(Masson) Sweet ex Decne., 1844
Hoodia gordonii is a leafless spiny succulent plant with medicinal properties. It grows naturally in South Africa and Namibia. The flowers smell like rotten meat and are pollinated mainly by flies. The indigenous San people (Bushmen) of the Namib desert call this plant ǁhoba (pronounced [kǁʰɔbɑ] - the initial sound is a lateral click) - and the Afrikaans Ghaap.
The use of Hoodia spp. has long been known by the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa, who infrequently use these plants for treating indigestion and small infections, but their use of the plant to suppress appetite on long hunting trips in the Kalahari Desert has stimulated the most interest.
In 1977, the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) isolated the ingredient in hoodia—now known as P57—which is responsible for its appetite-suppressant effect, and patented it in 1996. The CSIR then granted United Kingdom-based Phytopharm a license, and they collaborated with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer to isolate active ingredients from the extracts and look into synthesizing them for use as an appetite suppressant. Pfizer released the rights to the primary ingredient in 2002. Paul Hutson, associate professor in the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy, told the Wisconsin State Journal, "For Pfizer to release something dealing with obesity suggests to me that they felt there was no merit to its oral use". Pfizer states that development on P57, the active ingredient of hoodia, was stopped due to the difficulty of synthesizing it. Jasjit Bindra, lead researcher for hoodia at Pfizer, states there were indications of unwanted effects on the liver caused by other components, which could not be easily removed from the supplement, adding, "Clearly, hoodia has a long way to go before it can earn approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Until safer formulations are developed, dieters should be wary of using it."
In 2002, CSIR officially recognized the San tribespeople’s rights over hoodia, allowing them to take a percentage of the profits and any spin-offs resulting from the marketing of hoodia. H. gordonii is a protected plant which may only be wild-harvested by individuals and the few companies which have been granted a license.
No published scientific evidence indicates hoodia is an appetite suppressant in humans. The Federal Trade Commission recommends against the use of such diet products marketed with exaggerated claims.
As H. gordonii and the whole genus Hoodia are threatened with extinction if international trade is not monitored, the genus is listed under CITES at Appendix II, and it is illegal to export plant material in any form from Africa without a CITES certificate being issued by proper authorities.
In the USA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Department of Agriculture, and United States Customs and Border Protection regulate the importation and re-exportation of species such as H. gordonii. Current U.S. laws stipulate that not only must a CITES certificate accompany shipments, but also the importers must possess a permit issued by the USDA to import terrestrial plants. A CITES re-export certificate is needed to re-export H. gordonii.
In addition to looking for a copy of CITES and USDA permits from a manufacturer of "hoodia" products, a consumer should also look for a report from an independent testing lab which has conducted scientific analysis to authenticate the presence of H. gordonii. The primary testing methods for authenticating H. gordonii are:
As of 2007, four independent labs are conducting tests to verify H. gordonii in consumer products. They are: Advanced Laboratories, Inc. in Smithfield, North Carolina, Alkemist Pharmaceuticals, Chromadex Labs of Irvine, California, and the University of Mississippi. The American Herbal Products Association completed work in 2009 establishing the de facto industry standard for authentication in response to scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission of the hoodia industry and complaints by consumers of fraudulent hoodia products being marketed.
Prior to this 60 Minutes report, a total of three hoodia products were on the U.S. market and H. gordonii was being sold by African farmers at US$13 per kilogram. In 2007, an estimated 300 products were being sold worldwide being touted as "authentic Hoodia gordonii" with a street rate at $250 per kilogram on average. As of November 2008, the plant's street price has dropped to $130/kg for wild H. gordoni and an estimated $85 for cultivated material.
The media coverage and heavy marketing by nutritional supplement companies that followed those reports have created such a demand for Hoodia spp. plants that a protected status was imposed in several countries, such as Namibia. Many products claiming to contain Hoodia spp. do not actually contain the active ingredient alleged to suppress appetite. An ongoing review of hoodia pills by Alkemists Pharmaceuticals found at least half of the products advertised as containing hoodia contained none.
