Table of Contents
Hoodia is a genus of desert plants containing 13 species. One species, Hoodia gondonii, is marketed in the United States as a weight-loss supplement. In this entry, hoodia refers only to Hoodia gondonii.
Marketers of hoodia claim that it suppresses the appetite so that individuals eat less and lose weight. Claims that hoodia is a safe and effective weight-loss supplement are highly controversial.
Hoodia is a succulent desert plant that looks like a cactus. Its upright stem bears sharp spines and large pinkish flowers. The plant takes 4–6 years to mature and can reach a height of 3 ft (1 m). When eaten,
chemicals in the stem are said to prevent the body from feeling hungry.
Hoodia grows wild in the very dry Kalahari and Namib Deserts of South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. For many years, the San Bushmen who live this region have eaten hoodia to dull their appetite on long trips through the desert. Hoodia is an endangered species. It is protected by both international and national laws in the countries where it grows wild. A special license is required to harvest the plant from the wild and export it.
The politics of hoodia
In the 1970s, the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) began a program to investigate bush foods, including hoodia. As part of this program, scientists isolated from hoodia an appetite suppressant ingredient that they called P57. In 1996, CSIR licensed P57 to Phytopharm, a
British Company that produces functional foods whose active ingredients come from plants with traditional medicinal uses. Because hoodia is rare and endangered, Phytopharm began the difficult task of cultivating the plant on farms in Africa. Meanwhile, Phytopharm partnered with Pfizer, a large, traditional international pharmaceutical company, to work on ways to extract and purify P57 from plants or to make it synthetically it in the laboratory.
In 2002, a lawyer representing the San threatened to sue the CSIR for “bio-piracy” of hoodia. The threat of legal action resulted in an agreement that the San, a poor and marginalized ethnic group in South Africa, would share in the profits of marketing any products that contained hoodia. That same year, Pfizer ended its relationship with Phytopharm and P57. Although Pfizer scientists had been able to make synthetic P57, the company felt it was too difficult and too expensive to manufacture in the large amounts needed to produce a commercial weight-loss supplement. In addition, Pfizer’s research suggested that the compound might rapidly be inactivated in the body and that it had negative side effects on the liver.
Meanwhile, in 2004, hoodia received high profile media coverage when 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl visited a South African hoodia plantation, ate some of the plant, and declared on television that it had kept her from feeling hungry all day without any side effects. Stahl’s report stimulated interest among the public in hoodia as a diet aid. Hoodia supplements began to be advertised heavily, especially over the Internet.
Manufacturers of products containing hoodia claim that it reduces or eliminates the desire to eat and drink by tricking the brain into believing that the body does not need food and water. This claim is made only for Hoodia gondonii and not the other 12 species of hoodia. Hoodia/P57 is available primarily in capsules of various strengths, and can also be added to foods such as diet bars, diet shakes, and lollipops.
Hoodia is considered a dietary supplement in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). At the time the act was passed, legislators felt that because many dietary supplements like hoodia come from natural plant sources and have been used for hundreds of years in herbal and folk healing, these products did not need to be as rigorously regulated as prescription and over-the-counter drugs used in conventional medicine.
Under the terms of DSHEA, hoodia is regulated in the same way that food is regulated. Like food manufacturers, manufacturers of products containing hoodia do not have to prove that it is either safe or effective before their products can be sold to the public. Instead, the burden of proof falls on the FDA to show that the supplement is either unsafe or ineffective before the supplement can be restricted or banned. Information about a dietary supplement’s safety and effectiveness is normally gathered only after people using the product develop health problems or complain that the product does not work.
Hoodia is a relative newcomer to the world of diet supplements and has not been well studied in humans. The claim that hoodia helps people to lose weight is controversial because:
- The amount and strength of hoodia in dietary supplements is not standardized and a wide range of doses are used.
- Few animal studies have been done on hoodia, and it is not possible to verify that hoodia will have the same effect in humans as it does in laboratory animals.
