On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Goji the Latest ‘Exotic’ Fruit in the Spotlight

DEAR DR. BLONZ: A close friend who went to college in China introduced me to goji fruit and leaves, and suggested I use them in various ways. She continues to praise their health benefits, all of which she learned about while there, and now grows goji berry plants in her garden. After all this, I began to notice that there are goji dietary supplements available for sale, which claim many positive benefits from this food. I have seen promotional statements about antioxidant powers to help the immune system, and nutrients that fight against cancer, among other things.

Do you have information about goji and any of these advertised abilities? -- S.F., Poway, California

DEAR S.F.: Goji fruit is a type of berry also known as the wolfberry (Lycium barbarum) and is a member of the tomato family that is native to China. Goji grows and matures in the sun, and contains several nutrients, including some vitamins, minerals, phytochemical antioxidants and fiber. The same, however, can be said for other berries, and many fruits, vegetables and even some grains. As a general rule, any plant that grows in the sun will need a combined arsenal of protectants, either physical or phytochemical, to allow it to thrive from generation to generation in the oxidizing solar rays. No surprise that berries tend to be such rich sources of antioxidants.

Fruits and vegetables are important dietary assets, but there’s no scientific evidence that goji products have unique powers to cure cancer, boost the immune system, increase longevity or improve other bodily functions.

There is always a risk of information bloat being used to promote new, so-called “exotic” foods. Mangosteen, acai and noni are other foods that have received similar treatment. We get stories of indigenous peoples who have not suffered the ills of Western civilization, and some people assume that specific local foods are responsible. These usually tend to be promotional statements put forth by people who stand to benefit from the sale of the products. There may even be the allure of making money selling the products while you get discounts on your own purchases.

We are open to persuasion by marketing techniques that target health situations that affect our lives. Rather than being skeptical and objective and asking “Why?,” we get cajoled into asking, “Why not give it a try?” When you want to believe something because you hope it’ll help you or someone you love, you become an easy target.

Our country is an amazing melting pot. I find it wonderful when we learn about foods used in other cultures. Goji fruit appears to be a very healthful food, and can certainly be enjoyed as such. That being said, don’t forget that there are many local fruits and vegetables of comparable merit.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.