Under the exotic name 'goji berry', a variety of Lycium fruit, more commonly referred to as wolfberry, has taken the booming global 'health food' market by storm. Although the berries do possess exceptional nutritional qualities, many of those marketing 'goji berry' products claim the fruit has miraculous properties, such as curing cancer and increasing longevity; claims that have been exposed as fraudulent. What has been often overlooked however is that the aggressive marketing strategies supporting the goji craze rely heavily on portraying the berries as a Tibetan product. This Special Report shows that the purported Tibetan origin of goji berries is bogus and relies on the misappropriation and distortion of western research on Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM). Moreover, there are no indications that the berries that have swamped worldwide markets have actually been grown commercially in any Tibetan region of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Rather, they originate from regions at the outer fringes of the Tibetan Plateau where they are grown by Chinese Muslims (Hui). Apart from obscuring the provenance of the berries, Western goji traders present standard stereotypes, implicit assumptions of cultural superiority, and politically correct sanitisations, which neatly reflect the politically dominant image of Tibet in China. Many companies distributing goji products appear to cynically take advantage of the naivety or serious health problems of western consumers, as well as of inaccurate Tibet images in order to market a Chinese crop as a Tibetan product without providing any apparent returns to Tibetans. The example of the goji berry demonstrates that, unless transparent structures are established within and outside the PRC to verify the authenticity of Tibetan products, the name of Tibet is destined to be misappropriated as a convenient label that profits non-Tibetans.
While some of the claims regarding the goji/wolfberry's health benefits are outrageous and scientifically unfounded, its high content of antioxidants, polysaccharides, amino acids and vitamins is proven and health benefits derived from its consumption should at least be comparable to blueberries or green tea. However, many enthusiastic consumers of goji berries or goji-derived products appear convinced of the positive impact on their personal wellbeing and health. On the internet, there are personal blogs where users state that continuous consumption of goji berry increases vitality, enhances the immune system, improves eyesight and boosts sexual potency. An article by Christopher Middleton in the UK's Telegraph of 06 January 2007 describes goji as a "cellulite assassin". More concerning however, sensationalist claims about the alleged anti-cancer and anti-aging effect of goji serve to raise hopes and expectations among vulnerable people. Unfortunately, most of these claims rely on dubious Western 'scientific studies', as well as on countless Chinese studies that simply do not live up to western scientific standards.
A certain number of goji traders have developed schemes that rely successfully on social network marketing. In early 2007, the Canadian CBC investigative TV show 'Marketplace' exposed the marketing schemes of 'Himalayan Goji Juice'. Less affluent consumers of this product, enthusiastic about the alleged positive health impact of goji berries, need to continually find new customers to finance their consumption of the juice, which can cost US$40-50 (UK£20-25; EUR€30-37) a bottle and lasts only for a week.
What is 'goji'?
A major problem is that 'goji berry' is not clearly identifiable in the current market, since companies marketing the fruit and its products have taken great liberties in applying the name to all kinds of berries and juices derived from Lycium. Researching the origin of the goji berry fad, its true botanical identity, its supposed history in Tibetan medicine and the sourcing of the product in Asia proves a challenge when stringent scientific criteria are applied. What is certain is that the berries traded as 'goji berries' belong to the Lycium genus, which is a member of the nightshade family, like the tomato to which it is related. Globally, botanists can identify more than 100 Lycium species. They grow mostly in warm-temperate and subtropical regions, in particular on the American continent. However, only two species, both thorny, berry producing, mid-sized shrubs, are regarded as possessing medicinal value: Lycium barbarum (Linnaeus) and Lycium chinense (Miller). Lycium barbarum might have been originally only distributed in Northern China and Northeastern Tibet (Amdo region), being well adapted to Central Asia's ecosystem. Lycium chinense is distributed in temperate South Asia (Nepal, Bhutan, India, Pakistan) and East and Central Asia (China, Tibet, Mongolia). L.chinense is often regarded as synonymous with Lycium halimifolium and L.vulgare. Both Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense are listed as invasive species in North America and Europe, and both produce edible berries. The berry of L.barbarum is oblong, while the berry of L.chinense is rounder, smaller and sweeter.
