Goji (a westernization of the Chinese word for "wolfberry") has been used medicinally in China for almost two millennia, though legend traces their cultivation back much further in time. The little, bright-red goji berries continue to be the revered subject of a festival every August in a region of China. Let's explore why goji gained its powerful reputation in Asia throughout the centuries, and why its ranks of proponents continue to grow and stretch into the U.S. and Europe. The health benefits of goji are present whether we consume the fruit as goji juice or as dried berries.
- Polysaccharides. Goji is an amazing source of polysaccharides, which act as antioxidants protecting our bodies from the cancerous damage of free radicals. For its antioxidant power, goji has become known as a cancer-fighting and age-defying fruit.
- Carotenoids. Perhaps the single richest source of carotenoids known in the world, the vast majority of goji's carotenoid content is zeaxanthin, though goji also contains beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein and cryptoxanthin. Carotenoids act as antioxidants in the body, but each seems uniquely tailored to prevent damage in different parts of the body. Studies suggest that zeaxanthin and lutein can guard against damage to the eyes, while beta-carotene and cryptoxanthin are thought to help prevent lung cancer (with one important caveat described later).
- Essential amino acids. Goji contains all of the essential amino acids (amino acids that we must consume through food).
- Vitamins and minerals. In addition to the nutritional benefits above, goji is also a rich source of essential minerals, like calcium and potassium. Goji also contains trace minerals like selenium, which some studies show to fight carcinogens and improve the effect of chemotherapy.
Along with minerals, a bounty of vitamins awaits in goji fruit. Most notably, goji is replete with vitamin C, vitamin B-complex and vitamin E.
- Essential fatty acids. Goji provides both linoleic acid (an omega-6 acid) and alpha-linoleic acid (an omega-3). Studies have strongly linked alpha-linoleic acid and other omega-3 fatty acids to cardiovascular health, while omega-6 in our diet can aid in wound recovery and keep our hair healthy and full.
With all of the nutrients housed in one tiny berry, studies suggest that goji can strengthen our immune system in general (since goji is so rich in antioxidants), as well as provide great support for the health of our eyes, liver, lungs and cardiovascular system. It's no wonder that legends tell of remote mountain-dwellers living over one hundred years because of a diet rich in goji.
Though the "Himalayan goji" marketed to us Westerners was undoubtedly not farmed in the Himalayas, I think we can all overlook this marketing tactic. However, as with anything we put into our bodies, we should take note of a few precautions and remember that more is not necessarily better.
- Smokers who supplement their diet with lots of carotenoids might actually increase their risk of developing lung cancer. Given a choice between the two, you would be wise to quit smoking and start taking the carotenoid-rich supplements.
- Much of the goji juice that flooded western markets isn't pure goji juice, and some companies don't guarantee a certain amount of goji amongst the other kinds of fruit juice present in the cocktail. Keep an eye on the ingredients of goji juice, because not all are equally potent sources of goji's nutrients.
- Though you would have to consume a lot of goji in order for this to happen, it is possible to harm your body through over-supplementation of amino acids and selenium.
Detractors of goji often argue that it's just another exotic fruit claiming to be a panacea. Even at its least (as 'just another fruit'), the nutritional content of goji is undisputedly impressive. And to cultures that have benefited from it for thousands of years, goji is hardly considered exotic. It's a good idea to talk to your doctor before adding any supplement to your diet, to ensure that there are no allergic risks, potential risks posed by lifestyle (such as smoking), or dangers of combining multiple supplements in your diet.
To your health!