“Are we being hoodia-winked?”

A small, bitter-tasting cactus-like plant of the Kalahari is being hailed as the latest, greatest weight loss tool across the globe. But most of what's being hawked as the potent appetite suppressant isn't hoodia at all, and there's some doubt that even the genuine stuff is effective in powder form.

An article by Wendy Knowler, published in the Fair Lady April 2006

Words: Wendy Knowler Fair Lady April 2006 Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

Fair Lady Hoodia "Along comes hoodia. Never heard of it? Soon it'll be tripping off your tongue, because hoodia is a natural substance that they say takes your appetite away."

So said seasoned CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, when introducing a 60 Minutes show on hoodia back in November 2004. She had traipsed to the Kalahari, found herself an interpreter and a "local aboriginal Bushman" called Toppies Kruiper, and gone in search of the unlikely-looking obliterator of hunger pangs.Her cameraman recorded the small, skinny Kruiper cutting a piece off a small hoodia plant, removing its thorns and handing it to Stahl, who hardly looked in need of weight loss."

In the interests of science I ate it," she said. Her verdict? "Well.I had no after-effect, and I wasn`t hungry all day. Even when I would normally have a pang.I had no particular desire to eat or drink for the entire day. So, I guess I`d have to say it did work."And that was it.

Suddenly America's wannabe-thinnies, stung by the banning of ephedra in weight loss products, were clamouring for hoodia – and, naturally, an industry sprung up to meet this demand.

Given that this fairly rare plant inconveniently only grows in the Cape, and very slowly at that, what wasn't on sale was chunks of the plant, as seen being eaten by the famous Ms Stahl on TV. No, what went on sale was dozens of different brands of hoodia capsules.

Minus the thorns, minus the bitter taste, and, say critics, in most cases, minus any ability to suppress appetite.That famous 60 Minutes segment went on to question the efficacy of the many brands of hoodia in powdered, capsule form – the allegation being that they contained miniscule amounts of the active ingredient – but that hasn't stopped many of these brands claiming "as seen on 60 Minutes" in their marketing.

But here's the thing: the San don't buy their hoodia online or from pharmacies; they don't swallow neat little capsules of powder which may or may not be hoodia and which may or may not work. And since nature decrees that we can't all cultivate this thorny little succulent in our back gardens, ever ready for hunger-banishing, hoodia capsules are the only option – for now.

Despite the international hoo-ha raging around hoodia, most South Africans would have been blissfully unaware of its existence; that is until the Glohealth Hoodia with Bioslim adverts began appearing on our TV screens a few months back. The newest arrival to Glomail's controversial Bioslim product range, Glohealth Hoodia is a 28-day slimming programme, hoodia capsules being taken in conjunction with other Bioslim tablets.

Glomail uses Iris Francis, of reality TV show The Apprentice fame, as its 'before/after" candidate, Iris attributing her rapid 30kg weight loss to the new 'with hoodia' product. So where is Glomail sourcing its hoodia?

Glomail public relations officer Megan Larter referred Fairlady to Steve Hurt, founder director of the SA Hoodia Growers Association, which supplies Bioslim – among other companies – with "legal, authentic" hoodia. The association's stamp of approval, which the Bioslim product boasts, provides consumers with the assurance that it contains hoodia which has been certified as true by an independent lab, and that it has been legally harvested, and, most intriguingly, that the San people get a percentage of the profit on product sales. This has been a major victory for a community with a long, painful history of being sidelined by fatcats, both the political and corporate variety.

"There is no other logo that the San people endorse," Hurt says. "Of course there may be other companies out there with products which may qualify for our stamp of approval but haven't heard about it yet." Given the volume of hoodia being sold, all of it on the back of the enticing "the San people have used it to suppress hunger for generations" line, the San community stands to benefit to the tune of millions every year, if enough companies earn the right to display the stamp on their products.

But Hurt reckons that 95% of the hoodia currently being hawked is either fake or in doses too small to be effective. "The department of nature conservation in the Western Cape traded 12 tons of legal hoodia for use in supplements last year," he says. "That's nowhere near enough to fill the estimated 100 000 hoodia products being sold daily – most by American companies, on the Internet."

Unilever, which has acquired the rights to develop and market hoodia as an ingredient in its weight loss products, recently conducted laboratory tests in the UK on a dozen hoodia capsule products, bought on the Internet."

