Hoodia Gordonii – a simple succulent cactus type bush found in the heart of the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa, became central to a multi million-weight loss industry. The plant believed by the indigenous Kalahari tribesmen to suppress the appetite , seemed to hold all the answers to western world obesity: After all a natural product with no hidden side effects could have had a real impact on treatment for weight and the fact that major companies like Phytopharm and Unilever were involved, only added to its credibility.
The media thought so too. TV programmes, newspapers and the media were united in their opinion of Hoodia as a miracle cure for obesity.
Initially deemed safe, soon a floodgate of Hoodia products was opened as it seemed that everyone in the weight loss industry tried to jump on the Hoodia bandwagon. However a few years on, this multi million industry is beginning to look decidedly dodgy.
A Brief History of Hoodia
Hoodia Gordonii is an exotic succulent plant, first discovered by the West in the 1780s. Explorer Robert Gordon found the plant in the Orange River area of South Africa and named it after himself. There are around 13 types of Hoodia but this one is the variety claimed to have weight loss properties.
In the 1970s, the South African Council for scientific and industrial research (CSIR) began investigating Hoodia Gordonii. The fruit of the plant, which smells like rotting meat and attracts flies, had long been used by the local Sans tribespeople as a medicinal aid to treating indigestion and minor ailments.
Where it became interesting was the use of the plant as an appetite suppressant, which enabled the tribesmen to go for long periods without food and without experiencing hunger pangs.
Interested in the marketing potential of an appetite suppressant, CSIR isolated the active ingredient of Hoodia – a molecule named P57 and patented it in 1996. The following year they sold the license to British company Phytopharm so they could develop Hoodia as a slimming supplement.
Once Phytopharm owned the license, they collaborated with Pfizer – an American multi national company and the world’s largest pharmaceutical company. Together, the companies worked together to isolate the active P57 ingredient and to develop Hoodia as a weight loss supplement.
Despite extensive investment and research, Pfizer returned its rights to Phytopharm in 2003. The reason they gave was simple. The company felt that it would be unrealistic to make diet pills from Hoodia because they felt it was too difficult. Hoodia Gordonii grows only in very hot desert conditions, taking years for the plant to reach maturity. Although Phytopharm established Hoodia plantations, it was not that successful to produce this wild plant in a controlled setting.
Phytopharm who own the rights to Hoodia but have never marketed a Hoodia product then took up with Unilever in order to develop weight loss foods and products built around Hoodia.
Despite the fact that Phytopharm, Pfizer and Unilever never marketed Hoodia themselves it created a massive buzz in the weight loss industry and seemed to promise the answer to western obesity. Ironic really, when it grows naturally in Africa and has been used to offset genuine hunger pangs in a sometimes starving population.
How Does Hoodia Work for Weight Loss?
It was believed that a unique molecule found in Hoodia Gordonii and called P57 had an effect on the brain’s hypothalamus, which helped regulate appetite and reduce hunger pangs.
Essentially working in a similar way to glucose, the molecule sends a message to the brain, reporting feelings of satisfaction and satiety even if no food has actually been eaten. Claims that later proved to be debatable.
The Marketing of Hoodia
The weight loss industry went crazy over Hoodia. It had everything necessary for a weight loss sensation. It came from an exotic plant that no one had ever heard of, the Bushmen of the Kalahari all looked suitable thin, it was touted as safe and it seemed to promise a way of achieving easy weight loss.
Despite ongoing development by Phytopharm with Pfizer and then Unilever, other weight loss companies did not wait for any proof that Hoodia worked.
Hoodia was big business. So-called genuine Hoodia products started flooding onto the market in a sales frenzy.
Despite the claims made by most sellers that their products contained the genuine South African variety, most of this generic Hoodia was made in China and did not even contain the P57 molecule.
Lawsuits followed. The US Federal Trade Commission fined and prosecuted the owners of two major US health supplement firms; Nutraceautical International and Stella Labs for making deceptive claims about Hoodia’s effectiveness for weight loss and for falsely claiming that their supplements were manufactured from South African Hoodia Gordonii. In fact, their diet supplements were made from a different variety of Hoodia and imported from China.