- The only human studies have a very small sample size.
- The results of human studies have not been published in peer-reviewed journals or duplicated by independent scientists.
- Most hoodia studies have sponsored by Phytopharm and others who have a financial interest in obtaining positive results.
One hoodia study done at Brown University Medical School injected P57 directly into the brain of rats. The rats did eat less and lose weight. However, humans take hoodia by mouth in much smaller quantities, so the results of the rat study are not necessarily going to be seen in humans. Other human studies have had fewer than 10 participants who have taken hoodia only for short periods.
The future of hoodia
In the United States, dietary supplements are required to be clearly labeled with the word ’’supplement. “In addition, the label must show the volume or weight of the contents, the serving size, a list of dietary ingredients and nondietary ingredients (e.g. artificial color, binders, fillers, flavorings), the name of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor, and directions for use. If the supplement is an herb, such as hoodia, the label must contain its scientific name.
Real Hoodia gondonii is expensive and in very short supply. Several independent laboratories have tested products claiming to contain hoodia. About half the products contained no hoodia at all and others contained much less than the label claimed. The lack of hoodia in weight-loss products claiming to contain the herb has lead to lawsuits. New Jersey and California have both sued the manufacturers of TrimSpa’s X32 hoodia product that was marketed by the now deceased celebrity spokesperson Anna Nicole Smith. Other lawsuits are likely to follow as investigations prove that other hoodia weight-loss products contain no real hoodia. Many Web sites promoting hoodia appear to contain false testimonials and inaccurate or false information about scientific results of hoodia studies. In March 2006, the independent Consumer Reports magazine investigated hoodia supplements and declared that it could not recommend hoodia as a weight-loss product.
Consumers have no way of telling by looking at or tasting the product whether it actually contains hoodia. In addition, very little is known about the safety of hoodia when used on a daily basis for an extended time, nor has any standard dosage been developed. It is true that the San have used this herb for many years to curb hunger. However, they use hoodia only occasionally and for short periods.
Not enough is know about hoodia to know if or how it interacts with drugs or other herbs.
Very little is known about the long-term effects of hoodia use. There are some anecdotal stories about people using hoodia forgetting to drink and suffering complications of dehydration.
Parents should be aware that the safe dose of many herbal supplements has not been establsihed for children. Accidental overdose may occur if children are give adult herbal supplements.
Fragakis, Allison. The Health Professional’s Guide to Popular Dietary Supplements Chicago: American Dietetic Association, 2003.
Wildman, Robert E. C., ed. Handbook of Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods, 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Tay-lor&Francis, 2007.
Duewald, Mary. “An Appetite Killer for a Killer Appetite? Not Yet.” New York Times April 19, 2005. <http://www.nytimes.com/>
Khalsa, K. P. S. “Halt Hunger With Hoodia?” Better Nutrition 69, no. 1 (January 31, 2007):26.
Alternative Medicine Foundation. P. O. Box 60016, Potomac, MD 20859. Telephone: (301) 340-1960. Fax: (301) 340-1936. Website: <http://www.amfoundation.org>
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Clearinghouse. P. O. Box 7923, Gathersburg, MD 20898. Telephone: (888) 644-6226. TTY: (866) 464-3615. Fax: (866) 464-3616. Website: <nccam.nih.gov>
Adams, Mike. “Consumer Alert: Hoodia Gordonii Weight Loss Pills Scam Exposed by Independent Ingestigation.” News Target, March 26, 2005. <http://www.newstarget.com/006016.html>
CBS News. “African Plant May Help Fight Fat.” CBS News Online, November 21, 2004. <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/11/18/60minutes/main656458.shtml>
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Hoodia: An Effective Appetite Suppressant?” MayoClinic.com, September 6, 2005. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health>
Phytopharm. “Hoodia Factfile.” Phytopharm. Undated, accessed January 30, 2007. <http://www.phytopharm.co.uk/hoodiafactfile>
Tish Davidson, A.M.