Lycium is listed in western and Chinese literature about Tibetan Traditional Medicine (TTM) as part of the TTM materia medica. However, the identification of Tibetan medicinal plants with western scientific names is often ambiguous. This is partly due to frequent regional differences in the denomination of medicinal plants within Tibetan medicine. One of the Tibetan names for Lycium is phangma, but the term is also used for the red berry produced by certain honeysuckle shrubs. Moreover, phangma also denotes Leonurus heterophyllus, an herbaceous perennial in the mint family without any berries. Yet, another Tibetan name for Lycium is dre tserma ('demon thorn'). This name appears in recent Chinese-language publications on Tibetan medicine as a generic name for both Lycium chinense and Lycium barbarum, which might be influenced by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), since both species are grouped under the term gouqi zi. In big Tibetan towns, wolfberries are available either pre-packaged in stores, or from Hui (Chinese Muslims) dried fruit dealers on the market. In small towns however, Lycium is rarely seen and practically unknown. The still fuzzy identification of Lycium and its scarce distribution in Tibet indicate that, while it was known to TTM, it was not particularly popular and hence certainly not linked to the miraculous properties that are currently advertised for it in the West.
Interestingly, there is no mention of any name close to goji in TTM texts. In TCM however, the berries of Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense are known as Gouqi zi, and it is mentioned as early as the seventh century in a Tang Dynasty text called 'Yaoxing Lun'. Here, the berries are praised for strengthening the immune system, alleviating poor eyesight and anaemia, supporting liver function, boosting sperm production, treating coughs and improving blood circulation, to mention just a few of their effects. The bark of wolfberry is also valued medicinally, and consequently Lycium has been cultivated for a long time in China. The main area of production is Ningxia Province, in the arid northwest of China. Other production takes place in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Qinghai and Sichuan. While large parts of the latter two provinces belong to geographical and ethnic Tibet, production of Lycium in Tibet represents a negligible proportion of the overall Chinese output. In fact, the areas of production clearly coincide with the regions where ethnic Hui (Chinese Muslims) live.
TibetInfoNet's research indicates that the claim of Bradley Dobos, an American individual schooled in TTM, to have coined the term 'goji' is most likely correct. Dobos worked closely with the Mentseekhang, the institute created by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, to preserve and develop TTM in exile, and was also the founder of the Tanaduk Institute near Seattle, an institution dedicated to the investigation and dissemination of the discipline. According to Dobos, the denomination is based on a local name he encountered in a Himalayan Tibetan community in the 1970s. Why this name is phonetically so close to Lycium's Chinese name, gouqi, is not clear. The fact that the community among which Dobos was working speaks a dialect of eastern Tibetan origin might provide an explanation. However, it is also possible that the Chinese name gouqi itself originated from a term used in Tibetan or other non-Chinese languages in the region. According to Dobos, several Tibetan dialects use names phonetically similar to 'goji' for the berry. Nevertheless, that the berry is not found in Tibetan materia medica under any name similar to 'goji' suggests that the term has had only regional circulation in local dialects.
Whereas the exact origin of the name is likely to remain unclear, it is indisputable that the fruit which Dobos coined as 'goji' back in 1974, and which he has been researching and importing ever since, is only Lycium chinense, a smaller, much sweeter berry and, according to Dobos, much richer in active ingredients than its close relative Lycium barbarum. All circumstantial evidence backs Dobos's claims that companies currently selling Lycium wolfberries as 'goji berries', have misappropriated his research and internet publications, and sell Chinese-grown Lycium barbarum under the name 'goji'. Many goji traders' websites bear witness to the widespread plagiarising of Dobos original information. For instance, Dobos used to wrongly identify goji berry on his Tanaduk.com website as "Lycium eleagnus barbarum", a botanically non-existent plant. Although the mistake was recently corrected, Tanaduk still refers to the plant responsible for goji berries, Lycium chinense, incorrectly as L.chinensis. Tellingly, both these misnomers still can be encountered on numerous goji websites.
