Goji Berries: Exotic, Healthy and Gaining Momentum

October 16, 2007

7 Min Read
Goji Berries: Exotic, Healthy and Gaining Momentum

Goji berry (Lycium barbarum L.) has been revered as a king of plants for thousands of years. Its use in Asia as a nutritive food dates back nearly 5,000 years and may even predate some of the Egyptian pyramids. Since its introduction to the West, the goji berr y has joined other exotic fruits like açaí, mangosteen and noni to achieve “super food” status. Similar to other dried fruits, goji berries can be eaten right out of the bag, added to baked goods and smoothies, or tossed into salad, cereal or yogurt. Often described as mild and slightly tangy, the goji berry has a great taste sensation and a characteristic chewy texture. This tiny pink fruit, which is about the size of a raisin, has become a featured “hot” ingredient in a wide range of new products and is rapidly making its way into the American diet.

Identified by many names, including western snowberry, lycii berry and, more commonly, wolfberry, the precise root of the name goji berry is not known. It may be an abbreviation of the Mandarin name for the plant, gou qi zi, or it may come from Gojal, the part of the Himalayas that borders the Hunza Valley, where goji berries likely originated. Furthermore, the name wolfberry may stem from an ancient Chinese legend, which tells of a great wolf that was often seen feeding on ripe berries in dense goji patches.

Although goji berries are often marketed as Himalayan or Tibetan, they commonly come from other regions. Originated in the Tibetan Himalayas, most goji berries today grow in dense, inaccessible patches that cannot be cultivated. Most commercially exported goji berries are found in several different temperate and subtropical regions throughout central and western China. Nutritional and phytochemical qualities of goji berries vary by area, fueling disputes over which region cultivates the best berries.

Although its name and origin may be debatable, the goji berry’s rise in popularity is undisputable. Spanning across nine categories, combined 52-week sales of goji berry products increased by 157 percent in natural supermarkets, and by 1,856 percent in conventional food, drug and mass (FDM). Goji berry items, in the Food Supplements category, generate the most dollar sales in natural supermarkets, while goji berry items in the Nuts, Seeds, Dried Fruits & Trail Mixes category contribute the most dollar volume in conventional FDM. As is the case with most rising natural food trends, goji berry product assortments are more developed, and sales are stronger, in natural supermarkets. Natural supermarkets offer eight categories, with 38 brands that represent 71 active goji berry items. In conventional FDM, goji berry product selection includes only four categories, 15 brands and 18 items. Leading brands of goji berry sales, across natural supermarkets and conventional FDM, include Genesis Today and Himalania.

Typically packaged as a dried fruit or a fruit supplement, goji berry products are available in most natural supermarkets and many conventional FDM outlets. Dried goji berries generally retail for approximately $1.50 per ounce and are offered in package sizes that range from 2 to 16 ounces. Goji berry supplements are most commonly juices or liquids, but are also available in powder and capsule form. On average, the liquid variety retails for about $0.75 per ounce and are available in sizes that range from 4 to 16 ounces.

Goji berry sales are not entirely driven by dried fruits and liquid supplements. Goji berry items also include innovative sweet treats and fun snacks. Organic Nectars offers premium products made with goji berries, including agave dessert syrup, raw agave gelato, and a goji berry and cacao nib mix. Other items that are gaining momentum, in natural supermarkets, include Himalania’s chocolate and yogurt covered goji berries, Vosges’ dark chocolate goji bar, Artisana’s Goji Bliss spreadable coconut nectar, PranaBar’s gluten-free apricot goji bar and Celestial Seasonings’ goji berry pomegranate green tea. It appears the introduction and innovation of goji berry products is in its prime: of the natural channel’s 71 goji berry items, 31 became available this year; in conventional FDM, the same holds true for 14 of the 18 items that are currently available.

In addition to product innovation, there are various health, wellness and lifestyle trends that fuel the growth of natural products. Products, such as goji berries, that offer myriad health benefits earn particular praise and experience an ever-increasing growth in awareness and availability.

