Facts About Hoodia Gordonii

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - 2:54pm

By Kathleen Goodwin, RD

I must say I was very excited when I was asked to write an article about Hoodia Gordonii. With a new “weight loss cure” popping onto the market virtually every week, this super popular over-the-counter “supplement” was one that I had not yet researched. Digging in my heels for the evening to learn the real scoop, I typed “Hoodia” into Google and was flooded with 32 million results! “Wow, this one’s big,” I thought to myself. However, as I dug and dug for a website with some factual, objective information on the subject, I only found sites that sold the product and—not surprisingly—sites with a lot more hype than objectivity. The .edus and .govs, as well as well-known and reliable medical information sites, seemed to have little information on the subject. Finally, I logged into my old standby, The National Library of Medicine, to get a summary of the latest published research on Hoodia. The result? One published study—done with rats—in 2004.

What Is Hoodia?

While there is very little factual scientific data about Hoodia, there is a lot of information available about the actual plant itself. Hoodia is a very rare cactus-like plant that only grows in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa. It has been used by the San tribal people of the region for centuries as a means of suppressing appetite when out on long hunting expeditions. Because of Hoodia’s scarcity and fragility (it can take 50 years to reach maturity), it is protected by national conservation laws in Namibia and South Africa. In addition, it is illegal to grow or collect Hoodia without a permit.

Preliminary research on Hoodia

Information regarding Hoodia’s appetite suppressant effect didn’t take long to reach obesity-laden westernized countries. Preliminary research on Hoodia was conducted for over 30 years, beginning in the 1960s, by South Africa’s national laboratory. During this time they were able to isolate the exact chemical responsible for the appetite suppressant effect in Hoodia. They then obtained a patent and called the active ingredient “P57.”

In 1997, the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research granted exclusive rights to the patented Hoodia Gordonii extract to the British company, Phytopharm. The U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer later entered into an agreement with Phytopharm to produce an encapsulated form of Hoodia’s active ingredient. After several years, Pfizer concluded this was not possible and they withdrew from the project.

Phytopharm and Unilever begin Hoodia development

In late 2004, Phytopharm entered into another agreement with Unilever Corporation to begin collaboration efforts to develop a viable form of Hoodia extract for mass marketing. They also agreed to initiate research and development studies regarding Hoodia’s safety and effectiveness. Very recently, in April of 2006, Unilever announced that they were able to successfully extract Hoodia’s active ingredient in a form that can be marketed to the public. Human research trials are now underway and Unilever believes a product with the active Hoodia extract will be available in 2008. The company is also working on a program to grow Hoodia commercially in order to meet what will most likely be an unprecedented demand.

Research on Hoodia is sparse

To date, Phytopharm/Unilever have one unpublished 15-day clinical trial. Nine volunteers who took pills containing P57, Hoodia’s active ingredient, consumed fewer calories and lost more fat than those who took a placebo. This study is too small and its duration is too short to derive information about Hoodia’s long term safety or effectiveness.

Hoodia’s side-effects are unknown

Online sales of dried and powdered Hoodia are massive today. Hoodia is being marketed under name brands such as TrimSpa X32, Desert Burn and Pure Hoodia. Unfortunately, you can only derive Hoodia’s appetite suppressing ability from active P57, found only in the fresh plant, not from powder. The small amount of P57 found in powdered versions of Hoodia purchased today does not produce the desired effect. Since no legitimate research about Hoodia has been published, there are no guidelines about how to take Hoodia or how much to take. While there seems to be a strong indication that P57 has appetite suppressant properties, we know nothing about whether it produces concurrent long term or damaging side effects. In addition, any manufacturer claiming to have genuine Hoodia in their product has obtained it illegally, since Phytopharm/Unilever have exclusive rights to the plant and have yet to produce a publicly available product. As is usually the case, most of these products contain no Hoodia at all or extremely scant amounts—a conclusion drawn by many independent product testing labs.

Conclusion? Don't buy Hoodia products to lose weight - save your money

The bottom line? Purchasing a supposed Hoodia-containing weight loss product today is a waste of money. Here’s a better idea: Save as much money as you can for the debut of the real thing. Unilever and Phytopharm are working on a mass distribution of Hoodia’s active ingredient and have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars toward that effort. When launching day arrives, demand is going to be overwhelmingly greater than supply. Anything in great demand comes with a price, and it will not be cheap! It remains to be seen what kind of physical price the human body pays by regularly ingesting active Hoodia—and there is no price tag on good health. Hopefully, some solid research will validate Hoodia’s safety. Stay tuned.