An overview of international websites advertising goji berries and other goji products reveals a confusing and often inconsistent melange of information about the berries, their origin and provenance, and their alleged traditional use in Tibet and China. The information provided is very often embedded in a fawning narrative about the purported properties of goji. The differentiation between Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense, crucial to Dobos, is more or less non-existent.
goji.tropical-antioxidants.com sells the berries under the trademark 'Ola Goji', and assert that they have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine "for thousands of years" (echoing the classic and rarely historical stereotype that confers millennia of existence to anything 'traditionally Chinese'). Ola Goji asserts that "the Himalayas were home to the world's first natural healers", and then continues to explain: "These early herbalists then shared their wisdom with the people of China, Tibet, and India", thus helping "to found some of the world's most ancient medical traditions".
The 'Himalayan' origin of Ola Goji is additionally projected by a graphic banner which adorns the website and represents snow mountains and proclaims "100% pure goji from the Himalayas. Real Natural Potent!!!". Goji represents one of "the most prized Himalayan secrets", it is said elsewhere, and the Ola Goji juice product is "patterned after the ancient recipes and practices of the Himalayans". Less specifically, it is mentioned that the berry "has been eaten locally in the region for centuries and is celebrated in festivals". However, the geographical component of this 'origin' is qualified in a statement further down the page that the "beautiful fruit" grows "in different areas of China and Mongolia". Finally, the customer learns that the product they are exhorted to buy is "grown in the pristine Heavenly Mountains of Western China".
This is a misleading statement; after repeated mentions of the Himalayas, the reader expects the 'Heavenly Mountains' to be exactly there. In fact, 'Heavenly Mountains' is a translation of the Chinese Tian Shan, a mountain chain situated at the heart of Xinjiang, far to the north and outside what is geographically Tibet, and about 1,000 km away from the Himalayas. In other words, goji is suggested to be a product of the "Himalayans", and Tibet is expressly but discreetly mentioned. However, the fruits used for the allegedly 'Himalayan' juice are cultivated, most likely by Chinese Muslims (Hui), in a completely different region, whose name might superficially evoke Himalayan/Tibetan connotations, but is in fact neither in Tibet, nor in any way Himalayan. This website also introduces the link between goji and longevity on one hand, and the alleged link between longevity and Tibet on the other: "In some of the most remote places on earth, it is not uncommon for someone to live 100 years, despite the harsh environment". As an explanation, we learn that unspecified "research" has shown that "some of the longest-lived people on earth eat Goji berries as a regular part of their diet".
This suggestive marketing is far more developed on the French-Canadian website gojisante.net, which calls goji "the youth secret of the Tibetans". Once again, based on unspecified "studies", the site claims that "Himalayans live longer, more joyfully and healthier (ï¿½), without liver cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, arthritis, depression and sexual dysfunction", and, it is claimed, "one of the reasons" for this is that they "eat or drink the goji fruit [(here clearly specified as Lycium barbarum)] on a daily basis". Particularly confusing is the assertion that "most of the people who live in the Hunza valley in Tibet reach the respectable age of 120 years". Unfortunately, the Hunza valley, is not situated in Tibet nor in the Himalayas, but in today's Pakistan in the Karakorum mountains, close to Xinjiang and Afghanistan, and at least 500 km from the Tibetan border.
Interestingly, there has been a singular confusion about people from Hunza and Tibetans in Western literature at least since British colonial times. The claim about Hunza longevity (which is inflated further down the page to "between 120 and 160 years"), has indeed some substance, but it is nowhere near as widespread as esoteric literature pretends, and has been linked by serious scientific studies to local genetic factors, not nutritional ones as is often suggested. This confusion is strengthened in the subsequent "History of goji" which locates the berries' 'discovery' to "a monastery of the Hunza valley in Tibet at more than 5,400 metres altitude". As Hunza is a Muslim region, there are no Buddhist monasteries; this assertion aside, the altitude of 5,400 metres is far above the zones inhabited even on the Tibetan high plateau, whereas Hunza's inhabited regions are much lower valley slopes.
gojisante.net create an elaborate narrative where "Tibetan monks" are credited as the discoverers of goji, but interestingly it is a monk "who lived in China" and had come to visit the "Tibetan monastery" that first discovered their alleged secrets. Wondering why his fellow monks who had entered the order with him 30 years before and still "looked far younger than him", in better health and were "radiating energy", he was told that they drank water "from a well reputed to be a Fountain of Youth". The naive assertion is however challenged by the monk's investigative attitude; upon discovering "little red fruit" in the well, he realises that these had been blown into the well by the wind from a "vine" covering the "main wall of the monastery". He had thus revealed a mystery that had lasted "hundreds of years".
