The great goji juice controversy

© FotoosVanRobin

Goji juice and goji berry mania is rife. But is this humble berry the fountain of youth — a “miracle food” as is claimed?

Can it really prevent cancer? Or is it just another case of food fashion meets marketing?

Let’s find out…

Goji facts

Goji Berries, apparently, are “fruit Viagra,” “one pack will have you jumping for joy” and they’re “cellulite-busting,” according to the marketing hype. Hmmm (muses).

Goji berries — pronounced “go-gee” are about the same size as raisins but red and somewhat harder. They’re also known as wolfberries and grow on vines native to the Himalayas. They’re also grown extensively in China, Mongolia, and Tibet…

Renowned in Asia as one of nature’s most nutrient-rich natural foods, the Chinese have been munching on these berries for 2000 years. Traditionally, the goji berry is juiced or used in soups, stir-fry greens or with steamed dishes. Tibetan monks even have a 2 week celebration of the goji every year. No way!

They taste of… well it depends who you ask. Some say a cross between a cranberry and a cherry, or a cranberry and an olive or a raisin and a dried raspberry and some say it tastes like tea… that’s right! Like the tea you drink. I have to agree with the last one too — they taste like tea to me, but then I’ve never had raw or dried cranberries to compare.

Goji berries grow well in the UK and anywhere with a comparable climate. They’ve been naturalized in the UK counties of Norfolk and Suffolk for ages, where they’re used as hedging. In the UK it’s also known as boxthorn, matrimony vine and the Duke of Argyll’s tea tree. It was the Duke who first brought the plant to the UK way back in 1730. I’m only guessing, but maybe they called it “tea tree” because it tastes like tea?

Goji berry nutrition

This data is from Tibet Authentic Goji Berries — A True Miracle Food. The nutritional data will vary depending on where the berries come from. Like any food, a lot depends on the soil quality.

I wonder, does anyone really care what nutrients are in food other than to say “yep, this is good for me.” I remember a quote from Doug Graham — ”You should eat bananas because they’ve got banana in them.” :-) Brilliant!

I suppose nutritional data has some value if you know you’re deficient in a certain micronutrient, then you could focus on rebalancing. But overall it’s best to nail your diet to cover all the nutritional bases and leave the rest to your body to sort out.

The “amazing” goji berry has loads of stuff in it that no one will have a clue what they mean but sounds extremely impressive such as betaine, beta sitosterol, cyperone, germanium, lutine, selenium, solavetivone, physalin and zeaxanthin to name but a few.

All these plant factors in goji berries are associated with positive health benefits. Cool. But it’s the polysaccharides that are causing the big stir. More about that later…

The berries are claimed by many to have more vitamin C than oranges, more beta-carotene than carrots and more iron than steak, weight for weight. It’s a bit of an unfair comparison though because these are dried berries, so all the water weight is removed.

You’d have to compare them to dried oranges and dried carrots, no? Another reasonable comparison would be to look at the amount of vitamin C say, per calorie. That would give meaningful results because the number of calories is the limiting factor in any diet. So I did just that… I entered 350 calories of oranges on fitday.com and here’s the comparable data for oranges (the figures in brackets are the percentages of the RDA or Recommended Daily Amount)…

So you can easily see that on a calorie basis the oranges kick goji butt for vitamin C. Oranges also win easily in the calcium and thiamin stakes! So, at least as far as the vitamin C claim goes, it’s a case of half truths combined with the old “lies, damn lies and statistics.”

As for its very high iron content, I can’t help wondering if this is an error that’s crept in somewhere along the line. I’ve compared goji berries to other berries which all seem to be coming out at about 0.75 to 1.0mg per 350 calories of berries. If you know of a reliable source for the iron content of goji berries, let me know. They’re not listed on the USDA database.

Based on the USDA’s ORAC test, the goji berry has high antioxidant levels. But again the same error has crept in. Testing the amount of antioxidants per 100g of food is just not a fair test if some is dried and some fresh. It’s pretty meaningless for comparison purposes.

Checking out a document about the USDA’s ORAC test I see that prunes and raisins top the fruit chart — dried fruit! Does this mean dried fruit is best? Absolutely not. Think nutrients per calorie not per gram.

