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Updated 19 October 2015

Hoodia study produces ‘frightening’ results

A recent study of the ‘miracle’ weight loss supplement hoodia, by the University of Stellenbosch, cast considerable doubt on the safety of the product.

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The results of new research, published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, on the effect that the weight loss supplement Hoodia had on rats, were described by head researcher, Prof. Carine Smith from the University of Stellenbosch, as “frightening”.


No fat loss

The study was conducted on twelve overweight and twelve underweight rats (as well as a control group) over a period of two weeks. Instead of losing fat, the animals lost a considerable amount of muscle mass. They also developed swollen stomachs and their heart muscles thickened, causing palpitations and an increase in blood pressure.

Read: Palpitations may signal future heart problem

The appetite-suppressing qualities of the cactus-like plant Hoodia gordonii were discovered by the San “bushmen” from Southern Africa centuries ago. On their frequent hunting trips they chewed this plant to reduce feelings of hunger and increase their energy levels. Hoodia enabled them to go without food for days.

Results difficult to verify

In the 1963, the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) became aware of the plant’s properties, and in the 1980s isolated its active ingredient, which they called P57. In 1995 they patented the compound. 

Two years later, in 1997, the CSIR licensed P57 to a British company, Phytopharm, which launched a series of trials to test its appetite-suppressing qualities. At the end of 2001, the first clinical study was concluded and the prospects looked good. It showed that the appetite of obese people who ingested P57 was considerably reduced and that they ate on average 1 000 fewer calories per day.

These results are however difficult to verify, as the study was never published or subjected to a peer-review process.

Read: Chemicals that control appetite

So promising did the studies appear that Pfizer bought the international marketing rights from Phytopharm for $21 million, with the idea of turning P57 into diet pills. These plans did however not materialise and in 2002 Pfizer released the rights. According to Jasjit Bindra, who led the research at Pfizer, development of these products was stopped because of difficulties with the synthesizing of P57.


Dieters should be 'wary'

Apparently there were also unwanted effects on the liver, caused by other components which could not be removed from the supplement. According to Bindra: "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.”

Another consideration is that anything that switches off the brain’s ability to register hunger and thirst cannot ultimately be a good thing. Without this kind of feedback the body may be deprived of food and fluids for too long, which could lead to death from starvation and/or dehydration.

Read: How cells brace themselves for starvation

In December 2004 Phytopharm signed an agreement with Unilever to market Hoodia gordonii in the form of shakes and diet bars. Like with Pfizer, their plans did not materialise, and in 2008 Unilever pulled out of their arrangement with Phytopharm. (Unilever found that hoodia does not stifle hunger and has serious side effects, including headaches, nausea, increases in blood pressure and signs of liver damage.)

Currently Hoodia is sold in health shops and even over the internet all over the world. Customers have no way of determining if these products are genuine and if they contain any Hoodia at all. Also, taking into account the massive amounts sold internationally, it’s impossible that all the Hoodia can come from the Kalahari where it grows naturally.

The possibility of serious side effects and the questionable quality of the product casts serious doubt on the safety of taking Hoodia supplements. “Caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware), as the old Latin saying goes, is probably the best advice.

Read more:

San council concerned over negative hoodia reports
Hoodia has many side effects
Farewell to Hoodia?

Sources:
Die Burger

Science-Based Medicine

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