Can hoodia help the obese as well as the hungry?

The Irish Times
Health Supplement, p. 13
16 June 2009

BEGINNING IN the 1960s, the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) screened more than 1,000 native plants as sources of foods or drugs. This process eventually led to Hoodia gordonii becoming a very popular natural weight-loss supplement.

Hoodia gordonii is a succulent plant that looks like a cactus. It has large beautiful blossoms that smell like rotten meat, earning them the name “carrion flowers”. The plant grows in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. Its popularity has led to it being designated a protected species, requiring a permit to collect, cultivate, transport or export it.

The scarcity of the true plant material has led to serious problems with adulteration of dietary supplements allegedly made from Hoodia. One independent analysis found that fewer than one-third of Hoodia products contained any of the plant, although a more recent analysis found that about 60 per cent of the products contained some Hoodia.

Several Hoodia species have provided foods or medicines for the Kalahari Desert’s San people. The San are one of the most ancient of all peoples, and currently one of the most destitute and impoverished. Tradition has it that they ate Hoodia while on long hunting trips to suppress their hunger.

After the CSIR screening process, a small UK pharmaceutical company, Phytopharm, obtained a licence to develop Hoodia as an appetite suppressant. It sold the rights to Pfizer in 1997, which returned them in 2003, citing product development problems. Along the way, the San people and CSIR agreed that the tribesmen would share in any royalties arising from Hoodia. However, this agreement covers pharmaceutical products developed from Hoodia and does not appear to include dietary supplements. Phytopharm is now working with Unilever to incorporate Hoodia into foods and drinks that are to be used as slimming aids.

Evidence from studies 

The active ingredient in Hoodia is called P57 and studies in rats showed it led to reduced food intake and weight loss. Further studies revealed that P57 works directly on the brain to stimulate feelings of being full.

Phytopharm issued a press release about a small trial with 18 people, stating that after 15 days, people taking P57 had significantly reduced daily calorie intake and body fat. The results have not been made available for others to examine. However, it should be noted that the results from a purified active ingredient like P57 may not be directly applicable to use of the herbal remedy, especially since P57 is present in tiny amounts in the plant.

Problematic aspects 

No adverse effects were reported in the Phytopharm press release. In response to a New York Times article about Hoodia, a researcher wrote that he spent several years at Pfizer working on the plant. He claimed that components other than P57 caused liver problems and that they were unable to remove these from the supplement. Anyone with liver problems should certainly avoid using Hoodia.


Hoodia gives us a small window into global injustice. Billions are spent in developed countries to combat obesity. Many turn to herbs to shed weight naturally and easily. They are drawn to a plant used by others to reduce their hunger pangs due to a lack of food.

An agreement is reached to help the San people benefit from commercial developments based on their traditional knowledge. To date, only dietary supplements trading on Hoodia’s reputation have become profitable, but the San people do not benefit from those. Meanwhile, the plant has to be protected from over-exploitation.

Such practises have been called “greenwashing”, where products only pretend to help the environment or indigenous people. We should all be alert to questionable marketing claims and check their reliability.

Meanwhile, further research is ongoing to determine whether Hoodia gordonii will some day benefit either overweight Westerners or the impoverished San. All that has been confirmed so far is that quick fixes still don’t work.

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