The recurrent theme that emerges out of the information provided by international goji traders and summarised in the table above is that, whereas the exact provenance of the goji and goji products on sale is either not mentioned or is veiled, they are presented as something authentically and inherently Tibetan (or its synonym 'Himalayan'), a factor suggested to be at the very core of their alleged positive 'healing' effects and hence fundamental to the products' marketing. The 'Tibetanness' of Goji though, is qualified by attributing to it a link to China and Chinese culture. But there is a significant qualitative difference between the alleged Tibetan and Chinese natures of goji:
- The alleged Tibetan nature of goji reflects purity and a pristine, primordial nature and an untamed force that are intimately linked to Tibet's ruggedness and remoteness
- The link to China and Chinese culture stands for refinement and a higher understanding of Lycium/goji's value.
From this perspective, resources that are alleged inherently Tibetan, such as goji, appear to have only developed to their full potential once they have been domesticated by Chinese genius. Whether intentionally or not, gojisante.net's version delivers the best metaphor to express this, in that it took "a monk who had lived in China" (suggesting higher intellect, skills and cunning) to realise that goji was the source of longevity (and thus 'laying the tracks' for goji's further use), while this had never occurred to the sympathetic but less intrusive monks who had remained in 'Tibetan' Hunza.
Interestingly, this clearly reflects the standard Chinese image of Tibet, where the 'roof of the world' is imagined as pristine and unspoiled, yet in need of China's civilising efforts and 'development'. A further, but important consideration is that, whereas all descriptions of Tibet in the West, or in popular descriptions in China, inevitably place religion as one of its foremost characteristics and highest achievements, religion in the goji narratives is conspicuously absent, except for the said gojisante.net version where monks play a central role. However, even here the monks represent naivety and a certain ruggedness, as opposed to the elevated wisdom with which they are normally associated. This too is a strongly Chinese-tainted image of Tibet; if not the popular one, then perhaps the official one that plays down the role of religion in general, and its role as a civilising force in particular.
The acceptance of this Chinese image of Tibet among Western goji traders, and its further dissemination in their marketing, could have two reasons: Either they adopted it uncritically and conveniently from their Chinese suppliers, or they did so deliberately in order to subscribe to the Chinese discourse on Tibet and use political compliance to strengthen their business. Although there is no clear evidence for the latter, the ingenuity with which Western marketers blur the provenance of the berries clearly indicates that they at least are aware that they do not come from Tibet; they come from China, but that is fact that hardly supports their marketing concept.
Tibet Authentic's description of Tibet is downright lyrical: "There is a land on Earth that is so pure, natural and pristine there are few words capable of describing its environment and qualities. It is truly the roof of the earth, free from pollution and toxins that are commonly found throughout the rest of the world. Its people have an absolute respect for their land and for its beauty and for the quality it holds. This land is Tibet". The praising of Tibet is followed by a more down to earth statement upon which the company bases its whole marketing strategy, namely that "its culture, its people and its products have long held a fascination in the Western world", a factor that makes Tibet's assumed purity and uniqueness a resource, since Tibet's "products are truly a gift from the roof of the world, the purest and cleanest environment on Earth". Here, even China's position to Tibet seems to be that of a recipient, since "it is known that Tibet supplies the most beneficial herbs, nutrients and natural ingredients known to mankind". However, the Tibetans' "lack of experience and resources" have kept them "from marketing their products in the West" and "that's where Tibet Authentic comes in".
Tibet Authentic, we learn, is "founded on and guided by the principles of Tibetan medicine", here simplistically summarised with the platitude: "We can lead healthy, happy lives if we approach our health in a holistic way". The intimate link between Traditional Tibetan Medicine and Tibetan Buddhism is not even mentioned here. The claim is consolidated by Tibet Authentic's cooperation with the "Tibetan Medical College", "the most widely respected and esteemed centre for research, information and guidance with relation to issues of health, nutrition vitality" and, inevitably, "longevity", whose "opinions, guidance and teachings are widely sought after throughout Tibet, China and increasingly throughout the world".
