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Healthy respect

Goji berries gain in popularity

By Devra First
Globe Staff / January 21, 2009

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Peruse the shelves of a grocery store and you will find cereal that contains goji berries, energy drinks made from goji berries, goji berry supplements, and straight-up bags of goji berries. Shriveled and small, the pink of pencil erasers, goji has been anointed a "superfood," one in a line of fruits touted for their health-boosting powers: the acai berry, the pomegranate, the mangosteen, Tahitian noni. It has a sweet-tart flavor, like a golden raisin crossed with a rosehip and steeped in hibiscus tea. Goji berries can be eaten out of hand like hard, leathery raisins, or used in baking, as you would dried cranberries.

Google "goji" and you'll find the fruit praised, often by people who are selling it, as a weight loss aid, cancer fighter, and "the most nutritionally dense food on the planet." Dr. Mehmet Oz recommended the berries as a good source of antioxidants to Ben Gordon of the Chicago Bulls on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." "They're the most potent antioxidant fruit that we know," he said. Quick to see marketing opportunities, companies from Bear Naked to Anheuser-Busch to Smashbox Cosmetics have included them in their products.

But goji berries are more than a trend. Today's yogurt-and-granola topper has a long history in Chinese medicine and cuisine. You'll find them at Asian grocery stores and herb shops, often for much less than in the natural food aisle.

"They're a very good tonic for the kidneys and liver, and for diabetes," says Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop, author most recently of "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China." "You see them sometimes in soups where meat or poultry is cooked very plainly with tonic ingredients including goji berries."

They're also often included in the rice porridge congee, steeped in alcohol to make medicinal wine, and combined with ingredients such as chrysanthemum to make tea, she says. "And because they're so colorful and beautiful, they're used to give color to white food or as a garnish with dim sum." You can eat the plant's leaves, too; they are small and have a similar texture to spinach.

At Little Q Hot Pot Restaurant in Quincy, goji - also called wolfberry, Lycium barbarum, and boxthorn - is a frequent ingredient. Customers cook raw meat, seafood, vegetables, and tofu in bubbling pots of soup laden with herbs and aromatics. "We use wolfberry for most of the broths," says manager Ming Zhu. "Sometimes we use them in rice and noodles also."

Zhu grew up eating goji berries. "Most Chinese people know it's healthy and good for your eyes," he says. "It makes your eyes brighter, that's what we're taught as a child." His father would make wine with goji berries and snake gallbladder, another ingredient that's said to promote optic health.

Each morning Zhu eats a spoonful of the fruit, steamed to soften it. "Just straight. Before I eat my breakfast, I have vitamins and a spoonful of wolfberry. I've been doing it for tens of years. I haven't done any scientific research, but I have very good vision."

B.J. Wang, an herbalist and owner of E. Shan Tang Herbs in Allston, prescribes it for kidneys, the liver, and eyes - "mostly for kidney yin deficiency," he says. "If knees are weak, legs are weak, or there's vertigo, these are all considered kidney problems. When people are very tired, we also use goji. And with people who catch cold a lot, it really helps. There's a lot of vitamin C in there; there are 18 amino acids in there."

For people who get heartburn from citrus, he says, the berries can be a good alternative source of C. They also grow well in New England; Wang cultivates them and sometimes gives clippings to people.

"And for men," he says, "they have some other purpose too. You don't want to know."

But goji shouldn't be viewed as a miracle ingredient, in the way that it's sometimes marketed, Dunlop says. "I'm quite skeptical of the idea that you should eat lots of those. I would rather take them as part of a very rich food culture," she says. "Food is medicine in China; everything has medicinal value. People have a very good sense of a holistic diet, adjusted to take into account the weather or how you're feeling.

"Identifying one thing and eating lots of it to cure something - I think people in China would think that very bizarre."

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.