As popular as they are, most people have absolutely no clue as to what the fresh berry actually tastes like.
There’s a valid reason for that.
Where do goji berries come from? China. Virtually all of the major brands sold in the U.S. source their berries from the north-central (Ningxia) and western (Xinjiang) regions of China. We are concerned by that and you should be too.
Obviously, the industrial pollution and the rampant loosey-goosey regulations of China casts a shadow of doubt over the quality and safety of their exported food.
Supply chain oversight
Many superfood marketers will try and skirt around the bad perception, by claiming their goji are grown high up in the Himalayan Mountains far away from cities. Or that their berries come from wild sources which are foraged – an exposé in the LA Times several years ago found that to be “almost always a hoax” (1). That was a conclusion confirmed by scientists during the author’s month-long tour of China.
The fact that the author went to China is precisely what’s lacking in the world of superfood sellers. You may be critical of food behemoths like Hain Celestial (the largest organic food conglomerate) and General Mills (which owns Annie’s), but the fact is that multi-billion dollar companies like that often have excellent oversight over their supply chain.
Can you trust your dried goji?
Many popular brands of goji berries (and similar niche nutrition foods) are barely a step above a mom-n-pop operation. They may simply buy a thousand pounds of bulk berries off Alibaba and then re-package them into 8 ounce bags. Trips to China aren’t happening or if they are, they’re few and far between.
We’ve inquired numerous times to superfood companies to ask about their ingredient sourcing and often times they say they work with a contractor in China who is watching their back. We chuckle.
Anyone who deals with international trade long enough knows those overseas advocates are often times anything but that. They may be collecting a paycheck from the company, but whether they’re earning it is another story.
Your favorite brand may be completely honest, but also completely naïve. Their supplier on Alibaba may have advertised them as USDA organic and “wild harvested” and in turn, they repeat it like a parrot on their packaging.
Oh and speaking of USDA certified organic, during a two year period about 40% of cases involving fraudulent use of the seal involved Chinese food (2). Want to see an example? Here’s one we found specifically for goji berries (3):
Can you eat fresh goji?
After seeing that fraudulent certificate, you’re probably even more interested in finding out where to get the raw berries locally! And yes, they are perfectly safe to eat when they are fresh.
Sure, buying local doesn’t guarantee safety, but if you’re like us, you are much more trusting of American farmers versus strangers on the other side of the world.
We would even argue that fresh goji berries grown in the USA, even if they’re conventional, are better than organic dried from China. Why? Because even when those really are organic, that has no bearing on the fact that the water sources are extremely polluted there, far worse than what we have in America.
For us personally, we would much rather eat conventional fruit treated properly with pesticides than organic fruit grown near industrial wastelands, where there may be water sources that are contaminated with heavy metals like lead and arsenic.
Taste and texture
What do fresh goji berries taste like? Quite different versus the dried which you are accustomed to.
Because the water content is still intact, the flavor (and sugar) is much less concentrated. Since goji are already are very low sugar to begin with, the fresh version tastes as if it almost has none.
The best description would be that both the flavor and texture are quite comparable to a plum tomato. Their seeds are also quite similar in the sense that you don’t really notice them since they’re so small.
If you prefer a sweeter taste, you probably will like the raw dried berries more. Whichever type you prefer, they’re quite nutritious and are actually the most protein dense fruit, providing you with 4 grams per 100 calorie serving!
Growing them in the US
Even though the vast majority of the goji crop comes from China, there’s nothing stopping us from growing them right here at home. In fact, the plant – Lycium barbarum – can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 2 to 7 (4). The plants can handle a range of soil types, with the exception of salinity. They prefer direct sunlight.
So being that we can grow them, why aren’t fresh goji berries for sale everywhere? Not only at places like Whole Foods, but logically speaking it seems like you should be able to walk into any supermarket that sells fresh blueberries and buy them. Even at supermarkets like Kroger and Walmart.
Unfortunately, what seems logical is not the reality. This is due to the following 3 reasons:
1. Chinese competition
Sure, you may be paying $15-20 per pound for your dried berries, but that’s an outrageous markup over the bulk pricing. With the Chinese selling the dried so cheaply – and the fact that we all keep buying them – it gives little incentive for farmers in the United States to try and sell the highly-perishable fresh form.
2. We’re still learning how to grow them
The Chinese have been growing them for millennia and have been doing commercial cultivation for export since the 1950’s. Still a niche superfood here in the US, only a handful of farmers have even attempted to grow them during the past decade or two. That previously mentioned LA Times piece discusses the difficulties farmers here are having with learning how to grow them:
“The plants didn’t do well, they just sat there” was the quote by a family farm in Washington state.
Even when we do grow them, it’s hard to mechanically harvest them since they break so easily. Labor in China to pick berries is far cheaper than here in the US.
3. Not enough demand [yet]
For a store to carry fresh produce, they need to be confident they can sell it before it rots.
Dried goji work well, because they can sit on a shelf for 6 or 12 months, no problem. With the fresh, their shelf life seems to be even less than raspberries. They’re so fragile, you really should eat them within a day or two of purchase.
5 places where to get them fresh
Despite the challenges, it is still possible to find the fresh berries for sale, if you look at the right places.
Does frozen still count as fresh? Well, they’re certainly not dried and they’re still raw! Also, frozen fruits are often healthier, since they are frozen at the peak of freshness rather than before they are ripe. Whatever your opinion is, we’re listing this first because this may be the only option available to people in all 50 states.
A few Whole Foods locations sell frozen Himalania brand goji berries. Now we don’t know how many sell them but it must not be many, being that we haven’t seen them at any of their Los Angeles locations (nor elsewhere).
