Reining in health claims about the goji berry

The goji berry may be ubiquitous lately, in both juice and dried forms, but the health claims about the berry — that it fends off cancer and Alzheimer’s, among many others — are at best based on incomplete findings, and at worst pseudo-propaganda for goji industry interests.

If you’re a Himalayan berry, does that make you more special than a Canadian one? Those who work in the goji berry industry certainly believe so. Among the various claims made about goji berries are those related to reduced cancer risk, anti-aging effects, improved eye health, as well as increased energy and clarity of thought. But are the claims associated with this fruit, which has been popular for centuries in China, worth their weight in the dried berry or tea form in which they’re usually served?

Most of the goji berry studies conducted so far have been on human cell lines or rodents. While animal and cell-line studies are necessary starting points, they are considered a low level of evidence when compared with human trials that are randomized, blinded and placebo-controlled. When we look at the research on goji using this scrutiny, there is very little good information.

One study, published in 2008 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that subjects who took a half-cup of goji juice per day for two weeks reported “increased ratings for energy level, athletic performance, quality of sleep, ease of awakening, ability to focus on activities, mental acuity, calmness and feelings of health,” compared with those taking a placebo. Talk about enthusiastic! Unfortunately, the fact that the study was funded by a company that sells goji juice, and was conducted with minimal objective physiological changes, like blood pressure or cholesterol, renders the results virtually irrelevant.


So far, the research on goji berries and cancer has been limited to cell lines and mouse models. While early results are promising (various studies have demonstrated that goji extracts can help prevent tumour growth and/or induce what is known as apoptosis, or programmed cell death of cancerous cells), there is little evidence to suggest that the effect would be the same in humans.


Among the anti-aging claims associated with goji is the potential protection of the aging brain. So far, there have been few studies to corroborate any mental health claims, and the few that have been conducted have been at a similar level to the cancer studies. For example, a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that goji berry polysaccharides (sugars) can help reduce the impact of homocysteine on rat brains. The problem? It is unclear whether homocysteine is actually related to Alzheimer’s development in humans.


A recent study of a proprietary milk-based formula of goji berry, published in the journal Optometry and Vision Science, found an increase in circulating levels zeaxanthin, a compound thought to play a role in the prevention of macular degeneration, in elderly subjects given the drink for three months. This is an interesting finding, but longer-term studies are still required.


Be wary when it comes to health claims related to goji. So far, many of the studies showing the most promising results have been industry-sponsored, and few have been of sufficient quality to allow for real conclusions to be drawn. Also keep in mind that, while the berry and its juices are antioxidant-rich, there are numerous other options on the market (blue-berries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries) that are grown close to home, and at a fraction of the cost.

• Jennifer Sygo is a dietitian in private practice at Cleveland Clinic Canada, which offers executive physicals and personal health care management in Toronto.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 5th, 2011 at 10:32 pm and is filed under Health Notes. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Reining in health claims about the goji berry”

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