More information on these cases can be found here:
This was just a drop in the ocean when the Hoodia marketing frenzy is looked at.
Hoodia was seen in thousands of products – as diet supplements, diet pills, sprays, teas and diet patches.
It soon became apparent that most of the so-called Hoodia products did not even contain Hoodia Gordonii and the supplement fast began losing credibility as customers found that it did not work.
In the Meantime, Research was Ongoing
Then in 2008, Unilever pulled out of their deal with Phytopharm and development of Hoodia after sacrificing over 20 million pounds worth of research.
The reasons why this occurred has just been made public.
So What Did Unilever Discover About Hoodia?
Research published in the American journal of Clinical nutrition found that Hoodia was no better than a placebo and made no difference to weight loss or energy levels evaluated over a 15-day test carried out on healthy over weight women.
They carried out randomised tests of two groups of women between the 18 – 50 age groups. The women were given two servings of 110g of Hoodia per day and otherwise ate normally. The Hoodia was served in yoghurt with women in the placebo group just eating the yoghurt minus the Hoodia. Neither group were aware of whether they were in the active group or the placebo group and kept to the same diet otherwise with freedom to choose food from an extensive menu.
During the course of the trial, most of the Hoodia group reported side effects. These included nausea, vomiting, skin disturbances such as itchiness and rashes. Hoodia was found to affect heart rate and increase blood pressure levels and pulse rate. By contrast, the weight loss and energy levels of both groups remained exactly the same. The women in the control group did not eat any less than the women in the control group and nobody lost any weight.
Unilever terminated its involvement with Hoodia in 2008 stating that:
Hoodia Gordonii extract did not meet their standards of safety or efficacy. Hoodia did not appear to work for weight loss and it had potentially dangerous side effects.
The Health Risk of Hoodia
Now that Unilever have publicised their findings about Hoodia, there is a real worry that consumers who take commercially available dietary supplements said to contain Hoodia Gordonii will experience side effects. The long-term impact of these effects has not been evaluated so it is unknown whether they pose a serious risk to health or not.
What is certain is that most Hoodia Gordonii supplements do not contain genuine South African Hoodia, and even if they do contain the real and active part of the correct plant, it simply does not work for weight loss and will cause health problems.
Which Brings Us Back to the Sans People of the Kalahari
The Sans people were dismayed by Unilever’s withdrawal from the research programme. It was sold under license from South Africa and a small percentage of proceeds from this marketable product was to be given to the Sans people in order to buy their lands back from settlers.
They maintain that the Hoodia Gordonii plant is safe and does work as an appetite suppressant – pointing out that they have used it for centuries without negative effects and claiming that Unilever worked from inaccurate data. It seems they may be clutching at straws. Hoodia Gordonii has been proven not to work as a diet supplement.
What About Phytopharm?
Phytopharm have also pulled out of the Hoodia industry. According to the CEO Tim Sharpington, this major development company are moving away from naturally derived drugs and into traditional pharmaceutical development.
He maintains that Hoodia is an “interesting and functional food product” but no longer in line with the new direction of the company.
So What is the Truth About Hoodia Supplements?
The big question has to be how does this affect all us as consumers? It is true to say that most Hoodia supplements have not been made in South Africa. The genuine article has been tested and found not to work for weight loss and it causes potentially dangerous and unpleasant side effects.
It seems likely that the Sans people are telling the truth about Hoodia Gordonii and maybe it does work as an appetite suppressant for them? Perhaps it is only effective when eaten in its natural form or for some other localised reason?
It is certainly not working as a dieting supplement in the developed world. Hoodia Gordonii has had millions of dollars spent on its development by some of the world’s major companies and still does not help you lose weight or suppress your appetite.
Sadly there are still plenty of Hoodia products openly available on the market. Our advice is to avoid them. There may be side effects and according to the clinical trials these will be the only effects you will get by taking a Hoodia Gordonii supplement.