Marketing and spam
Lack of scientific evidence or regulatory approval have not stopped dietary supplement companies from marketing H. gordonii supplements with claims that it can lower blood pressure and reduce the appetite. Goen Technologies Corporation's TrimSpa unit began marketing it under the brand name X32 with celebrity spokesperson Anna Nicole Smith, though the FDA has notified Trimspa in a Warning Letter that it has not demonstrated that claims for their product are scientifically supportable. Health Canada has not approved any hoodia products for sale. However, they are sold in natural health stores. Goen Technologies has also been sued by the state of New Jersey for misleading consumers. The Trimspa brand is currently the subject of a lawsuit in California, which claims it does not contain any of hoodia's active ingredient.
In December 2004, Unilever entered into an agreement with Phytopharm to start marketing H. gordonii commercially in the form of shakes and diet bars, although as of April 2007, no products have yet surfaced on the consumer market from that venture.
Between March and June 2006, millions of e-mail spam and forum messages were sent out concerning hoodia, ostensibly offering hoodia extracts for weight control purposes. The Federal Trade Commission has logged numerous complaints of consumer fraud associated with hoodia and the number is expected to continue to rise.
On November 14, 2008, Unilever pulled out of deal with Phytopharm to continue commercial development of hoodia. A document on Unilever's website entitled "Sustainable Development 2008: An Overview", and signed by Paul Polman, CEO, contains the following statement: "Innovation also carries uncertainties and does not always lead to a positive outcome. During 2008, having invested 20 million [pounds] in R&D, Unilever abandoned plans to use the slimming extract hoodia in a range of diet products. We stopped the project because our clinical studies revealed that products using hoodia would not meet our strict standards of safety and efficacy." Page 12.
Hoodia gordonii products are currently being marketed in a variety of formats, to include: capsules, tablets, liquid tinctures, tea, coffee, syrups, protein shakes, and even diet fruit bars.
In October 2009, Santa Cruz County District Attorney Bob Lee joined colleagues from several other counties in a lawsuit against three companies that allegedly make false claims that their diet supplements contain extract from the African hoodia plant. The lawsuit, filed in Solano County, states that Dex L-10 by Delmar Labs, Breakthrough Engineered Nutrition and Geopharma produce products with packaging and advertising that claim to contain H. gordonii when they contain little or none of it.
- Dixon, Robyn (December 26, 2006). Hoodia fever takes a toll on rare plant. Los Angeles Times.
- Rath, Jay. "New Drug Tempting Dieters, But Experts Debate Hoodia's Merits". Wisconsin State Journal, September 5, 2005, D1.
- Morris, Joan. "Little research behind claims that hoodia is safe, effective for losing weight". Seattle Times, March 9, 2006.
- Bindra, Jasjit. "A Popular Pill's Hidden Danger", The New York Times, April 26, 2005.
- Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (24 March 2003) The San and the CSIR announce a benefit-sharing agreement for potential anti-obesity drug.
- Thompson, Ginger (April 1, 2003). "Twee Rivieren Journal; Bushmen Squeeze Money From a Humble Cactus". The New York Times.
- Kathleen Doheney, "Hoodia: Lots of Hoopla, Little Science; Few studies support the promise of the South African appetite suppressant, but believers abound", WebMD, September 6, 2006, Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD (last accessed March 24, 2007).
- Weighing the Evidence in Diet Ads, US Federal Trade Commission
- Mangold, Tom. "Sampling the Kalahari Hoodia diet". BBC Correspondent, May 30, 2003.
- Stahl, Lesley. "African Plant May Help Fight Fat". CBS News 60 Minutes, November 21, 2004.
- Engelhaupt, Erika (July 9, 2006). "But do Hoodia diet pills actually work? Diet miracle from an African plant is a spam special". The Philadelphia Inquirer.
- "Hoodia: lose weight without feeling hungry?" (Subscription required) Consumer Reports 2006 Mar; 71(3):49.
- US Food and Drug Administration (March 26, 2004). "Warning Letter for Weight Loss Products 'TrimSpa Carb Blocker' and 'TrimSpa Fat Blocker'"
- Hawaleshka, Danylo. "Hoodia love: An appetite suppressant used by Bushmen is the diet world's newest fad". Macleans, August 3, 2005.
- New Jersey Office of the Attorney General (October 16, 2003). New Jersey Sues Founder of Goen Seminars.
- Tomlinson, Heather, "Prickly solution to obesity?", The Guardian Weekly, (undated).
- "Lick Away Weight with Power Pops", ExtraTV.com, May 30, 2006.
- Santa Cruz, other DAs sue manufacturers of weight loss products, Santa Cruz Sentinel, October 1, 2009