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The good, the bad and the goji

by John Burns (follow)
Nutrition (265)      Therapeutic Foods (52)      November Competition (10)     
Many people swear by goji berries, citing their effectiveness in combating an array of ailments ranging from eye problems to liver complaints. The problem is, while there is a heck of a lot of information on goji berries out there, much of it is clouded by hearsay and spurious medical claims.

Dried goji berries. Image by John Burns

So what are goji berries? Where do they come from? And what’s so good about them? Sit tight and we’ll try to answer some of these questions for you.

The Goji

Goji berries – sometimes known as wolfberries, or góuqǐ to use the Chinese pinyin – grow on the boughs of Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense trees. The former is the taller of the two species and is grown in the north of China, while the latter tends to be shorter and is cultivated in the south.

lycium chinense
The flowers of the Lycium chinense. Image from Wikipedia

Both trees produce distinctive red berries, the dried form of which is now to be found with increasing regularity in western health food shops and supermarkets. These berries can be used as a delicious addition to herbal teas, or as an ingredient in jellies and soups. Goji berries can even be used to make strong Chinese wine.

Goji berries in chamomile tea. Image by John Burns

While goji berries can be tasty if correctly prepared, their popularity stems more from their reputed health benefits than from their exquisite flavour, so let’s have a look at these benefits in more detail.

The Good

The first thing that needs to be stated here is that goji berries have been clinically proven to be non-toxic. This is great news for anyone who is partial to a goji berry here and there, but unfortunately research is still on-going and this is the limit of the goji berry’s clinical provenance. All other health claims are made purely on anecdotal evidence.

Dried goji berries for sale in a market in the Ningxia region of China. Image from Wikipedia

Still, some of that anecdotal evidence is pretty good. For example, we know that goji berries are a source of zeaxanthin, an anti-oxidant which has been linked with improved eye health. Studies have shown a correlation between high levels of zeaxanthin and a reduction in instances of cataracts and age-related vision deterioration.

lycium chinense
Li Qing Yuen; Daily goji berries reputedly helped him reach the age of 256. Image from Wikipedia

Goji berries also contain other antioxidants which have been shown to bolster the immune system and improve general health. There is a modern Chinese legend which tells the tale of a man named Li Qing Yuen who ate a mixture of goji berries and other medicinal herbs each day and lived to the ripe old age of 256. Goji berries may be good for our bodies, but this seems a little far-fetched.

The Bad

Whether or not you believe that Mr Li lived for two and a half centuries on a diet of goji berries is up to you, but there are some things to be aware of when tucking into these nutritious fruits.

While studies have proved the berries to be non-toxic, other studies have indicated that goji fruits can interfere with some kinds of medication. If you’re on medication for hypertension or other drugs affecting blood circulation it is wise to avoid goji berries altogether.

A goji berry farm in China. Image from Wikipedia

The same applies to diabetics, as goji berries have been found to inhibit the effectiveness of diabetes drugs.

If you regularly take medication, our advice is to consult your doctor before using goji berries as part of your health regimen. Otherwise, using goji berries as part of a balanced diet can be a good way to boost your general health and sense of wellbeing.

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