The development of functional foods is one area that has positively impacted the goji berry’s rising success. Functional foods include common items such as milk, bread and chocolate, which are enhanced with added supplement ingredients like plant sterols, herbs and essential fatty acids (EFAs). Products with supplemental dosages of these ingredients are marketed as “functional” and offer additional benefits with added support to overall health. Consumer interest and sales of functional foods are on the rise and product innovation in this area is constant. The growing popularity of “super foods” and “super fruits” has given new status to many exotic fruits. The “super” trend involves the process of compounding herbs or fruits, with natural nutritional qualities, into dietary supplements or adding them as a “super ingredients” to foods, such as granola, energy bars and juice.

Hailed as the newest super food, goji berry awareness has blossomed as a result of this trend.

Health Benefits

Goji berries have also garnered interest through their use in various diets and role in helping to improve certain imbalances. In traditional Eastern medicine modalities, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Himalayan medicine and Ayurveda, foods are recognized for their medicinal qualities and have been used for centuries as medicine to treat imbalance and illness. This ancient practice has gained attention in the West and is influencing diet choices. For example, the raw foods trend focuses on consuming foods that are not cooked, thereby retaining their enzymatic qualities and providing the body with essential components to support digestion, energy production and overall health. This type of diet and lifestyle is used to attain a variety of health benefits including weight loss, energy support and disease prevention.

While many of the goji berry’s health benefits are derived from the historical use of the plant as a medicine, it is uncontested that these tiny berries contain a wealth of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, phytosterols, prebiotic fiber, EFAs and amino acids. Goji berries also contain a rich supply of linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (LNA). The oil extracted from the goji seed is reported to contain 67.8 g LA and 3.4 g LNA per 100 g of seed oil. The standard American diet is sorely lacking in these important fats; prolonged deficiency of LA and LNA can result in hair loss, kidney and liver failure, miscarriage, tissue inflammation, high blood pressure and edema.

Goji berry is also noted for its high level of antioxidant carotenoids that can protect the body from damage by neutralizing free radicals. The most abundant carotenoid found in goji is zeaxanthin, which has a protective effect on the eyes. Goji berries contain 162 mg of zeaxanthin per 100 g of fruit; this is considerably higher than other edible carotenoid-rich plants such as spinach, which only contains 12.2 mg of zeaxanthin per serving.

Goji berries are also rich in polysaccharides, chains of sugar molecules that may support the regulation of the immune system. In addition, polysaccharides are an excellent source of prebiotic fiber, which is the fermentable or soluble fiber that gets processed into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the intestinal tract, and provides food for beneficial intestinal flora (probiotics) that aid digestion and nutrient absorption. Daily intake of prebiotic fiber is associated with a reduced risk of several prevalent diseases including obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and a variety of digestive imbalances.

The goji berry fruit is surrounded by a rich native history, with numerous anecdotal tales adding to the plant’s mysticism. For example, there is an old tale of a well under a goji vine that was said to possess youth-restoring waters. One of the most incredible legends surrounding goji is also a major influence in the plant’s high status in TCM. The legend tells of a man named Li Qing Yuen, who is said to have lived to be 252 years old; his long life was attributed to his daily intake of a goji berry soup, Taoist yoga and brisk walking.

While these tales are only legends, the increasing popularity of goji berries is becoming a reality. Health and wellness trends are evident across the country and consumers will continue to become more aware of foods with “functional” and “super” qualities, including these small but powerful berries. 

Kerrin Rourke is natural products expert, and Alison Tirone a marketing consultant with Schaumburg, Ill.-based SPINS, a market research firm. SPINS is a leading provider of industry reporting and consulting services for the natural products sector. SPINS’ comprehensive offering includes retail measurement services, content-based reporting, consumer information and consulting services. Learn more at www.SPINS.com, or contact the company at (847) 908-1200.

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