Fashion

Madonna, Kate Moss, Liz Hurley and Mischa Barton are all reported to be lovin’ the goji.

And the go-go goji has already made the giant leap from the hippy hangout health store into the supermarket with both Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s in the UK stocking them now.

Cost

A 250g bag of Goji Berries (image left) costs $14.95 from organichealthandbeauty.com (retail price is $17.99).

UK goji fans can expect to pay around £9.00 for 250g at the supermarket. You can buy them for around £6.00 on-line although like all foods, quality will vary.

I’ve seen reports that not all organic goji berries are really organic so watch out for that. I reckon the price will come down as farmers in the West catch on to the commercial value of goji.

Goji scam?

In January 2007, Earl Mindell was lambasted by CBC Marketplace in a fascinating interview and exposé for allegedy taking advantage of sick folks to make huge profits selling goji juice. His business empire is massive. His goji meetings are like religious events with Mindell as “master.”

His product — Freelife “Himalayan” Goji Juice is actually made from berries not grown in the Himalayas! His reasoning is that the “unique” polysaccharide profile is the same as the Himalayan sort. Hmmm I don’t like that kind of thing. Either it’s Himalayan or it ain’t.

Mindell claims that only his juice has the exact profile of these “master” molecules —  “There simply is no other product on the market like it.” He also claims he’s going to close half the hospitals!

To use Freelife (a pyramid marketed product with top sellers making $170,000-$1,700,000 a year according to freelife), expect to shell out $50 per bottle or about $250 for a months supply. I feel sad. This smacks of exploiting sick people. Can folks not get the benefit of goji berries that doesn’t involve a $250 per month cost?

The Marketplace program said that many of his claims are false. In lab tests, his juice contained virtually no B or E vitamins and no beta carotene. The lab tests also found his “unique” product to be similar to other juices.

Mindell responded by citing 76 peer reviewed studies that support his health claims. He’s written a book on Goji that lists 34 health benefits — even that it prevents cancer.

Dr. Steven Zegar, who researches natural health products for cancer treatment at McMaster University has reviewed many of the goji studies. He says Mindell has extrapolated bits of these studies and is using them out of context. The polysaccharides could have health benefits but there’s little proof to back up the hype.

Dr Bradlow of Hackensack University in New Jersey said…

“It inhibited the growth of cells in a dish… a little dish like this isn’t the same as a person.

There’s absolutely no proof it would have that effect on a human… there’s no justification for encouraging people to take this as an anti-cancer drug… it’s misrepresentation of the facts… it’s unbelievable how many unscrupulous souls there are out there, trying to pedal an unproven product… there’s lots of single studies that turned out to be one shot wonders.”

In Mindell’s defense, I reckon goji berries do have cancer preventing qualities. Plant food in general have been shown in many studies to have anti-cancer properties and antioxidants are known to “mop up” free radicals which can cause DNA damage. Since goji is a highly nutritious berry, it’s fair to say that it has anti-cancer properties.

Unfortunately for Mindell, you just can’t say it without proof. Also, his juice is lacking many of the health benefits of the berry itself. Surely if he really wanted the best for people, he would be recommending the berries and not his extremely expensive juice?

Also in Mindell’s defense, it’s mainly the polysaccharides that he’s promoting in his juice. But again I have to ask why not just eat the berry and get the other benefits as well at a much reduced cost?

In the Marketplace interview, he urges folks to go to pubmed.gov and do a search for “Lycium Barbarum” (the latin name for goji berries). Well I did just that — 83 results of studies relating to goji or its extracts (to put this into perspective, I did a search on pubmed for broccoli that came up with 5416 studies). So, a few more have been added since the Marketplace interview. Having a quick flick through, three things sprung to mind.

Firstly, not many people will have a clue how to interpret these studies. To pick one purely at random…

“Effect of lycium barbarum polysaccharide on human hepatoma QGY7703 cells: inhibition of proliferation and induction of apoptosis.”

Brain freeze!

I’m sure you’re dying to know what the outcome of that particular study was eh? Well…

“The study suggests that the induction of cell cycle arrest and the increase of intracellular calcium in apoptotic system may participate in the antiproliferative activity of LBP in QGY7703 cells.”

