07 December 2010

Is there hope for hoodia?

The Hoodia plant (Hoodia gordonii), which is believed to be the active ingredient that helps to suppress appetite and promote weightloss, is back in the news.


At the beginning of December 2010, newspapers in South Africa announced a new development in the Hoodia slimming pill saga. According to Tamar Kahn writing in Business Day, Phytopharm, the UK company that has been working on the production of a pure extract of the active ingredient in Hoodia, has returned the commercialisation rights for Hoodia to the CSIR (Council of Scientific & Industrial Research). 

A long wait

Four long years have passed since I wrote my first DietDoc Topic about the potential launch of a new slimming product based on an extract of the Hoodia plant. In the interim, the commercial manufacture of slimming products that contain p57, a steroidal glycoside found in the Hoodia gordonii plant, which is believed to be the active ingredient that helps to suppress appetite and promote weightloss, slowed down seriously. Pfizer, which originally acquired the rights to this process, returned them to Phytopharm and the latter have evidently now in turn, handed back these rights to the CSIR. 

According to Tamara Kahn on Business Day, Tim Sharpington, the CEO of Phytopharm in the UK, said that “We have not necessarily lost faith in it (hoodia)”. He went on to state that Phytopharm had decided to switch their attention from neutraceuticals (foods with health benefits) to pharmaceuticals instead. Phytopharm has agreed to make “the substantial know-how and intellectual property developed over the years” available to the CSIR. This includes the results of 14 clinical studies which should shed light on some of the questions surrounding the use of Hoodia extract for slimming purposes (Kahn, 2010). 

CSIR - The way forward

Johan Hattingh, the CSIR’s Head of Intellectual Property & Technology Transfer, is reported to have said that the CSIR will now appoint an expert panel to study the clinical trial data, with particular emphasis on safety concerns (Kahn, 2010). 

It is essential that a proper risk-benefit analysis should be carried out before further work commences and additional funds are spent on the development of slimming pills that contain Hoodia extract. This could mean that if the risk-benefit analysis finds that the risk of negative side-effects which may be caused by the Hoodia extract outweigh the positive effects of appetite suppression and weightloss, then no further development would take place. 

Don't risk health in order to lose weight

Although people who are desperate to lose weight may view this approach as overly cautious, it is vital that any anti-obesity drug that is manufactured should also be safe and not cause harmful side-effects that may endanger the life of anyone who uses such drugs. 

The San Council have given their full support to this new development which sees Hoodia research returning to South and Southern Africa where it all started (CSIR, 2010). The San Council believe that “this is a very effective product and really the side-effects are manageable and small.” (Kahn, 2010).

The San Council, which represents the San People of Southern Africa, who were the first people to use Hoodia gordonii as an appetite suppressant to allow them to survive on long hunts without food in inhospitable areas, would benefit from any new developments and earn a royalty fee of 6% of any Hoodia products sold under the new agreement. 

What does this mean for slimmers?

Hoodia research has come full circle. It started at the CSIR, was transferred to Phytopharm, then to Pfizer, then back to Phytopharm and Unilever, and now it is once again in the hands of the CSIR. Some of the hesitation associated with the development of the Hoodia drug may have been caused by intellectual property right claims made by the San Council and concerns voiced by CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species). 

I sincerely hope that such hesitation is not due to the fact  that no one wants to take responsibility for developing a product that may not be as effective as it is believed to be or which may cause undesirable side-effects. The costs associated with the development of a new pharmaceutical product are astronomical and no pharmaceutical company is prepared to spend mega-dollars on any compound that is not going to be a sure-fire winner. 

The questions that now arise, are as follows: 

  • Will the CSIR find in favour of further development of a Hoodia slimming product? Only time will tell.
  •  Will the CSIR and partners (who will still have to be identified), be able to foot the bill of the development of a Hoodia slimming product if the project gets the green light? At present we don’t know. If the active ingredient in Hoodia gordonii does have successful appetite suppressant properties and if the compound does not produce unacceptable side-effects, then any company who does spend money on the development of genuine Hoodia slimming pills, stands to earn a fortune.
  • What potential side-effects could Hoodia slimming products have? Because as yet, no results of clinical trials with human subjects have been published, we don’t really know.
  • Liver problems: There have been reports that Hoodia may have undesirable effects on liver function. Possibly such effects can be eliminated if a chemically pure form of p57 can be produced.
  • Risky to Diabetics: Warnings have also been issued against the use of Hoodia by diabetics because it is thought that Hoodia tricks the brain into thinking that blood sugar levels are adequate when they may be so low as to constitute a threat to the health of diabetic patients.
  • Dehydration risk: Because Hoodia is believed to not only suppress hunger, but also thirst, anyone taking Hoodia products may be exposed to the risk of dehydration which can be dangerous and even fatal (Wong, 2010).
  • Are existing Hoodia slimming products effective?

In view of the latest press releases concerning the hand-back of Hoodia rights to the CSIR, we know that research into isolating the active ingredient p57 from Hoodia is not complete, and that adequate clinical trials to test if Hoodia slimming products are effective and safe for human use, have not yet been concluded. Thus any slimming product on the market at present (and there are hundreds of them) that advertises that it contains extract of Hoodia, is probably a sham.

It has been suggested that the existing Hoodia slimming pills, powders, teas and liquids only contain tiny quantities of processed Hoodia plant and no concentrated and purified active ingredient (p57), so it is unlikely that such products will help for weightloss. Counterfeit and adulterated Hoodia gordonii products are being sold to gullible and desperate slimmers the world over. You have no way of knowing if the Hoodia product you buy is pure or not, and if it will be effective or if it will cause negative side-effects like liver damage, diabetic complications or dehydration.  It is estimated that 80% of present-day Hoodia products are counterfeit (Wong, 2010).

Awaiting research result

Sensible slimmers throughout the world will, therefore, once again have to wait for the results of the CSIR evaluation of the available data on Hoodia slimming products and their decision to pursue the research which will eventually make such products available for slimming purposes.

In the meanwhile, be careful not to fall into the Hoodia slimming pill trap. Do not spend good money on products that may be counterfeit and/or potentially harmful because they are not pure. If you need or want to lose weight, stick to tried and tested methods: reduce your energy intake with a well balanced slimming diet and increase your energy expenditure by doing daily exercise. 

Hopefully the CSIR will reinstate research into Hoodia gordonii, and isolate a pure p57 extract that has pronounced slimming benefits and is safe for human use. South Africans struggling to lose weight would benefit enormously.

- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, December 2010)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc


(CSIR (2010). CSIR takes the lead towards further development of Hoodia. Media Release 30 Nov 2010. Kahn T (2010). SA regains rights to hoodia plant. Business Day, 01/12/2010. Wong C (2007). Hoodia Gordonii Review. Guide. 20 September 2007.

Read more:

CSIR to develop San slimming drug
Herbs A-Z: Hoodia


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