Trust us, these antioxidant-rich berries deserve a place in your diet.
By Annie Hayes
The historic health benefits of goji berries – also known as Wolfberries – span more than 2,000 years across rural China, Tibet and Mongolia, during which time they earned a reputation as a miracle fruit.
It’s easy to see why. Packed with an impressive array of essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, a handful of dried goji berries is the perfect addition to porridge or acai bowls, or can be enjoyed as a filling snack, for those looking to boost their health.
Goji berries are available as a powder – ideal for smoothies – as well as a juice, capsule supplements, and to a lesser extent, as whole fresh fruit. While fresh berries typically retain the most nutrients, they’re trickier to track down and usually expensive, since goji berries are primarily grown in warmer climates.
We asked clinical pharmacist and nutritionist Mike Wakeman of Vitmedics to talk us through the health benefits of goji berries:
13 health benefits of goji berries
‘The goji berry – Lycium barbarum – grows in China, Tibet and other parts of Asia, and its fruits appear in Chinese lore as far back as 2800 B.C. as a traditional herbal medicine and more lately as a functional food,’ says Wakeman. ‘Concentrated extracts and infusions prepared from the berries have a history of use as ingredients in various drinks for their benefits – including anti-ageing, vision, kidney and liver functions.’
While goji berries have a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, Western science is still catching up with the claims.
While goji berries have a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, Western science is still catching up with the claims. Much of the existing research into the health benefits of goji berries has either been performed on rodents or comprised of small human trials. More scientific study is certainly needed. However, according to the limited research available, here are most potent purported health benefits of goji berries:
- Packed full of nutrients
Unusually for a fruit, goji berries contain all nine essential amino acids, serving up around 11 grams of protein per 100g of berries. The same portion of berries also contains 180 per cent of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin A, 75 per cent of your vitamin B2 intake, and 32 per cent of your vitamin C. And as for minerals, you’ll find 100 per cent of your copper RDA, 91 per cent of your selenium intake, 50 per cent of your iron recommendation, 24 per cent of your daily potassium, 18 per cent of your zinc and 10 per cent of your calcium in the same serving. There’s also 8g of dietary fibre and 349 calories.
- High in polysaccharides
The most important group of compounds present in goji berries is polysaccharides, which are a particularly healthful type of complex carbohydrate. The unique combination present in goji berries – called Lycium barbarum polysaccharides (LBPs), after the berry – are thought to be responsible for many of the health benefits of goji berries. Studies indicate that extracts from goji berry fruit ‘possess a range of biological activities, including effects on ageing, neuroprotection, endurance, increased metabolism, glucose control in diabetics, glaucoma, antioxidant properties, immunomodulation, and cell protection,’ says Wakeman.
- Rich in antioxidants
Berry fruits are rich in antioxidant phytochemicals, and goji berries are no different. They also contain high levels of antioxidants, including the carotenoids beta-carotene and zeaxanthin. These substances help to protect our cells against oxidative damage caused by free radicals, which has been linked to serious diseases such as heart disease and cancer, and also contributes to the ageing process.
‘Carotenoids present in goji berries are the second highly significant group of biologically-active constituents with health promoting properties,’ says Wakeman. ‘They are responsible for the characteristic orange-red colour of the berries, with zeaxanthin being one of the most common carotenoids present in goji.’
- Protect vision
Goji berries believed to be beneficial for vision because they contain high levels of zeaxanthin, which offers protection against age-related eye diseases. In a human study published in the journal Optometry and Vision Science, elderly participants who drank goji berry juice for 90 days saw a significant increase in their levels of zeaxanthin and other antioxidants.
‘In an experimental model, the potential protective effect of goji berries against degeneration of nerves in the retina as a result of high blood pressure in the eye suggests that they may be a potential candidate as a neuroprotective in glaucoma,’ says Wakeman. ‘Other studies also showed that goji berry protected subjects from light damage to cells in the retina of the eye, possibly as a result of increases in plasma zeaxanthin concentration.’
- Support immune system
Goji berries contain large amounts of vitamins A and C, which are vital for enhancing immunity and warding off illnesses. ‘Many studies have shown that goji berries have a wide variety of immuno-modulatory functions, including activation of various immune cells,’ says Wakeman. In one rodent study, older mice who supplemented with goji berries fought against the flu more effectively than those who were given a flu vaccine.
