Goji: a nutritious go-to fruit for health fanatics
Posted on 12 January 2017
GOJI berries, the new Instagram “superfood,” have been a dietary supplement in Chinese traditional medicine since long before Internet crazes dictated food trends.
Adding the berries to breakfasts or beverages has become the fashionable way to eat healthy. Goji berry believers around the world sprinkle them onto morning oatmeal, enjoy them in lunch salads, throw a handful into protein shakes or just snack on the dried fruit.
Latching on to the trend, food producers now use the berries in juices, energy bars and baked goods. They are also marketed in skin creams that claim to slow aging.
Goji berries, also known as wolfberries, are biologically in the Solanaceae family, which also includes plants like potato, eggplant, chili pepper and even tobacco.
They are native to China, mostly grown in the northwestern autonomous regions of Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uygur.
Directly translated as gou qi, the name of the berries first appeared in China in the poetry classic “Book of Songs” more than 2,000 years ago. Both species of goji berry — Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense — are native to China.
“Superfood” trends have appeared as part of a general public interest in more healthy eating. Young people and fitness enthusiasts are especially ardent devotees. Though glowing claims of healthy properties usually accompany “superfoods,” proven nutritional benefits often fall short of the hype.
The bright red goji berry looks something like a raisin when dried. For a long time, it was considered an old-fashioned food among younger generations.
It has a chewy texture similar to dried grapes and is very sweet, with a hint of earthiness and bitter aftertaste. In China, the berries are rarely eaten as a solo snack.
“Goji is a traditional Chinese medicinal tonic,” explained Luo Jiaqi, an associate chief internist of traditional Chinese medicine at Shanghai Putuo District Central Hospital. “It contains high amounts of amino acids and anti-aging elements like carotene and vitamins.”
Add to Soups and Stews
Dried goji berries are added to soups, stews and congee in very small amounts. The berries rehydrate and soften when cooked.
Goji wine is a popular traditional liquor made by either infusing the dried berries in white spirits or brewing them in yellow or white wines. The latter beverages have a higher alcoholic content than other Chinese fruit wines — at 24 percent to 55 percent — and are believed to be very nourishing.
“Goji is nutritious, but it’s a little warm in properties from a traditional medicine perspective, so many people pair the berry with chrysanthemum for balance,” said Luo.
Produced in China
China produces the majority of goji berries sold commercially worldwide. Close to half of the nation’s yield come from Ningxia, where industrial chains operate from cultivation to marketing. The fruits are usually harvested in August. Fresh goji berries cost around 70 yuan (US$10) per half-kilo online.
The leaf of the goji plant, which is also edible, can be added to pork liver, meat soups, scrambled eggs or even tea.
Goji berries should be consumed in small amounts, Luo said. He suggested no more than 10-15 grams of dried berries a day.
“In traditional Chinese medicine, goji berries can nourish the liver and kidneys, improve eyesight and aid lungs, but as a nutritious supplement, it’s not suitable for people with spleen problems or colds and fever,” explained Luo. “Goji berries also contain sugar, so diabetic patients should be very careful.”
The goji berry is not toxic per se, but eating too much over long periods of time could worsen other conditions a body might be experiencing. As Luo noted, traditional medicine doctors often say that “ginseng not only cures but can also kill.”
Goji is not particularly new in Western culture. The UK Food Standards Agency removed the berry from its “Novel Foods” list in 2007. North Americans started cultivating goji about a decade ago. The dried berries are added to yogurt, muesli, smoothies and cakes. There are also goji jam and relish recipes.
In addition to its use in foods, goji is also added to skincare products marketed for their anti-aging benefits. Serbian brand Hendel’s Garden has a goji cream it claims “softens the skin, smooths wrinkles and lifts facial contours, protecting the skin from aging and environmental damage.” A 50-milliliter tube of goji cream sells for US$53.45 on Amazon.
One reviewer wrote last year, “Personally, I wouldn’t buy it again. They say that you can see a difference in 15 days. I’ve been using it for two months, and I don’t see any difference.”
Tips for buying goji berries
Look at the color. The fresh goji berry has subtle sheen, while older stock loses its luster. However, it’s important to remember that the brightest berries are not necessarily the best. Some suppliers artificially color the whole fruit. Examine the pedicles, which should be yellow or white instead of red.
The texture of the goji berry should be chewy but never crunchy.
The majority of better quality Ningxia goji berries won’t sink in water.
Make sure to scan packaging information to see if preservatives have been added. Naturally dried goji berries can be stored in cool, dark place for up to a year.