Phew, I’m glad we cleared that up!

Secondly, a lot of these studies are just not relevant to the claims made by Mindell…  stuff like “How to extract the polysaccharides” and so-on.

Thirdly, most of these studies were done in China. Call me a cynic but the Chinese would have a lot to gain from goji acquiring a reputation for healing cancer and other illnesses.

Having said that, looking at this from a layman’s perspective, there are some extremely interesting studies about goji polysaccharides on pubmed.org and many concluding remarks from these studies do suggest they have anti-cancer properties, especially at the right dose. Check out the Sloane-Kettering goji article for a good summary of the relevant research so far.

UK ban

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) may impose a ban on goji berries unless it can be shown that they’ve been consumed in significant amounts within the EU before May 1997. If it can’t be shown, then goji berries would be classed as a “novel food” within EU law and it could take two years to get approval to sell them.

The cut off point for new information was 23 March 2007 but I’ve not heard of a decision being made as yet. It’s hard to take this seriously — it’s a berry!!

The FSA do seem to be sharing this view, they’ve said on their site;

“There are no immediate safety concerns over goji berries and local authorities will take this into account when deciding on appropriate enforcement action.”

I can’t see a ban happening, and even if it does, you can always…

Grow your own gojis

They’re readily available nowadays from nurseries. I just ordered some from Thompson and Morgan for only £14 for 3 plants. My garden is full of all sorts of berries because as well as being nutritional powerhouses, they’re expensive to buy.

Don’t waste your time and energy growing stuff that’s cheap to buy — why bother, unless it’s just for fun. Grow the expensive stuff I say :-) If you’re going to try to sun dry your berries, don’t touch them or they’ll oxidize and go black. Shake onto a mat instead of picking by hand.

Health warnings!

As is the case for cranberries, folks taking Warfarin should not use goji products without consulting their doctor.

Got Goji? Got Cavities! Well, all and any dried fruits are going to be a nightmare for teeth. Sweet and sticky is not a good combination. The fruit sticks to teeth and the plaque will do the rest. I wouldn’t recommend eating them dried unless you can brush you teeth afterwards. If you soak them for about 30 mins or even overnight, this will probably avoid the cavity problem.

The goji berry is part of the “nightshade” family of plants which also include potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. If you’re allergic to any of the nightshades, which is quite common, you may have problems with goji berries.

Oh, and don’t be tempted to make tea out of the “tea tree” leaves… they’re toxic.

Food or medicine?

Hippocrates, the father of medicine said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” How bizarre then, that doctors still swear the Hippocratic Oath but fail so badly to take Hippocrates advice on using food as medicine.

For me, Goji is just great nutritious food. If you have an illness it might be worth thinking about upping your daily dose. 10 to 30g is recommended as a daily serving.

If I had cancer, I would be wanting to give myself every chance of a cure and even if it’s not yet officially proven, the goji polysaccharides show promise — I wouldn’t be waiting for science and would be looking at lot more deeply at goji as well as other well known natural foods with known anti-cancer activity.

In general, the “pill for an ill” mindset is very deeply ingrained, even when the “pill” is a food. There is no silver bullet, no one food is the answer to health. Health is created by living a healthy lifestyle and nutritious food is a big part of that… My concern is that folks looking for the silver bullet are going to miss the big picture.

Summing up

Never, ever, ever take information on a sales page or from the seller as accurate. All sorts of wild claims are made for goji and sales pages are just not a good place to look for solid information. From my research into this article, I feel goji berries are a great food and a very nutritious food.

If you can afford them, I see no reason not to add them to your diet occasionally. Are they better than other berries? I’m not sure about that. The fact that they come from largely unspoilt locations grown in rich soils could account for their high nutritional content.

You have to wonder — if this really is the fountain of youth, why the Chinese aren’t all living to 200 years old or even topping the list of longest-lived nations. Or for that matter, why Earl Mindell isn’t beaming with health and vitality. Perhaps the stress of running his multi-million dollar industry is taking its toll :-)

In a response to the Marketplace exposé of Mindell, Freelife issued an official statement and offered up a Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center webpage on goji berries which is quite strange since Sloane-Kettering state that the data on goji is inconclusive and that much more large scale human research is needed.