The Tibetan Medical College in Lhasa is indeed historically a central institution of Traditional Tibetan Medicine that was founded by the thirteenth Dalai Lama under the name Mantsikhang (lit. House of Medicine and Astrology). It stopped operating during the turmoil of the early 1960s with most of its doctors being persecuted for 'spreading superstition'. Those who could escape re-created the institute under the guidance of the current Dalai Lama in exile, where it took the Indian-influenced name of Mentseekhang. It is the institution where Bradley Dobos first worked with when he first experimented with wolfberries, likely creating in the process the name 'goji'.
The Tibetan Medical College reopened in Lhasa in the 1980s and has been operating more or less successfully since then. In recent years, it has had to withstand heavy pressure to comply with the PRC policies of making TTM one of the four 'pillars of industrial development' in Tibet. Apart from propagating controversial 'modernisations' under the name of 'scientific progress' (implying in the first place its purging of the religious elements that are deeply embedded within it), the college evolved from an institution dedicated to Tibetan people's health to an organisation primarily dealing with product research and marketing. This is a chapter which 'Tibet Authentic' obviously refers to in their own words when writing: "The Tibetan medical college together with the Government of Tibet [(meaning the provincial government of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR))] has for many years worked in close collaboration with each other to research and evaluate the most beneficial herbs, nutrients and natural products and natural medicines known to mankind", which "will help us live longer, healthier, happier lives". Further, "to formalise their collaboration they incorporated a joint venture company under the name Tibet Health Products Co".
The Tibetan Medical College, we learn, then appointed Tibet Authentic as its exclusive business partner and worldwide licensee (outside Asia, a market apparently reserved for Chinese companies) to market and distribute its technologies and products primarily in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the EU. Accordingly, "The Government of Tibet through the Tibet Medical College has committed to sell the entire output of wildly grown Tibetan Goji Berries to the Tibet Authentic Group". Further, "Tibet Authentic's goji berries have passed the Tibetan Medical College's rigorous quality selection criteria". But Tibet Authentic's "collaboration with the Tibetan Medical College and the Tibetan government doesn't end there . . .", as it is also agreed "to jointly develop revolutionary cosmetic creams and vitamins that will harness the healing, restorative properties of Tibet Authentic's goji berries".
Although Tibet Authentic, compared with other goji traders, places less emphasis on the Chinese aspect of gojis, it does expressly mention that "the goji berry was celebrated as early as the first century A.D. by Shen Nong Ben Cao in the Divine Farmer's Handbook of Natural Medicine (one of the most important texts in the history of Chinese medicine)". Chinese influence, ironically, becomes apparent in the statement that goji berries are "known in Tibet as pang jia", an apparent Chinese rendering of Tibetan phangma. The name is also given in Chinese characters.
Tibet Authentic claims that their goji berries are grown in Kongpo, in humid, fertile and relatively low valleys in the eastern Himalayas in the southeast of the TAR, an area currently administrated as Nyingchi Prefecture (Chin: Linzhi). However, a recent article by Simon Parry in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reports, under the fitting title, 'A fruitless search for the Tibetan goji berry' that he could not find any evidence of cultivation of Lycium that would be able to provide the enormous quantities that Tibet Authentic is trading. Parry did find out though that Tibet Authentic's berries are packed near Chengdu, Sichuan; clearly outside Tibet and, even more interestingly, at the same location where the berry production from the Muslim areas of the Western PRC is packed. To double check Parry's report, TibetInfoNet contacted the Prefectural Agriculture Department in Nyingchi and officials reiterated that there is no commercial cultivation of Lycium/wolfberries/goji in the prefecture to the best of their knowledge, although there is no doubt that Lycium chinense does grow naturally in Nyingchi, as in many other areas on the Tibetan Plateau.
1: The Court of the State Hamburg has, following its decision of 15 August 2007, prohibited TibetInfoNet from disseminating the two first sentences of this paragraph.