Is Hoodia Cactus Really a Miracle Ingredient?

Feb. 6, 2006
Is the South African cactus really a weight-loss miracle ingredient, or just another (expensive) nutrition fad?

When I enter hoodia in my search engine, I come up with countless sites that advertise the "latest weight loss miracle," the dried extract of a desert cactus native to the Kalahari Desert. I'm led through a game of connect the dots as the online hoodia merchants attempt to draw a straight line that runs from the Hoodia gordonii plant to the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert eating succulent chunks of hoodia to stave off hunger.

At the next dot and I'm presented with scientists from the South African Council of Scientific and Industrial Research isolating the specific appetite-suppressing ingredient in hoodia, a compound called P57, which, I'm told, fools the portion of the brain called the hypothalamus into believing that I'm full.

The next dot is the news show "60 Minutes," where reporter Leslie Stahl claims hoodia squelched her appetite. Finally, there is the closing dot that completes the picture: hoodia in a bottle ready to save the entire Western world from the epidemic of obesity.

All I have to do is connect the dots and the line is clear; it's just that simple. Or is it? Sometimes, when you look closely, it becomes apparent that lines may often be illusions.

Hoodia, a succulent native to semi-desert regions of southern Africa. Photo courtesy of http://evolution.berkeley.edu


The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert are legendary trackers, able to read the desert as we read a book. They shoot game with poison-tipped arrows, and then track the wounded prey for miles across the harsh terrain. Often hunters go for days in search of a kill.

To stave off hunger, they've adopted the practice of eating chunks of a succulent hoodia (oba to the Bushmen). It's said to suppress appetite and give them energy. Today they mostly eke out a living as ranch hands and cooks - when they can find work, since they no longer have access to much of their original habitat. Only a small percentage of Bushmen live the traditional way. There are no obese Bushmen, but mostly because their life is hard and food is scarce. Hoodia was merely one of many therapeutic plants that they used when in their natural environment.

As a group, the Bushmen are represented by a lawyer in order to salvage some small percent of the profits that are anticipated to come from the bottling of their wisdom.

Is hoodia a magic appetite suppressant? P57 is known as a steroidal glycoside. When injected into rat brains, it's been shown to reduce intake of food by 50 to 60 percent 24 hours after injection, an effect not seen when the substance is injected under the skin of rats.

Earlier studies suggest that a portion of the hypothalamus that may affect appetite is sensitive to levels of intracellular adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and that ATP may be altered by diet. Whether this "energy sensing" can be short circuited in humans by compounds such as P57 is not yet known. There are no long-term independent studies that prove the effectiveness of P57. So far we have only short term ones run by those who wish to sell the product.

Phytopharm Plc, the English pharmaceutical company given the license by the South African Council of Scientific and Industrial Research to turn hoodia into a weight-loss product, has spent over $20 million on research, and reports promising results on obese patients. Hoodia apparently made the subjects feel full enough to avoid eating about 1000 calories per day, and with no dangerous side effects such as with the now-banned stimulants ephedra and Phenfen.

Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical giant that partnered with Phytopharm, gave up on the attempt to synthesize P57, concluding it could not be done in a cost-effective manner. Subsequently, Phytopharm decided to market hoodia in its whole form, which will require a lot more plants than are available in the Kalahari. This means Hoodia farms must flourish to feed the anticipated need of what is still an unproven commodity. Nobody knows if farmed, dried, and shipped hoodia will have the same effect as eating the wild plant under natural conditions.

What of all those websites selling bottles and bottles of hoodia pills? Didn't "60 Minutes" endorse them as effective for weight loss? That dot doesn't hold up at all. The reporter, Leslie Stahl, found that eating a chunk of raw hoodia did appear to reduce her appetite, but when it came to a discussion of the explosion of hoodia products, the picture is quite different from the one we get from the websites. The head of Phytopharm, Dr. Richard Dixey, claimed the products that they tested carry little, if any, hoodia and certainly not enough to be an effective appetite suppressant. That means that if you buy what's on the market now, you are likely to be "hoodiawinked."

It's a giant step from Kalahari Bushmen surviving energy-demanding stresses in times of want to obese Americans looking for a miracle to save them from overeating while they channel-surf their new HDTVs. Maybe one can suppress the appetite with a little dried desert cactus pill. Maybe not. (If so, I hope it makes the Bushmen - who deserve it - wealthy, though I doubt it.)

The real push to bring Hoodia to the market will come in 2008. That's when Phytopharm's hoodia plantations will have grown enough hoodia to put into our shakes, bars, ice cream, pizza or whatever, killing our appetite so we won't want to eat any shakes, bars, ice cream or pizza. Then what are we going to do? Maybe the Bushmen have a plant that stimulates appetite.

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