None of them contained any real hoodia," said Unilever UK's press officer, Trevor Gorin. The company will put its name to a food – a snack bar or soup, for example – not a pill, he said. It will go on sale, all going well, "within a year or two".

Last August US consumer advocacy group Truth Publishing claimed that 11 out of 17 brand-name hoodia supplements on the US market had failed lab tests of authenticity. The group blamed hoodia "brokers" for duping US manufacturers into buying bogus hoodia by supplying fake certificates of analysis; handing over a genuine sample for testing, and then filling their bulk orders with "something entirely different"; or bulking up the genuine product with sawdust, leaves or ground up plants.

Independent nutrition product test house said the following last October: "Since there are no published clinical trials to establish an optimal dose that is safe and effective, no-one knows for sure how much hoodia should be taken."Although tantalising, the evidence for hoodia as a weight loss ingredient remains anecdotal and preliminary, as does evidence of its safety."

The future of hoodia supplements in Europe was thrown into doubt last year by a product recall in the Netherlands, alerting all member states to what termed "the herbal's questionable regulatory status". In South Africa, hoodia is not regulated by authorities, as it falls between food and drug legislation, as do other natural supplements.

Despite the warnings, hope springs eternal and the demand for the pills remains high. What doesn't appear to be in any doubt, is the fact that the actual plant, in its unprocessed state, does the job. I was unable to find a single report of anyone having tried it and not forgoing almost all food for about 24 hours.

Cape Town attorney Roger Chennels, who has represented the San community for the past decade, told me how he and two others ate fresh hoodia on a recent camping trip and lost their appetite for the next day. "We came back with a whole lot of uneaten food!"

Whether Unilever is able to come up with a processed form of the stuff which has a similar effect, remains to be seen.

Update: After spending 20 million Euro on the project, Unilever has abandoned the project stating that weight-loss was not shown, and for safety issues (i.e., side effects).
Hoodia history
In the 1990s, after decades of study, CSIR scientists isolated the appetite suppressing ingredient in Hoodia gordonii, which became known as P57. It works by mimicking the effect that glucose has on nerve cells in the brain, fooling the body into thinking it's full, even when it is not.The scientists applied for a patent, and in 1997 this was licensed exclusively to British pharmaceutical company Phytopharm. Research carried out by Phytopharm shows that a group of 18 morbidly obese volunteers drastically cut their food intake after taking the hoodia extract for two weeks, but the study has never been published in a peer-reviewed journal, casting doubt on its validity.

Phytopharm announced in December 2004 that it had granted an exclusive global licence to its Hoodia gordonii extract to the global consumer products giant Unilever plc. In terms of the agreement, Phytopharm will earn royalties on the sale of Unilever's hoodia-containing products, some of which will make their way back to the San community. Phytopharm chief executive Dr Richard Dixey, meanwhile, has lashed out at companies selling dried, powdered hoodia, warning that the company intends to enforce its patent. But Steve Hurt of the SA Hoodia Growers Association says Phytopharm has patented P57, and the application of the plant for weight loss, not the plant tself. "Oranges are to vitamin C as hoodia is to P57," he says.

So the stage is set for a number of hoodia courtroom showdowns – 'hoodunit' media headlines are inevitable.Meanwhile Unilever is working on developing a hoodia-containing food as a weight loss product. If they get it right, it will only be sold by companies that are certified by Phytopharm as being authentic and having the correct amount of P57 to benefit consumers. Hoodia is classified by the SA government as an endangered plant, hence the strict controls on exports, and since October 2004 it's been protected by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Hungry for results
With the internet full of conflicting testimonials about powdered hoodia's efficacy, we ran a mini, non-clinical trial of our own, using legal, authentic, 100% hoodia, supplied by Steve Hurt of the SA Hoodia Growers Association. Four women, including myself, took three capsules (each containing 250mg of hoodia) three times a day for the first seven days, as advised, and then two capsules a day for the next two weeks.

The result? Two of us had no appetite for lunch on the first day of the trial. "I was euphoric," said one, a GP, "but it didn't last." I experienced a slight decrease in appetite throughout the trial. One woman reported no change in her appetite at all, and the fourth said she actually became hungrier. I shed half a kilogram during the trial, which may or may not have been related to my hoodia intake, and the others recorded no weight changes. Hurt warned at the outset that some people do not respond to hoodia at all." But these capsules were rated number one out of 30 products tested in theUSA," he said.

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