Demystifying the Goji Berry
It's been years since I first discovered goji berries in the wild—and by wild, I mean the aisles of Whole Foods and sprinkled into the breakfast bars at my local cafe. But I still get a kick, without fail, each time I spot them. For me, those shriveled red nubs are synonymous with my mother's cooking, a mainstay in our pantry. Growing up in Miami, none of my friends knew what they were; for them, gojis were an oddity—strange and exotic. For me, they were home, slipped into a savory soup, a bowl of oatmeal, paired with red dates for tea.
When did they get so trendy and popular in the West? The ultimate wellness trend signifier, Goop started featuring Goji-centric recipes in the late aughts. Goji berries have even had their own jump-the-shark moments—the fruit was a key ingredient in Lindsay Lohan's short-lived tanning spray (Sevin Nyne) and Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt energy drink.
Which got us thinking.... How much do you really know about the red goji, aside from its high buzz factor in the health community and its essentials status in the Asian one? As Jen Low, founder of Gojiccino , recalls of her Chinese-Canadian mom: "She would put a steaming bowl of broth in front of me, say, 'Drink this,’ and I'd dutifully eat the rehydrated gojis at the bottom. I didn't ask any questions. I'd go, OK, and do what I was told."
Here, in a first of a series demystifying Asian traditional remedies, recipes and ingredients, your cheat sheet to the beloved goji berry.
What is a goji berry?
Gojis are the fruit of a boxthorn plant native to China. It's a nightshade, the same family that includes tomatoes, chili peppers, eggplants and potatoes. Fresh goji berries are not unlike small oblong tomatoes—bright red, plump, and grown in clusters on a vine. Fresh gojis are much too bitter to eat in the wild. The mild and tart sweetness comes when they’re dried, like tiny pointy raisins, which is how you’ll likely find them today.
How do you pronounce it?
GOH-jee, with an emphasis on the first syllable; it’s the Western approximation of the word in Chinese. But the fruit is also known as wolfberry, red medlar, matrimony vine, Duke of Argyll's tea tree… We’re partial to the Tibetan nickname, happy berry, for its reported effect on people.
Duke of Argyll?
Goji plants are native to China, but you can also find them in the UK, where they were first introduced in the 1730s by Archibald Campbell, the third Duke of Argyll, who was fond of importing exotic flora.
What makes the goji so great?
The goji berry is a pillar of Chinese traditional medicine, going back thousands of years, its use first recorded in 200 BCE. It’s said to slow the aging process, promote circulation, help with skin issues and weight loss, alleviate stress, increase your energy, protect the liver and kidney, relieve headaches, improve your eyesight, prevent cancer and, yes, treat impotence and infertility.
You’re not the only one to raise an eyebrow. Some of the claims haven’t been scientifically backed and, if they have, only through preliminary testing. The claim that goji berries can prevent cancer, for instance, stems from a Chinese study, published in 1994, that showed patients who were treated with both goji polysaccharides and immunotherapy showed improvement—but that was just an observational study. And while researchers at the University of Sydney did do a clinical study, published in 2010, which found encouraging results on subjects with UV radiation-damaged skin who were given goji berry juice—said subjects were mice, not people.
Is it good for you or not?
There have been a lot of studies done, with promising results, but like the above examples show, they’ve been limited. Right now, the claims exceed the cold, hard research.
But that doesn’t detract from the fact that the goji berry is packed with antioxidants—good for immunity; bad for inflammation and harmful free radicals—which helps to explain those anti-aging and all-around health-boosting claims. The extremely high levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene account for why it’s often used as a Chinese remedy for bad eyesight. The fact that the goji boasts a good protein and fiber content, especially for a fruit, may lead to the weight loss claims. It has substantial amounts of vitamin C and selenium, too, and the plentiful astaxanthin protects cells from damage. In a recent top ten list of superfoods for 2019, published by Today's Dietitian, a B2B magazine for nutrition professionals, gojis clocked in at number five—one notch above blueberries. (Kale, green tea and salmon, all named last year, got booted off the chart.)
When did gojis go mainstream?
The latter half of the aughts. That’s the era that gave us the goji-infused 180 Red energy drink by Anheuser-Busch, Lohan’s Sevin Nyne spray tan and Seagal's Lightning Bolt (also with cordyceps!), as well as Dr. Mehmet Oz touting the benefits of the superfruit on The Oprah Winfrey Show, long before he would launch his own program. “They're the most potent antioxidant fruit that we know,” he noted in the segment. The next few years saw a flood of articles in West debating the merits of this goji fad.
How are goji berries typically consumed?
Traditionally, they’re put into tonics, teas or soups. They’re also used to top off savory porridges or gelatinous-like desserts. But there are increasingly more modern ways to get your goji quota—for instance, tossed into smoothies or a cup of yogurt, baked into cookies or rolled with granola. For those who like their nice with a side of naughty, there’s also goji vodka and goji liqueur.
And then there’s Gojiccino, an all-natural espresso-like concentrate you can easily mix with vegan or dairy milks to create smoothies and lattes. “I grew up with goji berries—my mom would always put them in soups, with some winter melon,” says founder Jen Low. “They give you an overall lift—gojis are like the spinach of fruits. But I’m sorry, I don’t have hours and hours to simmer things; that’s not the life I live. I have the kind of life where I’m out the door and I might grab a latte.” A food consultant, Low connected the dots between the flavor profiles of the goji berry and cocoa and, voilà, goji latte (or cold brew) on the go.
“My mom just chuckles now,” Low continues. “All her home remedies are mass market. She’s like, ‘I told you—everyone should be eating this stuff.’”
Goji Red Date Tea Recipe
3 Chinese red dates
A small handful of goji berries
1 cup of water
Rinse the goji berries and red dates under cool water. If you have time, soak them in water so they rehydrate and loosen up any bits of dirt stuck in the crevices.
Bring the water to a boil. Add the red dates and gojis and simmer on a low heat till the water turns into a nice golden color.
Drink hot or chilled.