Advertisers and retailers were quick to point out Hoodia’s “celebrity” status, citing appearances on the Oprah Winfrey show, ABC, the BBC, and 60 Minutes. Apparently the status and publicity accorded to Hoodia made up for the complete lack of clinical evidence validating any of the miraculous claims attributed to this plant.
Even though Hoodia is no longer as “hot” as it once was, there are still quite a few products out there; and their promoters are still making sensationalistic claims, so it’s worth taking a closer look at Hoodia, to separate the hype from the reality.
First of all, what the heck is Hoodia?
Hoodia gordonii is a succulent (a cactus of the aloe family) found in the Kalahari desert of South Africa. Stories are spreading about how the native Kalahari bushmen would use this cactus to stave off hunger on long trips through the desert.
Many Hoodia retailers are correlating the Kalahari bushmen’s nonexistent obesity rate with the consumption of this cactus. In fact, it has more to do with being dirt poor, and living in a harsh desert environment with nary a McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in sight. Put simply, the Kalahari bushmen are slim because they consume few calories, not because they consume Hoodia.
In South Africa, Hoodia is on the list of endangered plant species, and believe it or not, it wasn’t actually supposed to be exported. It’s a fairly difficult plant to cultivate, as it takes several years to grow to the point where it can be harvested. Hoodia “plantations” now exist, but at the peak of the Hoodia “craze,” there simply wasn’t enough Hoodia to go around. According to ConsumerLab.com (an online company that tests product label claims)…
“It has been speculated that there is more Hoodia being sold today than could possibly be made from all the Hoodia gordonii plants in existence.”
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that Hoodia products that contained no Hoodia ended up on the market. It was a crazy time, as this article from Mike Adams of NaturalNews attests.
So now that the dust has settled… Is it possible to get genuine Hoodia that really works to suppress appetite?
The answer is a highly-qualified “maybe” – it’s a long story, so bear with me.
Despite the outrageous hype and unsubstantiated claims, Hoodia originally showed some promise. As I noted above, scientists working for a pharmaceutical company called Phytopharm claimed to have isolated the molecule responsible for Hoodia’s appetite suppressing characteristics.
This molecule, called P57, was originally licensed to U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer for development. Pfizer bailed on Hoodia though, and discontinued clinical development of P57 in 2003 (hardly promising, I’d say!).
Much was made of Phytopharm’s “clinical study”, which apparently validated the amazing appetite suppressing effects of Hoodia’s P57 molecule. Unfortunately, this study was never officially published, so it was never critiqued by independent scientists with the ability to question the conclusions and the methodology of the study.
In December 2004, PhytoPharm teamed up with Unilever (the parent company of SlimFast, Knorr, and Hellman’s, among others), and committed to bringing the active P57 molecule to the market within 3 years.
It never happened. At the end of 2008, Unilever terminated its relationship with Phytopharm and abandoned the development of a hoodia-based weight loss product. Apparently…
“…testing on liquid products revealed the ingredient metabolized too quickly, therefore rendering it redundant for use in Unilever’s SlimFast weight management range.” (see here for more details!).
Loosely translated, P57 didn’t meet Unilever’s expectations. Ultimately, it didn’t meet Phytopharm’s either, since it disposed of its patent and research in 2010, and turned all development rights over to the South African government.
What happened? Why the loss of interest? Well, I’m not connected with either Unilever or Phytopharm, but I can hazard an educated guess. South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research recently made summaries of Phytopharm’s 1999 – 2003 research available, so it’s possible to see what some of the problems were with those original, highly touted studies.
“The clinical studies during the period 1999 to 2003 were performed on a spray-dried sap extract and a concentrated active ingredient extract, both formulated as capsules. In the safety studies, the spray-dried sap extract was shown to be safe and well tolerated at all dosages while some level of efficacy including caloric reduction was observed at the higher dosages. In a 14-day repeat dose study using the extract, there was a good safety and tolerance profile, however no signs of efficacy were observed mainly due to the low dosage.”
“This was not surprising considering that some levels of efficacy in the safety studies were observed at higher dosages suggesting that future development should focus on the formulation of higher doses of the spray-dried sap extract. In a 5 and 15-day repeat dose study using the concentrated active ingredient extract there was a clear anorectic effect and a substantial reduction in caloric intake compared to the placebo.”
“In the 15-day repeat dose study there were mild side effects such as taste perversion and isolated reversible hyperbilirubinaemia (excess of bile pigment in the blood).“
Emphasis mine. So P57 didn’t work at low doses; and higher doses, there were side effects.
Were the side effects a one-off, isolated experience? Nope. According to a recently published study on “H. gordonii purified extract” (HgPE) by researchers at Unilever:
“There were no serious adverse events, but HgPE was less well tolerated than was the placebo because of episodes of nausea, emesis, and disturbances of skin sensation. Blood pressure, pulse, heart rate, bilirubin, and alkaline phosphatase showed significant (P < 0.05) increases in the HgPE group. Mean effects on ad libitum energy intakes and body weights did not differ significantly between the HgPE- and placebo-treatment groups (P > 0.05).”
“Nausea,” “emesis” (a high-tech word for “puking”), and alterations in markers of liver function… not good. Hoodia extracts may not cause any serious or long-term health issues, but I imagine few people would want to buy a product that could make them feel unwell.
Of course, all the Phytopharm/Unilever research above refers to semi-purified/purified extracts. What about the plain ol’ dried/powdered Hoodia found in most (authentic) commercial products? Does that work? Is it safe?
No idea. There’s not a shred of published research on the plant material itself – which is ironic, since it was the reputed efficacy of the plant that got the whole Hoodia craze rolling in the first place.
This is why we thought we’d give the genuine article a try ourselves. So I put UltimateFatBurner.com’s intrepid product tester Amie to work with a trial of Strictly Health Corporation’s Hoodoba Hoodia (one of the brands Mike Adams of NewsTarget recommended as most consistently testing positively for genuine Hoodia).
Still curious to try Hoodia? Fine… just be aware that you’re on your own. As of this update (2012), there’s no real science to support any of the plant-based Hoodia products currently available on the North American market.