You can look at nutrition from a million different angles and come up with the same answer — eat more fruits and veg. The next BIG thing… broccoli, watch this space!

If you feel that anything in this article is incorrect, have another point of view or just want to say ‘hi’, please leave a comment below.

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Michael Kinnaird is the author of Happy Guide, the result of a 20 year exploration into what works for health and happiness.

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54 thoughts on “The great goji juice controversy

  1. Hi KS,

    It seems to be boys that have these issues with food eh? I can’t tell you how frustrating this problem has been for me.

    I’m having to make do with fruit juices and pureed fruit along with the odd bit of carrots and baby sweetcorn for my son.

    One of the big factors I think with kids and food is the ‘putting stuff in the mouth phase’. When they are exploring tastes and textures. That’s the crucial time to present them with plate fulls of raw fruits and veggies.

    Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware when my son was at that age, no one told me. The usual thing you see parents doing is constantly telling the kids to take stuff out of their mouth along with the sharp admonishment “No! DIRTY!” Sigh.

    My frustation got so bad, there was a nasty incident involving a mango which I won’t go into :-) I also told him there would be no more food until he ate some banana! Oh my gawd how stupid was that! He went two and a half days without eating!

    Some people said to continue, he wouldn’t starve. Others said he would actually starve himself! I think he prob would have starved.

    I eventually concluded that I had to back off completely. Everything I tried backfired. That decision was right I think. The focus has to come off food completely and food HAS TO STAY FUN.

    I think we should get some ideas together from all the parents out there — tips and tactics of what really works for the different age groups.

    Cheers
    Mike.

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  2. Hey Mike,

    Interesting article. Saw the CBC, not very biased, but Mindell didn’t handle himself well either. Don’t agree with the closing of the hospitals, there is a need for main stream medicine but not overkill of medicines.

    I am trying out the goji juice with our son who is picky too. He actually likes it unlike other products we have tried, which is great for the days when all he will eat is cereal. I think it’s a bit pricey, but of course, everything I have found that is healthy and he will actually eat is pricey. Have you seen how expensive fresh mangosteens are? But they are so good.

    I have found with our children, a lot of it is psychological. The only way he will drink water is when we give it to him in a sports bottle like the ones we use. He will eat bananas if he sees his little sister enjoying them, same as raisins. We just got him to even try prunes because he got a ’special’ bag of them that was just for him. Geez. It’s all about presentation. No wonder marketing works so well.

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  3. Hi Desley,

    Our social systems often bring out the worst of human nature — competition and greed instead of co-operation don’t you think?

    I just planted 3 goji berry bushes in my back garden! With 1Kg yield from each according to the leaflet, that’s got to be the cheapest, freshest source there is :-) Plus they’re organic — no herbicides, pesticides or fungicides.

    Mike.

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  4. Goji – or wolfberries are obviously nutritious. Because I can afford it, I take both – juice and dried berries and feel better for doing so. However, this is one, huge money-making enterprise. Website after website exists to lure people towards purchasing a product which is obviously greatly over priced. If there wasn’t money to be made, there wouldn’t be the hype. Right? Human nature never changes…

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  5. Hi Shari,

    I used to get Juice Plus for my son who’s a very fussy eater. He wont eat any fruit at all and very little vegetables.

    As you can imagine, it’s been a nightmare for me, knowing how important these things are, but everything I’ve tried so far has BACKFIRED. That is–made the situation even worse.

    I came to the conclusion I had to back off completely.

    Anyway, I did used to get him the Juice Plus for kids.

    These days, I rely on juices, purees and supplements for my son. Far from ideal but in fairness, his diet is better than any other child I know.

    I’m called “The chocolate police” in our house :)

    Trying to get a balance between doing the right thing and not creating neuroses around food is a tricky balancing act.

    On the down side, the Juice Plus I seem to remember is a fairly pricy way to get nutrition.

    And of course, for adults, the best thing is always to correct the diet, not to supplement a bad diet I feel.

    Yes, we have demineralized soils, I get that argument but there’s probably more effective and cost effective ways around that one.

    Cheers
    Mike.

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