What the Heck is a goji berry?

For those of you who aren’t yet familiar, (worry not, you’re about to be) goji berries (fruits of Lycium barbarum –L. and Lycium chinense –Mill.) originate from and have been consumed in China since 2800 b.c. in association with First Emperor Shen Nung, who was revered as the ‘mythical father of agriculture.’

Plant Classification  
Common Name: goji berry, wolfberry, matrimony vine
Family: Solanaceae
Genus: Lycium
Species: L. barbarum –L. and L. chinense –Mill.

In the past decade there has been a nearly immeasurable commotion about this fruit; from celebrities to scientists near and far, with portrayals of the berries ranging from ‘Himalayan superfood’ to ‘goji myth busted.’  Google ‘goji berries’ and you’ll get over 2.5 million results in 0.34 seconds. Unfortunately, the scientifically credible portion of this commotion is limited to peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, which are about as comprehensible and entertaining as binary code to most people and can only be accessed by those in the scientific or educational communities.  Since I’m such a kind-hearted gentleman I’ve saved you a hefty headache with this article, translating some of the most current, cutting-edge research on goji berries to date including two recent discoveries in goji berry chemistry, and shedding light on how and why they are beneficial to your health.

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fresh goji berries, ripening on the vine

Antioxidant Arsenal

What is in goji berries that makes them so beneficial? Is it magic? Unicorn tears? No.  The answer is antioxidants.  In a recent comparison, the antioxidant activity of dried goji berries was at least 4-fold higher than that exhibited by dried cranberries and raisins (Jezska-Skowron et al. 2016). Those results made me wonder which of the phytochemical ‘fighters’ in the goji berry arena throw the heavy antioxidant-property ‘punches,’ so I did some digging.  What I found was that the antioxidants occur in four major categories: Lycium barbarum polysaccharides or LBP’s (Potterat 2010), phenolic compounds, flavonoids (Yamei et al. 2014), and carotenoids (Peng et al. 2005).  Punches from four different angles? Have the boxers in a fight ever teamed up and fought the ref? Seems pretty powerful! The most recent goji studies highlight two major groups with newly-discovered compounds that are unique to the goji berry: LBP’s and phenolics. 

Lycium barbarum Polysaccharides (LBP’s)

LBPs are a water-soluble combo of numerous sugar chains and 18 amino acids, produced and stored exclusively within ripened berries of L. barbarum and L. chinense. (Amagase and Farnsworth 2011) LBPs are the most extensively-studied category of antioxidant compounds in goji berries, probably because they occur in dried fruits up to 23% total weight (Potterat 2010) and they can be extracted easily in boiling water.  One study (Sun et al. 2017) confirmed that the best method for making a goji tea was to simmer dried berries for at least an hour, and let me tell ya, you won’t need sugar: these puppies are sweet! 

By User:Vmenkov (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

dried goji berries displayed for sale in bulk

Now that you can make an LB-tea, why bother?  A new study aimed its focus on understanding the chemical structure of LBP contents, and in the process identified a very rare ‘super-sugar’ called arabinogalactin, occurring in a structural arrangement never before seen.  With a name that stellar, it must be pretty remarkable right? Indeed it is! Arabinogalactan is a molecularly HUGE primary metabolite, weighing in at over 2600 times the molecular weight of glucose. (This one’s a heavyweight for sure) It doesn’t stop there though, these things are functional too.  Arabin-oh lets just call it ABG. ABG is commonly found attached to proteins (which explains the amino acid portion of LBPs) and functions as a sort of ‘glue’ to heal plant wounds and as intercellular signaling devices.  In clinical tests, a very small concentration of AGB ramped up the activity of lymphocytes and macrophages and made them lethal to cancer, (Yuan et al. 2016) finally putting the term ‘cancer victim’ into the context it belongs in conversation.  To make matters even better, AGB is not the only newly dicovered, free radical-feeding shark that lurks in goji waters, the next is a phenolic.

N-feruloyl-tyramine dimer; most abundant phenolic in goji berries

N-feruloyl-tyramine dimer; most abundant phenolic in goji berries.


Goji Phenolics

The group of phenolic compounds derived from Lycium fruits are composed of 53 different chemicals. In a recent study, 9 new and 22 known phenolic compounds were isolated from Lycium fruits for the very first time (Zhou et al. 2016).  Adding to the successful year of phenolic discovery in the goji berry world is the newly-isolated N-feruloyl tyramine dimer, which consequentially happens to be the “most abundant antioxidant polyphenol” in goji berries. (Forino et al. 2016) Though this new compound hasn’t been subject to the same amount of research and testing as LBPs or AGB, its discovery is significant. Why? Well, for one we now know who the ‘good guys’ are in the ‘free-radical fight’, and secondly, at least ten new excuses for further testing on goji berries, of course!  Now that the contents and their structures are identified, all the scientists have to do is the testing, and that’s the fun part.