- Boost metabolism
For those looking to shed a couple of pounds, incorporating goji berries into your diet could support your weight loss goals. ‘LBP-standardised goji berry fruit juice has been reported in several randomised clinical studies to significantly increase energy expenditure after eating,’ says Wakeman. ‘Goji berry intake was shown to be effective to control waist circumference, and hence may reduce the risks of metabolic syndrome.’
- Protect heart health
Goji berries have been shown to have protective effects in a number of animal studies, most notably on blood pressure and cholesterol levels. While the results are certainly interesting, human studies are necessary before any conclusions can be drawn. ‘In an experimental study model, an increase of blood pressure was significantly prevented by LBP treatment,’ says Wakeman.
In another study, LBP supplementation ‘resulted in a significant decrease in the concentration of fasting blood glucose, total cholesterol and triglyceride levels in type 2 diabetes,’ he says. ‘In a different study, goji berry consumption lowered the levels of total cholesterol and triglyceride in both the serum and the liver, and harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels in serum.’
- Good for your liver
Thanks to their high antioxidant content, consuming goji berries could help to protect your liver from the oxidative stress that occurs from consuming a high-fat diet. ‘Beneficial changes in liver tissue antioxidant levels, as well as improved activity of antioxidant enzymes and oxygen radical absorbance capacity highlighted the protective effect of goji berry used as a dietary supplement,’ says Wakeman.
Further research has revealed that goji berries may even help to prevent the progression of alcohol-induced fatty liver disease. ‘Results showed that supplementation with goji fruits extract resulted in exhibited decreased biomarkers of liver damage,’ he continues. ‘More research is needed however.’
- Neuroprotective properties
Not only can eating goji berries on a regular basis slow signs of ageing, but they may have neuroprotective effects against the toxins that contribute to ageing-related neurodegenerative diseases, says Wakeman. ‘The polysaccharide component may also help protect the brain against some types of damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease,’ he says. ‘They may even help stimulate nerve growth in the brain to support learning and memory.’ The carotenoid Zeaxanthin is thought to play a role, since it accumulates in the brain and may have a protective effect, he says – however, more research is needed.
Goji berries are a rich source of beta-carotene, which is turned into into vitamin A (retinol) in the body.
- Promote healthy skin
Goji berries are a rich source of beta-carotene, which is turned into into vitamin A (retinol) in the body. Beta-carotene helps to protect and repair the skin, maintaining skin health and appearance. ‘Goji berries possibly provide protective effects for the skin, too,’ says Wakeman. ‘Studies suggest that eating them may help protect against sun damage to the skin from UV radiation, probably due to their antioxidant effects.’
- Supports your workout
While regular exercise is associated with numerous health benefits – including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes – it’s also an intense physical stressor that causes oxidative stress, inflammation and muscle fatigue. In one rodent study, goji berries were found to ‘demonstrate potential protection against physical activity-induced oxidation’, says Wakeman.
- Beneficial for diabetes
‘Several clinical and experimental reports show an anti-diabetic effect of goji berries, supporting its well-known use in traditional Chinese herbal medicine for diabetes,’ says Wakeman. In diabetic patients, goji berries have been shown to reduce oxidation in the eyes – thought to be a causative factor of retinopathy, he says – boost activity of the body’s antioxidant system by 87 per cent and vitamin C levels by 61 per cent, and improve immune function. ‘This may be caused by the antioxidant effects and other mechanisms of goji berry,’ Wakeman says.
- Promote general wellbeing
Goji berries appear to be a real all-rounder in terms of mind and body benefits. A rodent study by Abant İzzet Baysal University found that supplementing with goji berry extract can improve depression, anxiety and learning performance. And several human studies have found that drinking goji berry juice improves energy levels, digestive health, athletic performance, mood and sleep.
‘Clinical studies have shown that daily consumption of goji berry fruit juice for 14 or 30 days increases subjective feelings of general well-being, neurological and psychological traits, cardiovascular, joint and muscle functions and gastrointestinal regularity, without any adverse effects,’ says Wakeman. ‘Goji berry intake was also associated with shortening of minutes to fall asleep, and a tendency to improve overall sleep quality,’ he says.