Goji: Health Elixir or Pricey Juice?

July 14, 2006 — -- It has been almost 500 years since Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León went in search of the mythical Fountain of Youth.

Although Ponce de León never found what he was looking for, the human quest for longevity continued.

Now nutritionist Earl Mindell, author of the bestselling book "The New Vitamin Bible," believes he has discovered an anti-aging secret in the juice of a tiny, red berry called goji.

"I have never seen anything like this," Mindell said.

Despite the fact that goji has only been tested on humans in one published study, a simple Internet search reveals hundreds of websites selling goji juice, dried goji berries and even goji plants.

Goji is now available in products on your supermarket shelves and has recently become the subject of some experimental cancer treatments. But does it work?

'We Are A Sick Nation'

Mindell said he learned about the medicinal properties of goji, also known as Lycium Barbarum, from an Asian healer he met on a visit to the Himalayan Mountains in 1996.

For more than 6,000 years, herbalists in China, Tibet and India have used goji because they believe it helps them regulate their blood pressure, prevent cancer, balance blood sugar levels and protect their body from premature aging, he said.

"In that part of the world it is not unusual for people to live to be 100 years old," Mindell said.

In Bapan Village, a remote town in Bama County of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China, seven of its 515 residents are centenarians, according to China's 2000 census -- that's 1.4 percent of the population. As comparison, only about two-hundredths of a percent of Americans become centenarians, according to Census figures.

"We're not dying of old age in this country, we're dying of degenerative diseases," Mindell said. "Wake up America: We are a sick nation."

Costs $50 a Bottle

In an effort to help Americans "look and feel 20 years younger," Mindell said he teamed up with nutrition supplement company Freelife International to produce his own Himalayan Goji Juice.

And even though the company makes no medical claims about it's goji juice, chief operating officer Peter Reilly said tens of thousands of people purchase the company's juice on a monthly basis.

"These are repeat customers," Reilly said. "And they take it because they like it, they like the benefits they get from it."

Freelife's juice is so popular that it is has become their lead product -- even at $50 per bottle. According to the company's April 2006 CEO Update, sales quadrupled between the first quarter of 2005 and the first quarter of 2006.

In an effort to bring the goji berry to mainstream America, Celestial Seasonings, the tea company, has added the fruit to their Pomegranate Green Tea, which sells in most major grocery stores, said Joe Beauprez, senior director of marketing.

"I can tell you the stores are really excited about getting ahead of a trend like this," Beauprez said. "And this is definitely a trend, not a fad. It's a trend that's on its way up."

Doctor: It's No Health Elixir

But until there is more scientific research on goji, Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine and an ABC News Medical Contributor, said he wouldn't spend his money on the supplement.

"If you're drinking this as a health elixir I would say it's a huge leap of faith," Katz said.

Several Chinese studies indicate the goji berry is a rich source of antioxidants and that components of the berry have the ability to stop the growth of cancer cells, reduce blood glucose and cholesterol levels and enhance the effects of radiation on lab animals. But only one of the published studies tested the effects of goji on human beings, and that's a concern for Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University.

"In a test tube you don't have to go through the gut," he said.

A 1994 study in the Chinese Journal of Oncology found that 79 cancer patients responded better to their cancer treatments when goji was added to their regimen.

Dr. Victor Marcial-Vega, an oncologist from Hato Rey, Puerto Rico, said that he agrees with those findings, and has been using goji to ease the side effects chemotherapy and radiation is his own cancer patients.

In his 2005 study, which has not been published, 80 percent of his patients who took goji while undergoing cancer treatment maintained a healthy blood count, and 87 percent experienced changes that indicated their immune systems may have improved, he said.

"The results are so dramatic that the doctors will never go back to saying never use antioxidants with chemotherapy," he said.

But, according to Blumberg, cancer patients do need to be aware that an antioxidant like goji juice can interfere with their treatment.

"It's a subject of enormous controversy," Blumberg said. "It depends on which drug or which set of drugs your taking, and which antioxidant you're talking about."

'I Don't Know If It's Good'

The success of studies abroad and the controversy at home peaked the interest of Dr. H. Leon Bradlow, of the Strang Cancer Research Laboratory in New York, who recently began his own research on the goji berry.

"Natural products have their worth," Bradlow said. "Half of the medications out there originate from natural products."

Bradlow said his tests, which have not been published, showed that the juice extracted from the berry prevented the growth of breast cancer cells. He hopes to go forward with his study and test goji juice on lab mice with cancer.

But until the juice is tested extensively on humans with cancer, he said he has no proof that Goji is worth consuming.

"I haven't the plainest idea," he said. "I don't know if it's good, bad or indifferent."