The good news is that the Himalania brand (Natierra, Inc.) is a decent sized superfood company. Therefore, we’re hoping it’s more likely they have better oversight over their supply chain versus the smaller outfits. The bad news is that according to their website, their goji berries still come from China.
Northwest Wild Foods, which is an online retailer, sells frozen goji berries which are grown in North America (US and Canada). We bought them once and give the company rave reviews, with the exception of one thing… price.
Their smallest quantity will cost you $70…
The pic on the right is our 1.5 lb bag, mostly eaten. You receive 2 of those for $70.
And keep in mind 3 lbs of fresh is a lot less food than 3 lbs of dried berries, which have their water content removed. We understand why they cost a lot, but it’s still a lot of money for most people. Orders over $125 do have free shipping, but that’s a big commitment without first experiencing the taste of fresh, which you may or may not like.
2. Farmers’ markets
While there are no official stats, we are willing to bet that far less than 1% of grocery stores nationwide carry fresh goji. Depending on where you live, the odds may be higher for finding them at your local farmers market… but the odds of finding them at one are still comparable to your luck at the store.
In Superfoodly’s home of Los Angeles, they are occasionally sold at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market. In our opinion, it’s the best one in the city. We have heard from readers buying them in Hawaii, Sonoma County (Healdsburg), and Napa County (St. Helena). If you’ve came across them locally at your farmers market location, please share with us in the comments.
3. “U-pick” or pick-your-own farms
Among all the options, this will be the most limited.
LFD Farms in Spanish Springs, Nevada was growing nothing but organic goji. They were “working on building the largest naturally grown Goji berry farm in America” and were on a roll to do so, but unfortunately went out of business in 2015.
Spring Lake Blueberry Farm in Brooksville, Florida – north of Tampa – has been selling u-pick goji for several years now. Reportedly their pricing is excellent – around $4/pound. Places like this will definitely be your best deal, where you’re unlikely to pay too much. Perhaps the price is so good at this particular farm because they have competition from a neighboring town- Bob’s Blueberry Farm in Hudson also sells them fresh.
Do you know of any places you can pick your own fresh goji berries when they’re in season? If so, please share!
4. Specialty grocery stores
If you think they’re hard to find at farmers’ markets, they’re even harder to find at the supermarket. We’ve never heard of the mainstream grocers selling them.
As far as the health food stores (or those that market themselves as such) you will have better luck, though better only on a relative basis. In Los Angeles, we have only come across fresh goji berries at Whole Foods a few times (during the warmer months) and never at any of the independent nutrition/health food retailers.
Trader Joe’s? Haven’t seen them there yet and we wouldn’t expect to, being that they don’t even sell dried goji berries outside of their trail mix. As you’ve probably noticed, Trader Joe’s tends to not sell the more expensive ingredients and superfoods. Plus with the exception of produce, because they’re big on safety few few things they sell are raw.
We haven’t seen them at Sprouts Farmers Market locations, either.
In the rare occurrence you find them for sale at your local Whole Foods, you may be in for sticker shock. Expect to pay up to $8 for the tiny 3 ounce plastic clam-shell pictured here. On top of that, as you see the parts of the green stem/leaves are still attached and will have to be removed from almost all the berries (a very time consuming process).
5. Grow your own!
Have a green thumb? If you’re feeling ambitious, order a few seedlings and take up the challenge of learning how to grow goji berries at home, either in a container or in your garden. If you choose to grow them in a pot, you should still put them outside since they like direct sunlight and the flowers will need pollination from bees in order to produce fruit.
Your local nursery is almost guaranteed not to sell goji plants, but you can order them online. They’re very hardy, withstanding temperatures as low as minus 18° F and are tolerant of hot and dry climates, too. They should produce fruit in the summer and fall season.
Best dried raw goji berries to buy
As you see, your options for fresh are quite limited and none are reliable for a year ‘round supply. If you buy dried, here are some of the best brands we like. We feel this is one superfood where it makes sense to only buy from the big guys, with the hope that their quality control measures are better. All the commercial sellers source from China, so there’s no getting around that unfortunately. In addition to Himalania mentioned above, here are 3 of the best brands in our book.
Our review: Good value, consistent quality, probably the largest seller of goji in the United Sates (though remember they are still coming from China and likewise for the two other brands listed below).
The company was founded in 2003 and operates out of Novato, California. Since then they have become one of the largest superfood companies. Not only do you find their products at Whole Foods, but even at places like Target and Walmart. Though we never buy them at the brick and mortar stores because we often find the pricing is higher at those places.
Our only complaint about them is they are quite dry, but the same can be said about most on the market.
Divine Organics (Royal Himalayan)
Our review: We are consistently satisfied with the quality of this brand, especially their raw cacao products.
The founder, David Kaplan, has been a raw food practitioner for over 30 years and runs Divine Organics out of Marin County in Northern California. Previously he was a farmer himself, with two organic farms in Maui. It’s unclear whether he owns those farms still or not.
As far as where the goji are coming from – as well as all other products – the company seems to take their sourcing seriously. The fact that they sell a lot of niche heirloom varieties of superfoods you rarely see from other brands is a good example of how they’re not just buying wholesale and slapping their labels on it like some superfood sellers.
Our review: A bit more expensive on per ounce basis, but they are different from all other berries on the market. These are our favorite because no one else on the market sells them moist like this.
If you haven’t had them, you’re missing out. These are uniquely harvested and packaged to retain moisture. They’re not bone dry.
The founder of Dragon Herbs, Ron Teeguarden, is very big on compliance and sourcing. They reportedly get these from “Heaven Mountain” in a remote mountain range of the northern region of Xin Jiang Province, China.