I'm wondering your opinion of the juice from the Tibetan goji berry. A good friend, whom I trust, told me that drinking it forced her breast cancer into remission. Her cancer was real, I know, because we've been friends since college at ISU. She now sells the juice because she believes in it so strongly, and wants me to try it for an arthritic shoulder I've been nursing. I'm pretty skeptical by nature, but I'm tempted to buy some.
—Laurie A., Boise
You are not the first to ask me about these berries—goji juice has suddenly gotten more buzz than a German shepherd sniffing Lindsay Lohan's luggage. The parade of exotic elixirs such as the Tibetan goji began a few years back with mangosteen juice, followed quickly by the squeezings of the smelly Hawaiian noni. While the price tag on each has grown progressively, the credibility level has fallen close to zero. And as pleased as I am about your friend's cancer remission, I feel fairly confident saying her recovery had little to do with the goji. To paraphrase what one Australian journalist brusquely concluded, "The most active ingredient in goji juice is bullshit." Pithy they are, those Aussies.
Before their apparent enchantment, goji berries were simply known as common Asian wolfberries. These fruits, when fresh, are fairly small, orange-red berries. They are tender and bruise easily so it is unusual to find fresh wolfberries outside their country of cultivation. Most are dried like raisins for distribution or export. Nearly all the Tibetan goji berries found in the west come not from Tibet, but from commercial agriculture in central and northern China. Though the leaders of the People's Republic may disagree, China is not Tibet.
The South China Morning Post actually sent a reporter to Tibet to find the picturesque, wild-harvested goji berry crop described so vividly in the marketing pieces of a major juice distributor. He found hardly a wolfberry bush in the entire country, and even the nomadic gatherers he encountered—who depend on the land for subsistence—didn't recognize the berry when he showed it. So why would promoters falsely claim goji berries are grown in Tibet? Perhaps the stigma of China's polluted environment and tainted exports makes the reputation of Tibet's ancient wisdom and purity somewhat more appealing. And with this first little half-truth, the snowball of deceptive hype began rolling toward the desperately ill.
Despite the inherent absurdity, the cancer-cure claim is surprisingly common. So, too, are assertions that the juice is an antidote for impotence, cellulite, sleep disorders and normal aging. In my recycle bin sit reams of faxes (and glossy brochures dropped off by roving bands of multi-level marketers) suggesting that, by comparison, penicillin must be a mere cough drop. Like many other fruits, the wolfberry has long been a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. But even among these classic herbalists, its uses have generally been limited to providing relief from skin irritation, aches, coughs and mild inflammatory conditions. Aside from TCM, the use of the wolfberry in Asia is primarily as a flavoring for rice dishes, wine and beer.
In the medical literature, there has been precisely one published clinical trial examining the effects of goji berries in relationship to cancer. Unfortunately the text is in Chinese, but the English abstract indicates that goji may have had a beneficial effect in combination with one, relatively outdated, cancer treatment. Sounds great, but it appears to have been a preliminary study without a completed follow-up. Not exactly the kind of bulletproof data necessary to start closing the hospitals. To be fair, the goji berry is a good source of antioxidants and vitamin C—but not the best source. Compared to an equivalent serving of this mystic panacea, there are significantly more antioxidants in ordinary blueberries and more vitamin C in a single kiwi fruit. Even if the berry was a nutrient gold mine, many goji juices are "blends," meaning any goji therein is mixed with an often-unlisted amount of other processed juices.
Laurie, the real danger is not that goji juice is a waste of money. My fear is that the misguided trust your friend (and others) place in these elixirs will delay critical medical treatment. But it's understandable that after surviving a hellish illness, her faith in a $50 bottle of romanticized juice could not be easily shaken by a know-it-all like me pushing a $2 bag of frozen blueberries. So I'll relent, and maybe I'll even buy a bottle from her; I know a guy in Australia who could use a cure for potty-mouth.