Last October the National Restaurant Association surveyed over one thousand chefs asking them to predict ‘what’s hot in 2009’. More than half (73%) predicted superfruits would be a hot trend. Goji (pronounced go-gee) and Acai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) and their related products are indeed hot sellers this year. Can we grow these superfruits in our gardens?
What are Superfruits?
Superfruit is a marketing term that came about in 2005 to describe fruits having anticipated health benefits and exceptional nutrition. It currently describes 34 or more common or rare exotic fruits, in addition to Goji and Açai, that include: cranberries, red grapes, apples, oranges, tomatoes, pomegranate, mangosteen, noni, and blueberries.
Superfruit health claims are NOT always supported by scientific evidence. According to Paul M. Gross, PhD - book author and author of the Wikipedia explanation of a superfruit - the actual definition of the 'super' in superfruit remains obscure.
Goji Berry is the commercial name for Wolfberry. Goji berry is the fruit of two species: Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense. Goji is sometimes called Chinese boxthorn or matrimony vine. Wolfberry is also a name for Silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata) and Western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis), but there is no relation. Goji is a freely self-sowing, deciduous shrub that grows 6 to 12 foot tall (depending on the species). L. chinense is hardy to USDA zones 4b to 9b; L. barbarum is hardy to USDA zones 6b to 9b. Both species grow best in full sun, with blooms of delicate, purple trumpet-like flowers in late spring to early summer.
Goji is a member of nightshade, flowering plants in the Solanaceae family, making them related to tomato, potato, chili peppers and eggplant. The berries being sold in gourmet grocery and health food stores are primarily from China; however, Goji berries are also cultivated in other regions of the world.
Among Goji products you will find plain dried berries, flavor coated berries, pure juice, juice blends, dietary supplements and energy drinks such as ‘180 Red with Goji', introduced in 2007 by Anheuser-Busch. "Anheuser-Busch is the first major beverage company to launch an energy drink made with the exotic Goji berry," states the Vice President of Imports, Crafts and Specialty; Anheuser-Busch, Andy Goeler, in a company press release.
Goji berries are often sold dried in the U.S. The dried berries do not have the usual expected sweet or tart taste most of us associate with berries; they have more of a bland, nondescript taste. "They weren't too keen on it--it really is unique for their palates," said Registered Dietitian (RD), Stacey Antine, as she described how children enrolled in her HealthBarn USA® classes (healthy-lifestyle gardening program) felt about the taste of plain dried berries.
Sweet and tastey yogurt covered and chocolate covered dried Goji berries are available in grocery and natural food stores. There are even wasabi (a zesty paste made from wasabi japonica) coated goji berries that were introduced by BrandStorm, Inc. (Himalania brand) at the 2008 January Fancy Food Show in San Diego.
Dried goji berries are chewy and similar in texture to raisins. They can also be quite palatable and add nutrition when added to other foods such as yogurt, breakfast cereals, cooked grains, chili, stuffing, cookies, trail mix, or whatever you may want to try with them.
If it is fresh berries that you are after, the good news is YES! YOU CAN GROW GOJI. Unlike the Açai palm, you many have some luck growing this superfruit in your garden.
At the time of this article I could not find anyone who could describe the taste of a fresh goji berry. It seems not many people in the U.S. have actually tasted a fresh berry. If you're curious about its fresh berry flavor, this could be another reason to consider growing Goji.
Stacey Antine, RD has a Goji plant in her HealthBarn USA® garden. "Our curriculum is centered around the garden--it is the center of the experience and everything that grows in the garden has a "health" story. I was so thrilled to know that we could grow a Goji plant in New Jersey (and not just Tibet!)." Her Goji plant has been growing since 2008. Stacey and her staff are anxiously awaiting its first berries.
"She should get a little fruit this year," according to Scott Walker, co-owner of a fourth generation family farm/business (along with his brother Michael Walker and two cousins (Jim and Jeff Walker) of Jersey Asparagus Farms in Pittsgrove, New Jersey) where Stacey purchased her Goji.
The demand for this healthful plant is increasing. This year you will find Goji plants appearing in garden and nursery catalogs across the U.S. Scott was ahead of the game when they decided to sell L. barbarum three years ago. He is excited about Goji. "In talking to my customers I hear a lot of great stories on how much better they feel after eating the fruit," he says. "Goji grows tall and is best when kept pruned to 5 foot. It likes a high pH, (minimum pH of 7), well drained soil and full sun. The shrub produces berries for a late summer harvest. Goji fruits start out green like tomatoes, then ripen to red."
Goji, a declared superfruit for its antioxidant qualities, has thousands of years of recorded history of its use in China. There are many untrue health claims and myths that surround this berry, as well as many true claims.
What we don't know At the present time nutritional data in the U.S. is not available by the USDA. In my examination of several dried goji berry products, I noticed some discrepancies in the nutrient food labeling. Be aware that this is a relatively new product here in the western world, and more studies and reliable data will become available to consumers in due time. In the meantime, buyers should beware of possible misinformation and errors in nutrient and health claims.
What we do know Goji is one of the oldest medicinal plants known. Its berries have a high content of both juice and sugar (26 Brix) and it was a staple in the diets of Chinese peasants for at least 2,000 years. The nutritious fruit is a traditional Chinese herb associated as an anti-aging herbal medicine and has long been used in Chinese cuisine and in Chinese medicine, with claims that L. barbarum can help balance the bodies ‘Yin' and ‘Yan' and nourish the kidneys and liver.
Paul Gross, PhD; Xiaoping Zhang, MD; and Richard Zhang include a profile of Goji's nutrients in their book, Wolfberry, Nature's Bounty of Nutrition & Health. There are also published scientific studies on L. barbarum (most are outside the U.S.). A 2008 study in Taipei, Taiwan found that beta carotene, zeaxanthin, and beta cryptoxanthin are just some of the health-promoting carotenoids in Goji berries. The consumption of carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables is encouraged by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).
Special thanks to Junetta Mehl, Lois' Health Cupboard I, Burlington, NJ; Scott Walker, Jersey Asparagus Farm; Stacey Antine MS, RD, HealthBarnUSA®; and Carol Byrd-Bredbenner PhD, RD, Rutgers Department of Nutritional Sciences.
 Chuen-Chung Chang R, Kwok-Fai So, Use of Anti-aging Herbal Medicine, Lycium barbarum, Against Aging-associated Diseases. What Do We Know So Far?, Cell Mol Neurobiol (2008), 28:643-652.
 Inbaraj SB, Lu H, Hung CF, Wu WB, Lin CL, Chen BH, Determination of carotenoids and their esters in fruits of Lycium barbarum Linnaeus by HPLC-DAD-APCI-MS, Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis (2008) p812-818.
About Diana Wind, RD
Diana is a registered dietitian with a passion for gardening and sustainable foods. She is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Garden Writers Association. Food from the garden fuels her enthusiasm for Culinary Arts and Nutritional Science.
“I especially love gardening as part of a healthy lifestyle. Gardening engages us with nature, gives us health benefits from exercise, and rewards us with fresh, nutritious foods. To assess your food and garden activity level, visit https://www.choosemyplate.gov/SuperTracker/default.aspx or my blog: http://GardenCuizine.com. Happy and Healthy Gardening!"