The truth about goji berries

Are goji berries a true superfood?

Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
Ask Emma

09 August 2016

The history of goji berries

Goji berries, also known as wolfberries, are small red berries native to Asia.

Goji berries were used in ancient Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat a number of ailments ranging from liver and kidney problems to issues with the skin, eyes, immune system and digestive tract.

The long-term consumption of goji berries has traditionally been linked to improved immunity and longevity. Communities eating them were thought to live longer (even reportedly up to 250 years old!) and were said to enjoy relatively ailment-free lives.

In modern times, these bright little berries have been subject to lots of attention and, in recent years, have been awarded the prestigious superfood label.

Goji berries are still primarily grown in places such as China or Tibet (they do well in warm climates) and are shipped over to western countries to meet the high demand. As they are distributed far and wide, the berries are often dried or made into juice as the fresh berries don’t cope so well with the journey.

It must be noted that nutrients are lost as the berries are processed and the vitamin C content, for example, is diminished as the berries are dried. Traditionally, the fresh berries would have been used and these are still readily available in some parts of the world. Fresh is always best! This is a value we adopt in our own products.

What exactly is a superfood?

A superfood is a ‘nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health or wellbeing.’

As we know, essential vitamins and minerals are required for many bodily processes. Superfoods provide these nutrients but they are often found in very high levels, or as part of a particularly impressive array of essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants packing into the one food.

As a result of their unique nutritional composition, superfoods have often been used traditionally in medicine and are frequently subject to research as it is believed they can offer some therapeutic effect beyond that of your average fruit or vegetable. Impressive!

What health benefits do goji berries have to offer?

There is no denying goji berries are extremely nutritious and they naturally contain:

  • Good quality protein including all of the essential amino acids which are required for growth and repair
  • More than 20 minerals including calcium, iron and selenium
  • Vitamins A, B, C and E (especially high in vitamin C)
  • High levels of antioxidants including the carotenoids beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, these scavenge free radicals in the body protecting our cells from oxidative stress
  • Essential fatty acids which we need to obtain from our diet, these help with anti-inflammatory pathways and support our nervous system
  • Polysaccharides – a type of complex carbohydrate which boasts some important health qualities

Many of our favourite fruit and vegetables also contain some of these beneficial components but few manage to pack in the same amounts and all at once. Having all of these elements together in that tiny little berry is pretty impressive.

The distinctive combination of antioxidants, carotenoids and polysaccharides are of particular interest in goji berries. There is some evidence to suggest that goji berries can exert favourable effects on our immune function, skin and eye health, mental wellbeing and body composition.

In light of the evidence though, we can’t jump to conclusions and the study designs of the research on goji berries must be taken into consideration: many aren’t of the best scientific quality and the extracts of goji being used are in some cases very high strength. Putting that into practical terms can be confusing, impractical and expensive.

Despite this, there is growing evidence for the power of the goji, meaning there is still potential for it to come up trumps. Of the proposed health benefits, perhaps one of great interest and nicely in line with the traditional use is the effects on eye health.

Goji berries are an extremely rich source of carotenoids, zeaxanthin being one of these. Zeaxanthin is found in the human eye and there is research to suggest that consuming zeaxanthin and other carotenoids, such as lutein, can help maintain the function of the eyes. Goji berries have been shown to increase levels of this important carotenoid in the body.

The unique combinations of polysaccharides present in goji berries - so-called Lycium barbarum polysaccharides (LBP’s) after the berry itself, have also been subject to research and are thought to be responsible for many of the potential benefits. These are thought to exert antioxidant activities and may have some positive effects on our blood sugar regulation, weight management and immune function.

Their impact on immune function has been of particular interest and it has been proposed that LBP’s can promote the proliferation of many immune cells, including macrophages, and are therefore thought to be immune stimulating. LBP’s may also have some anti-viral qualities but generally the evidence is lacking and the mechanisms are unclear.

It is has been postulated that LBP’s have similar chemical substances of those found in echinacea and maitake mushrooms, herbs known for their ability to support a healthy immune system, although further research is required to investigate this further.

Echinaforce®, made with fresh echinacea purpurea herb extract has proven antiviral activity which helps the body fight off the symptoms of flu and cold. We know the mechanisms of action are a result of the active ingredient called alkylamides which modulate macrophage responses.

The particularly high level of naturally occurring vitamin C in goji berries is also an important attribute. Fresh goji berries (dried to a lesser extent) contain particularly high amounts. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant which is beneficial for the health and integrity of the cells of our body including our skin and blood vessels.

Vitamin C is found naturally occurring in many fruit and vegetables – the acerola cherry is an extremely rich source.  The vitamin C in whole fruits can be put to good use as they have naturally occurring flavonoids present which are vital for optimal absorption. Synthetic versions of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) found in many supplements aren’t as well absorbed as those that have been formulated from natural, whole fruit sources, as seen in our Nature-C.

Goji berries also contain phytosterols and vitamin E which can also assist in scavenging free radicals.

It can’t be denied that the goji berry has a whole lot of healthy potential! Whether or not the health benefits can actually match up to some of the claims out there is still up for debate but there seems to be much more than meets the eye when it comes to this little red berry!

How should I approach goji berries and other superfoods?

These little specks of goodness have been subject to interest over the years in terms of their benefits on health and we can’t deny that they match up to their title and are super healthy.

However, in terms of health benefits, we need to go back and consider the definition of a superfood: ‘especially beneficial for health or wellbeing.’ Whether or not they can truly surpass the health benefits that other types of nutrient-packed berries can offer isn’t yet clear.

Although the array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants found in goji berries are impressive and most definitely beneficial for general health, their ability to help us achieve optimal health or treat certain ailments, is still unclear.

What we can say though is that superfoods are genuinely brilliant, nutrient-packed additions to a healthy, balanced diet. Superfoods like goji berries can be expensive though, so don’t get too caught up in all the hype and aim to include them in your diet in moderation.

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