
I’m especially impressed with the essential amino acids and certain omega-3 oils, which are not present in blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. And I’ve never noticed anyone making a liver health claim for these domestic berries.
Perhaps most important, goji berries are the only fruits with the L. barbarum polysaccharides. The studies suggest these nutrients are especially potent against cancer.
So if you’re looking for a little something extra to add to your wellness regimen, or if your liver needs help in functioning properly, goji berries might be worth a try.
Meanwhile, in a weird twist, one scientist is claiming fish oil may cause cancer. Our last issue investigated. If you missed it, you can read it below. . .