Other Benefits

Beyond their antioxidant content, goji berries are essentially a multivitamin capsule in berry form; they contain so many vitamins, minerals, and elements that it’s nearly impractical to list them, all of which have been beautifully packaged in a form readily absorbed by the human body.  Benefits from goji berry consumption include (to name a few) diabetes regulation, immune system stimulation, anti-tumor/anti-carcinogenic activity, neuro-protective activity and reduction in incidence of cataract and macular degeneration. (Potterat 2010)

What’s the Catch?

Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense are members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, which makes the plants potential producers of poisonous chemical compounds. (But then again, so are tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants) Fortunately, a recent study on several L. barbarum and L. chinense variants has confirmed that no poisons are present in Lycium fruits, leaves, stems nor roots. (Kokotkiewics 2017) Dried goji berries have also been compared against raisins and cranberries for toxicity, and results exhibited smaller quantities of lead and cadmium than the minuscule quantities present (barely) in American-made raisins. (Jeszka-Skowron et al. 2017) There were also two reports of an adverse interaction of fruit consumption and Warfarin in the year 2000; cautions have since been advised when consuming the fruit, though no other incidents have occurred. (Amagase and Farnsworth 2011)

Looking Forward

Goji berries have stood the test of time, having been been consumed by generations of human beings for thousands of years for their beneficial properties; their effectiveness has been confirmed by cutting-edge research and technology. Unfortunately, more testing is required until the FDA puts the berries on their ‘Generally Regarded As Safe’ (GRAS) list, or until the berries make it on the EU’s ‘Novel Food’ list.  Though it may not be my place to pose certain questions, there is one question I can’t help but ask, for at 28 years old I have lost far too many friends and family to the icy clutches of cancer.  If the cure to cancer does lie within a type of berry or any fruit or vegetable, that any citizen could cultivate on their front porch or back yard, and the cancer industry is worth over $125 Billion (projected to increase 40% to $173 Billion by 2020), would governments and/or corporations share their findings at a risk to their own ever-increasing profits? I surely hope so. In the meantime, I’ve seen enough to convince me that a nice cup of easy-to-make goji berry tea isn’t a bad idea.  



Literature Cited:

Amagase H, Farnsworth N. 2011. A review of botanical characteristics, phytochemistry, clinical relevance in efficacy and safety of Lycium barbarum fruit (Goji). Food Research International; 44(7), 1702-1717.

Forino M, Tartaglione L, Dell’aversano C, Ciminiello P. 2016. NMR-based identification of the phenolic profile of fruits of Lycium barbarum (goji berries). Isolation and structural determination of a novel N-feruloyl tyramine dimer as the most abundant antioxidant polyphenol of goji berries. Food Chemistry; 194, 1254-1259.

Jeszka-Skowron M, Zgoła-Grześkowiak A, Stanisz E, Waśkiewicz A. 2017. Potential health benefits and quality of dried fruits: Goji fruits, cranberries and raisins. Food Chemistry; 221, pp. 228-236.

Kokotkiewicz A, Migas P, Stefanowicz J, Luczkiewicz M, Krauze-Baranowska M. 2017 Densitometric TLC analysis for the control of tropane and steroidal alkaloids in Lycium barbarum, Food Chemistry; 221, pp. 535-540. 

Le K, Chiu F, Ng K. 2007. Identification and quantification of antioxidants in Fructus lycii. Food Chemistry; 105(1), pp. 353-363.

Peng Y, Ma C, Li Y, Leung K, Jiang Z, Zhao Z. 2005. Quantification of zeaxanthin dipalmitate and total carotenoids in Lycium fruits (Fructus Lycii), Plant Foods For Human Nutrition (Dordrecht, Netherlands); 60(4,) pp. 161-164.

Potterat O. 2010. Goji (Lycium barbarum and L. chinense): Phytochemistry, pharmacology and safety in the perspective of traditional uses and recent popularity. Planta Medica; 76(1), 7-19.

Sun Y, Rukeya J, Tao W, Sun P, Ye X. 2017. Bioactive compounds and antioxidant activity of wolfberry infusion. Sci Rep [Internet]. [cited 2017 Feb 1]; 7(40605) Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5244393/

Yamei Y, Linwu R, Youlong C, Qin K, Xin Z, Qing L, Jabbar S, Abid M, & Xiaoxiong Z 2014. Nutritional, Phytochemical Characterization and Antioxidant Capacity of Ningxia Wolfberry (Lycium barbarum L.). J Chem Soc Pak; 36(6) pp. 1079-1087

Yuan Y, Wang Y, Jiang Y, Prasad KN, Yang J, Qu H, Wang Y, Jia Y, Mo H, Yang B. 2016. Structure identification of a polysaccharide purified from Lycium barbarium fruit, Int Jour of Bio Macromolecules [Internet]. [cited 2017 Feb 1]; 82, 696-701. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0141813015300726

Zhou Z, Xiao J, Fan H, Yu Y, He R, Feng X, Kurihara H, So K, Yao X, Gao H. (2017). Polyphenols from wolfberry and their bioactivities. Food Chemistry; 214, pp. 644-654.