Health Food Scams: Goji Berries

For the sake of clarification, the Goji berry, is actually called the Wolfberry. Wolfberry is the common name for the fruit of two very closely related species: Lycium barbarum and L. chinense, two species of boxthorn in the family Solanaceae (which also includes the potato, tomato, eggplant, deadly nightshade, chili pepper, and tobacco).

Although its original habitat is obscure (most likely southeastern Europe to southwest Asia), wolfberry species currently grow in many world regions. Only in China, however, is there significant commercial cultivation. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Germplasm Resources Information Network, it is also known as Chinese wolfberry, goji berry, barbary matrimony vine, bocksdorn, Duke of Argyll’s tea tree, or matrimony vine. Unrelated to the plant’s geographic origin, the names Tibetan goji and Himalayan goji are in common use in the health food market for products from this plant.

With a reputation in Asia as a highly nutritious food, wolfberries have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for about 1,900 years. Their undocumented legend, however, is considerably older, as wolfberries are often linked in Chinese lore to Shen Nung (Shennong), China’s legendary First Emperor, mythical father of agriculture, and herbalist who lived circa 2,800 BC.

Wolfberries have long played important roles in traditional Chinese medicine where they are believed to enhance immune system function, improve eyesight, protect the liver, boost sperm production, improve circulation, etc, etc, etc. Not surprisingly, the supposed health benefits from Goji have been confirmed mostly by Chinese health officials, while none have been confirmed in Western circles. No peer-reviewed research has confirmed health benefits from consuming Goji products by any reputable Western authority in clinical testing. Remember, the Chinese are the ones growing it in the hopes that we will buy it and they know we won’t buy it unless they tell us how astonishingly great it is for our health. I’m surprised that they don’t tell us that it will make the blind see, the deaf hear and raise people from the dead, to be honest.

Starting just a few years ago, wolfberries (a.k.a. Goji berries) have entered the American and European health food markets as one of the “superfruits” (i.e. fruits supposedly of high nutritional value) and is expected to be part of a billion dollar market by the year 2011. This is what a billion looks like: $1,000,000,000. The primary marketing angle for Goji berries centers around their high nutrient and antioxidant values, which are pretty good, I must admit.

Despite what you have heard about “Tibetan Goji”, the bulk of commercially-produced Goji comes from the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of north-central China and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of western China, where they are grown on plantations, not on moutain tops. Commercial volumes of Goji also grow in the Chinese regions of Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, Gansu, Shaanxi, Shanxi and Hebei.

As with other Chinese-grown agricultural products, the US Food and Drug Administration has found high residual levels of insecticides and fungicides on some imported Goji, which led to the seizure of those shipments. While some American retailers talk about “organically-grown Goji” and show a Green label on their product, that label does not come from the FDA, but is the China Green Food Standard, which is administered by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture’s China Green Food Development Center, which does allow a certain amount of insecticide, fungicide and herbicide use even for products labelled as “organic”.

Further, despite marketers’ claims of “wild-crafted” or “wild harvested” Goji, Tibetan farmers do use the pesticides and fertilizers in their agricultural sector and they have no certification process for organically-grown produce.

To make matters worse, when marketers claim that their Goji products were grown in the Tibetan and Mongolian Himalayas, they ignore the simple fact that the Himalayas do not extend into Mongolia, which is about one thousand miles away from the Himalayas. Also, Goji grown on the mountains bordering the Tibetan plateau would be few and far between, since the region is inhospitable to commercial agriculture of any kind, beyond the sparse, low bushes that can grow there in the 10,000 foot elevation, unfriendly climate and poor soil quality. Nighttime temperatures there are below freezing and there is six months of perpetual frost out of the year, which would certainly prevent the maturation of any fruit. It is in the Tibetan plateau itself, with its valleys and plains where Goji is grown. So, Goji is not a magical fruit harvested from wild plants growing in the mountains, but harvested from plantation-grown wolfberry plants.

Much of Goji’s marketing centers around its high Vitamin C levels and it is claimed by some marketers to have the highest Vitamin C level of any plant in the world. However, clinical studies have shown it to have similar level of this vitamin as many citrus fruits and of strawberries. To further debunk this claim, it also has a lower level of Vitamin C than numerous other fruits and berries, such as the Australian Kakadu “billy goat” plum. So, why isn’t somebody selling kakadu plums in America,since they do have the highest Vitamin C levels of any fruit? Well, Australia isn’t as exotic a place as Tibet. Remember, it’s all about marketing.

While touting the benefits of Goji, an individual, named Li Qing Yuen, is often mentioned as a man who ate Goji berries daily and lived to be over 240 years old. Any solid proof of this man’s very existence is lacking and is likely to be just a myth or just as likely to be an outright lie invented so that people will buy Goji products in the hopes of living longer.

In January 2007, marketing statements for a goji juice product were subject of an investigative report by CBC Television’s consumer advocacy program “Marketplace”. In a review of medical literature pertaining to each proposed claim of health benefits from Himalayan Goji Juice summarized that 22 of 23 claims had no evidence for providing a health benefit beyond that inferred from preliminary in vitro or laboratory animal research. For cancer specifically, four studies were reviewed and it was concluded that the research was too preliminary to allow any conclusion about an anti-cancer effect of consuming wolfberries or wolfberry juice.

