LYNN HAYS, 67, read about the allegedly miraculous goji berry in a health-food catalog two years ago. An advertisement claimed the fruit would cause cells to revert back to a younger state.
Shortly thereafter, the health-conscious artist ordered a dozen crates of the red leathery berries, which began to overrun her house on Whidbey Island, Wash.
"She had bags in her car, in the kitchen I'd find one in her room, on the table, on the desk in her studio, even in her gym bag. They were everywhere," her daughter Tessa Hays-Nordin said.
Hays isn't the only person who swears by the bitter goji (pronounced go-gee), which is indigenous to the lush valleys of the Himalayan Mountains.
In the last seven years, more than 100 U.S. businesses have cropped up that sell the expensive berries, which, some say, taste like a cross between olives and cranberries.
Many companies claim that gojis fight cancer, aging, fatigue, arthritis and even AIDS despite the skepticism of many doctors, nutritionists and scientists.
Among the enthusiasts is Tim O'Shea, director of Goji Berries.us.
"We've had customers write in and say that their eyesight has improved and their hair color has gone dark again," he said. The company, based in Salem, Ore., has been importing the fruit from Tibet since 2005.
O'Shea said many of his 1,500 customers are baby boomers from California who insist that they have found the closest thing to the fountain of youth.
Restorative claims are old news to herbal medicine practitioners in Asia. The fruit is so treasured for its healing properties that there are two-week goji festivals in Tibet, Mongolia and China.
Harvesters there pick the berries, the size of large grapes, by hand when they ripen in the summer. If the fruit is touched while still green, it turns black and rots on the bush. Gojis imported to the United States are usually sun dried or made into tinctures or juice. Suppliers recommend an ounce a day, and in the United States 18-ounce bags usually sell for about $20 plus shipping.
Some distributors such as O'Shea say the high price is justified because, they say, gojis have 15 times the antioxidant power of other fruit. Suppliers also say the fruit has 500 times more vitamin C by weight than fresh oranges, six times more amino acids than bee pollen and 15 times more iron than spinach.
The Tibetan Goji Berry Co. in Seattle goes further, asserting that the berries fight obesity, cancer and can reverse the aging process. Julia Dobos and her husband, Bradley Dobos, a nutritionist, started importing Gojis about six years ago and selling them online. They say they now ship to 3,000 customers, mostly on the East Coast but also in Europe.
"Right away you notice an increase in energy and an improvement in your immune system," she said. Their Web site's testimonial section isn't shy, claiming that gojis have cured a horse's depression and helped children with attention deficit disorder. One customer, Tara Lubin, says the berries have helped her 5-year-old son recover from mercury poisoning.
"He is now much more organized in his movements and thoughts and is starting to talk," she said. "One of the first words he started to say was 'My gojis."'
Some retailers are even selling the bushes themselves. Seven years ago, Travis Klingler of the Timpanogos Nursery near Manti, Utah, started growing goji plants. Last summer, he said, he sold 50,000 bushes for $24.95 each all over the United States.
The seeds and berries are also sold on eBay and Craigslist, and the juice is sold at the national health chain GNC.
Some experts in the nutrition and traditional medicine field wish marketers would adopt a more scientific approach. The director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Portland, Ore., Subhuti Dharmananda, said there was no evidence that gojis have unique disease-fighting properties.
"To say it helps cure cancer is just bizarre and outside the medical realm," said Dharmananda, who holds a doctorate in biology. "In terms of antioxidant effects, blueberries and raspberries are probably just as good and generally much cheaper."
Similar skepticism was voiced by Dr. Ralph Moss, an authority on alternative cancer therapies. "Something as simple as green tea looks to have an equal or even better effect at about one-hundredth of the cost," he said. He dismissed a small clinical study from Shanghai, China, that was published in the Journal of Oncology in 1994, which suggested that the berry slowed the growth of cancer.
Moss further warned that gojis, like garlic, might have a slight anti-coagulant effect and people taking drug-thinning drugs should be careful.
The health claims made by goji distributors have come under the scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA sent warning letters in 2006 to one Web site and one company demanding that they remove unverified statements about gojis as a treatment for diseases.
Hays didn't need the FDA to come to the conclusion that eating the berries did not make her younger. They also had an unwanted side effect.
"There is this good old saying that says everything in moderation," said her daughter. "But my mom was eating them in handfuls. And when you eat too much dried fruit, you get the runs."