Hoodia Gordonii – Let The Buyer Beware

G. Douglas Andersen, DC, DACBSP, CCN

On November 21, 2004, 60 Minutes did a story on a plant found in the southern region of the African continent called Hoodia gordonii. It's apparent ability to reduce appetite is what interested the producer.

In 1963 the South African National Laboratory scientists (the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) began a study of the foods consumed by the indigenous people of the Kalahari Desert, generally known as Bushmen and specifically known as the San people. Upon testing various foods consumed by the Bushmen, they found one that caused marked weight loss in lab animals. In 1995 the appetite-reducing compound was isolated. The process to isolate it was patented and the rights were sold to a British company, Phytopharm. The compound was a steroidal glycoside known as P57AS3, commonly referred to as P57. In 1998 Phytopharm signed a sublicensing agreement with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Together, they were able to synthesize P57. However, the process was so expensive that Phytopharm scientists determined the best way to deliver large quantities of this product to market was to sell it in food form. Because it was unfeasible to produce this compound synthetically for release as a pill or capsule, Pfizer elected to end their Hoodia contract with Phytopharm. In the late 1990s Phytopharm (after heated discussions), agreed to share any Hoodia profits with the native San People (Bushmen) of the Kalahari. Recently Phytopharm joined with another large company, Unilever, and plans to introduce Hoodia gordonii to the mass market in 2008. Although the Bushmen eat the plant raw, Phytopharm has found that Hoodia can be processed into powders and food bars and still retain its activity.

There are 20 varieties of Hoodia, but so far only gordonii has been proven to have weight-loss properties. Needless to say, the publicity caused a host of others to jump into the business and one can find many companies selling Hoodia products on the Internet. Some claim that other strains of Hoodia also have weight-loss properties. This has yet to be proven (or disproven) in a scientific study.

Hoodia is a succulent that looks like a cactus. It is now a protected species in South Africa and Namibia. Hoodia gordonii is also found in Angola and Botswana. Illegal harvesting and exports of wild Hoodia has happened in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. There has also been some legal harvesting in Botswana and South Africa. Described as a somewhat bitter-tasting cucumber, the San Bushmen remove the skin and spines and have consumed it for generations for a variety of uses, including appetite suppression, thirst reduction, hemorrhoids, hypertension, diabetes, tuberculosis, stomach pain, and indigestion.

Like many succulents, Hoodia gordonii is slow growing. It takes around 5 years for the plant to flower. When this happens, the active compound is present and the plant may be harvested. Although Phytopharm and Pfizer spent over $20 million before realizing it was too expensive to synthesize the active ingredient for mass market, a host of previously unknown and little-known companies all claim to have Hoodia supplements that work. Some of these products may contain concentrates of the right part of the right species of Hoodia to suppress one’s appetite. Testing by Phytopharm has revealed that many of the products contain little or no P57 and that some products are not even Hoodia.

Phytopharm did one study in 2001 that is quoted or paraphrased on virtually every Web site that sells Hoodia. This was a proprietary study. It was not submitted to a peer-reviewed journal but, instead, issued as a press release. Eighteen obese people took either the P57 compound or a placebo twice a day for 15 days. The results showed that there was a significant reduction in the amount of calories consumed by those subjects who took the P57 compound. By the 15th day, eating whenever they were hungry, those on the P57 consumed up to 1000 calories less than they had prior to the study. Even though this was not released in peer-reviewed format, the results were impressive enough for Phytopharm to spend millions of dollars to learn how to best farm it. They have purchased large parcels of land in the Kalahari and are now growing a huge amount of Hoodia. Because it takes 5 years for the plant to mature and be ready for harvest, the company has set a goal to start sales in 2008. It is interesting to note that none of the many companies hawking Hoodia on the Internet have given their product (and look-alike placebos) to any neutral research facility for any independent studies to see if what they are selling works. I did find one company that posted an open label study of seven obese patients who lost 6, 8, 11, 10, 10, 10 and 7 pounds over 28 days by taking 2 capsules of their product daily.2

The Internet is also full of various theories on mechanisms of action. As with everything else concerning this compound, there is very little scientific research in this area as well. However, there is a paper1 which showed that P57 could increase ATP 50 150% in neurons located in the hypothalamus, which in turn suppressed appetite either by a central hypothalamic action or as a trigger for the hypothalamus to send satiety signals to other areas in the body.

'Let the Buyer Beware' part of the title is my gut reaction after looking at numerous Hoodia web sites. Something tells me Phytopharm has much more data they are not sharing. After spending over $20 million dollars with Pfizer they are now poring millions more into farming this plant in anticipation of a huge demand when they begin harvesting in 2007. It should be interesting to see if Hoodia is another flash in the pan or will be the first major product of the 21st century that has a real chance to combat the worldwide obesity epidemic.


1 MacLean, D.B., Luo, L.G. Increased ATP/Production in the Hypothalamus May Signal for Energy-Sensing of Satiety: Studies of the Anorectic Mechanism of a Plant Steroidal Glycoside. Brain Research. September 10, 2004; 1020(1-2): 1-11.
2 www.nutrilab.com/slimcactus/study


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