By one specific example in the CBC interview, Earl Mindell – a writer and nutritionist who currently lives in Beverly Hills, CA (you think he’s got money? I think so) and is associated with FreeLife International, a multi-level marketing company based in Milford, Connecticut that (surprise!) sells Goji juice – claimed the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York had completed clinical studies showing that use of wolfberry juice would prevent 75% of human breast cancer cases, a statement false in three ways:

  1. no such project has been undertaken at Memorial Sloan-Kettering;
  2. according to the National Cancer Institute of the US National Institutes of Health, no natural or pharmaceutical agent has been shown in clinical trials to fully prevent breast cancer, only to reduce its risk; specifically, there are no completed or ongoing clinical trials in the United States testing the effects of wolfberries or wolfberry juice on breast cancer outcomes or any other disease; and
  3. beyond preliminary laboratory studies and one Chinese clinical trial described only in an abstract, there is no scientific evidence for wolfberry phytochemicals or wolfberry juice having cancer-preventive properties.

A little bit more about Earl Mindell’s educational background: Mindell received a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy from North Dakota State University in 1963 or 1964. He earned a Master Herbalist Diploma from Dominion Herbal College in 1995. Mindell’s Ph.D. was conferred in 1985 by Pacific Western University, an unaccredited distance-learning institution. Sounds to me like if Earl goes out of business selling Goji juice, he could get a job with a creation science organization, am I right?

Significant in nutrient and phytochemical composition, wolfberries are being developed as new products in the functional food industry under FDA regulatory review since December 2006 for label and marketing claims as being also conducted in 2007 by the European Union. During 2006, the FDA placed two goji juice distributors on notice with warning letters about marketing claims. These statements were in violation of the United States Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act [21 USC/321 (g)(1)] because they “establish the product as a drug intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease” when wolfberries or juice have had no such scientific evaluation. Additionally stated by the FDA, the goji juice was “not generally recognized as safe and effective for the referenced conditions” and therefore must be treated as a “new drug” under Section 21(p) of the Act. New drugs may not be legally marketed in the United States without prior approval of the FDA, as stated in these letters.

Goji marketing is just the latest example of people trying to cash-in on the health food craze that this country experiences every few years. Now, it’s Goji. A few years ago, it was noni juice. Before that, it was something else. In a few years, a new product will enter the market for people to be told that it is the “one food you really need to live a long and healthy life” and Goji will be just another footnote.

A common statement among people who sell products like Goji is that the medical industry doesn’t really want you to get better. They want you to stay sick, so that doctors can make money off of your illness and buy expensive houses, boats and cars for themselves. Doctors are demonized to such a degree that it is astonishing! To actually claim that your doctor doesn’t care if you live or die is the worst kind of slander. If you’ve ever met a doctor who was an oncologist or cardiologist and asked them if they remember the very first patient who died under their care, they will all remember. They remember them all. Every single one and it hurts them to remember. Doctors are human beings, not soulless Terminators. I will grant a certain amount of soullessness to the HMOs and pharmaceutical companies, though.

It is, in my honest opinion, the people who market bogus healthcare products who are the dangerous ones. I don’t Truthfully believe they care about you or your health. They only care about the money you give them to buy whatever it is they are selling. If you actually do get better, then you’ll buy more of their product, encourage others to do the same and they will use your testimonial to sell more of their product. If you don’t get better, no one will know about it but yourself, your family and your doctor. The marketer certainly won’t mention it in their brochures.

While I am all in favor of people eating healthier foods, I draw the line at people who latch onto the latest health food fad in the hopes of making big money off of people’s fear over sickness and high medical bills. To be honest, what we need in this country is what Michael Moore proposed in his 2007 movie “Sicko“, which calls for a national healthcare plan for every American. If an American was guaranteed health care, they’d be less likely to be exploited by the money-hungry marketers of Goji, Noni and fad supplements.

While Goji does have a lot of nutrients in it, it is far from the miracle food it has been marketed as. Yes, it would be a good thing to have in your diet. But, given the expense, you could just as well do without it completely with a balanced diet.

PS: I acknowledge my use of the Wikipedia article on Goji.


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6 Responses to “Health Food Scams: Goji Berries”

  1. Peter Says:

    Kakadu Plum is coming.
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    P.S. Kakadu Plum will be available in North America next month.

  2. All Natural Liquid Goji & Acai | Zilination Says:

    […] Health Food Scams: Goji Berries « RANTS & RAVES […]

  3. Losing Weight…Yeah Right! » Blog Archive » Goji Or Wolfberry | Discountleadscoop.Com Says:

    […] Health Food Scams: Goji Berries […]

  4. bachelor Says:

    After reading this post, I am not sure I understand what you are trying to relate. Please expand on your thoughts a little more. Thanks…

  5. Jessie Says:

    I must have somehow missed it! Guess I should do some other research before coming to a conclusion….

  6. Cecilia Says:

    “I’m surprised that they don’t tell us that it will make the blind see, the deaf hear and raise people from the dead, to be honest.” No med in the western world tells you that kind of benefits , I mean they do not assures those benefits might happen…

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