This unusually named berry is a staple in Chinese herbal medicine and is used for a multitude of health-boosting purposes. Also called goji berry, Chinese wolfberry, and Chinese boxthorn, it belongs to one of two closely related species—Lyceum chinense or L. barbarum. It’s a member of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, and eggplant.
The names “Tibetan goji” and “Himalayan goji” are also frequently used, but oddly they have nothing to do with the geographic origins of the plant. Wolfberry actually grows in many parts of the world, although the only current significant commercial cultivation is in China.1
Marketing companies vie for top billing based on where the fruit is grown, claiming one region superior to another, but tests show that weather conditions are the only variable that changes the quality of the fruit.2
Wolfberries have been used medicinally in China for nearly 2,000 years—possibly longer if local lore is to be believed.1 Since earliest times, people have eaten the berries like raisins, fermented them into wine, brewed them for tea, and cooked them in soups and stews. The plant has been cited by several ancient Chinese medica since the days of the Tang Dynasty (1000-1400 ad) for its multiple health benefits.3
The English name for L. chinense may derive from the plant’s kinship with tomatoes. Botanist Carolus Linnaeus first applied lycos, the Greek word for wolf, to tomato plants in 1753 for reasons unknown. On the other hand, “goji” is an Anglicized version of the Chinese words for both the plant and the berries themselves.
There is currently an explosion of interest in this fruit worldwide, spurred by its nutrient richness and antioxidant qualities. In 2004, China’s entire exported crop amounted to some 95,000 tons valued at $120,000. Now that wolfberry has been dubbed a “superfruit,” exports are expected to hit the billion-dollar mark by 2011.1
Wolfberry is a deciduous woody perennial plant that grows to a height of about one meter. With thorny stems and sharply-shaped green leaves, its blooms are small purple flowers. These bear oblong berries that, when ripe, turn orange-red and measure 1-2 cm.4 Their taste has been described as similar to dates, dried cranberries, or raisins.1
Mechanism of action
Wolfberry has been acclaimed for a lengthy list of health benefits. The abundance of polysaccharides is responsible for its reputation as “the anti-aging berry.”5 It is also said to boost the immune system, prevent cancer and liver disease, and improve vision.4
The berries contain at least 18 amino acids (including all eight of the essential amino acids), at least 21 trace minerals, and even more carot-enoids. A source of many vitamins, they are especially rich in vitamins C, B1, B2, B6, and E.3
Another substance found in wolfberries is zeaxanthin, an important dietary carotenoid that is selectively absorbed into the retinal macula lutea, where it is thought to play antioxidant and protective light-filtering roles. Studies are currently under way to explore the potential usefulness of wolfberries in preventing numerous vision problems, including age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma.1 Chinese research indicates that wolfberries reduce the time it takes the eye to adapt to dark and improves vision under subdued light. This action may be attributed to zeaxanthin’s neutralizing free radicals formed by sunlight. Zeaxanthin has also shown a protective effect on liver cells that were treated with carbon tetrachloride to induce hepatotoxicity.4
Another complex compound in wolfberries is betaine, a choline precursor essential for neurologic function. Choline, in turn, protects against fatty liver disease. Wolfberries also support coronary health. The beta-sitoserol they contain is an anti-inflammatory agent that lowers cholesterol, while cyperone is a sesquiterpene that boosts heart function and BP maintenance.
Other beneficial compounds include solavetivone, a powerful antifungal and antibacterial agent, and physalin, which has been used to treat all types of leukemia as well as hepatitis B.6
Safety and side effects
While there are almost no controlled trials testing the safety and efficacy of the wolfberry, the anecdotal evidence of its benefits is staggering. Two instances of wolfberries interfering with warfarin have been reported in Chinese women who had been drinking wolfberry tea daily.1
Cost and how supplied
Wolfberries are among the more costly medicinal foods. They are typically sold by the ounce or the pound as sun-dried whole fruit. Most often, because the fresh berry is very fragile, commercial growers use a mechanical drying process to preserve the integrity of the berry.1 Prices range from $12 to $20 per pound of dried berries.
Goji juice, which comes in varying concentrations and potency, is also popular. Prices are similar, averaging $35 for a one-liter bottle.
Wolfberries are readily adaptable for cooking in stews, soups, casseroles, and rice dishes or to sprinkle on cereals.3 Adding them to standard banana bread or muffin recipes will provide more nutrients than adding raisins and will not require any adjustment to the recipe.3
To make wolfberry tea: Boil 15 g of the dried fruit and let it set. Drink hot or cold as a daily beverage for optimal effect.
To make wolfberry wine: Add 200 g of fruit to one liter of white wine and seal the container. The wine will be ready to drink in 10 days.3
If you are looking for the “all-purpose, good-for-everything” herb, wolfberries may be just the thing. There appear to be few, if any, side effects.
The biggest drawback is the cost, which could become significant if you consume a serving on a daily basis. However, in terms of taste, versatility, and nutrient value, this product seems to be an excellent choice.
1. Wikipedia. Wolfberry. Available at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfberry. Accessed August 20, 2008.
2. Wilderness Family Naturals. Goji Berry or Wolfberry? Tibet or China? Which is better? Available at www
.wildernessfamilynaturals.com/goji/which-goji.htm. Accessed August 20, 2008.
3. Wolfberries.com. Home page. Available at http://wolfberries.com. Accessed August 20, 2008.
4. Phytochemicals.info. Plants/wolfberry. Available at phytochemicals.info/plants/wolfberry.php. Accessed August 20, 2008.
5. Chang RC, So KF. Use of anti-aging herbal medicine, Lycium barbarum, against aging-associated diseases. What do we know so far? Cell Mol Neurobiol. 2008;28:643-652.
6. Planet Berry. The wolfberry of China. Available at: www.planetberries.com/wolfberry.html. Accessed
August 20, 2008.