Hoodia: Miracle Plant or Hype?
The Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa is not the most hospitable place to live in. The vast region is arid and hot throughout most of the year, and the vegetation is sparse. Still, it is the home to a unique plant that has captured the attention of several dietary companies throughout the world.
The hoodia plant – in particular, the species hoodia gordonii – is a leafless spiny succulent which grows naturally in the desert regions of South Africa and Namibia. By appearance, the plant doesn’t appear edible or of any use. However, many dieters believe it has medicinal uses, in particular, as an appetite suppressant.
Hoodia - or to be precise, the dried extracts from its stems and roots - has become one of several key ingredients in many popular diet pills currently on the market. Also, there are brands that claim to be 100% hoodia (i.e. Desert Burn).
It has become a media sensation. The Internet, e-mail spam, and various media reports have bolstered it as a “miracle” for dieters. Health food and discount stores sell some brands at $30 to $45 per bottles. And, like many diet crazes, it has its supporters who, by word-of-mouth, tout its ability to shed the pounds.
The attention, demands, and booming sales makes it appear that hoodia is the miracle plant every dieter has been looking for. However, there’s a problem with its status as a diet suppressant; there’s more hype than science to back up the claim.
The “Science” Behind Hoodia
Why the hoopla for hoodia? It is believed by many that it can trick a person’s brain into believing one is full, thus curtailing the amount of food one eats. Hoodia had long been studied by American pharmaceutical companies (such as Pfizer) for other medicinal values. However, a chance observation of how the native people of the Kalahari used it gave rise to the speculation that the plant had dietary uses.
For years, the indigenous Bushmen of the Kalahari have been observed using the plant during their long hunts deep into the desert. Anthropologists studying these people were perplexed on how they managed to hunt in this inhospitable region. The researchers soon discovered some of their secrets when they observed the hunters collecting the succulents.
Many bushmen used it infrequently to treat indigestion and minor abrasions. However – especially during the hunts – they carved up the hoodia’s skin and consumed it. Some bushmen told the anthropologist that the plant reduce the feeling of hunger.
To date, the most significant scientific research made on hoodia was published in the September 10th 2004 issue of Brain Research. The research was conducted by adjunct associate Brown University professor and former Pfizer researcher, David MacLean, MD. He reported in the journal that a molecule in hoodia, P57, was the likely cause of the plant’s ability to suppress appetite. Still, the findings were inconclusive, considering no other independent researches were being conducted on the matter at the time.
To date, there are over 300 U.S. dietary products using the plant.
Although speculations and other minor studies have been made on hoodia since the 1970s, it was Maclean’s study that brought media attention to it. One such exposure came from the reputable 60 Minutes the long-running TV show. A 2004 segment on the plant - and on MacLean’s study – had a major impact on the plant’s popularity. Demand from the public spiked.
The report had another lucrative impact. Before 2004 there were only three dietary products using hoodia. After the report, the numbers grew. To date, there are over 300 U.S. dietary products using the plant
Types of Hoodia Products
As a stand-alone dietary suppressant, hoodia comes mainly in two forms: powder-in-capsules or chewable tablets. Liquid extracts and teas are available, but are not as common as the capsules and tablets.
Many hoodia products are mixed in with other herbs and minerals. This may include green tea or chromium picolinate (NCCIH, 2010).
Although FDA barely regulates it in the United States, the country’s Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection regulate the importation and re-exportation of the plant
Skeptical Media Weighs In
Since hoodia is sold as a dietary supplement, it doesn’t get the same attention from the FDA as other over-the-counter prescription medications do (Doheny, 2011). This can be a problem, especially if one is to decide which brand is the most effective or the safest.
The website, Top Consumer Reviews.com came up with a few criteria to judge which brand was the best. They considered:
1. Authenticity Guarantee: does the product come with a C.I.T.E.S guarantee and certification of authenticity?
2. Strength: How many milligram of the natural plant are found in each product?
3. Cost: Which product is cost effective?
4. Guarantee: Is the product returnable to the manufactures if the consumer is not satisfied?
Although FDA barely regulates it in the United States, the country’s Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection regulate the importation and re-exportation of the plant. Also, U.S. laws state that a CITES certificate must accompany shipments of Hoodia gordonii, and that importers must possess a permit issued by the USDA (Wikipedia, 2011).
Consumer Report – not associated with Top Consumer Reviews.com – has stated that it does not recommend any product using hoodia on the grounds that there has been a lack of sufficient studies to prove its effectiveness.
The website, Diets in Review.com stated that dieters should be cautious when using it. They also state that the lack of scientific evidence is a reason for their opinion.
The Future for Hoodia
The demand for hoodia has skyrocketed to the point that it has become a major South African import. However, the demand has affected the supplies drastically. This may affect the price and availability in the future.
As of 2007, several independent labs began to study the plant and its effectiveness; many of these researches are still ongoing. As for now, hoodia as a dietary suppressant is still based on hearsay rather than definitive scientific studies.
Update: Hoodia's Status in 2016
When this article was originally posted in late 2011, the hype for hoodia had reached its zenith. Since then, the attention given this plant and the supplements made from it have waned significantly. The biggest reason for its decline in popularity is that nobody's really sure it works.
To date, there have been limited studies on it and many of them are considered inconclusive. That's not enough for the FDA approve it in the United States.
At best, no side effects have been conclusively reported. Still, the lack of studies and its current inconclusive nature places it in a long line of diet pills with dubious claims.
Other Stories on Fad Diets and Diet Pills
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- Why Brazilian Diet Pills Don’t Work
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© 2016 Dean Traylor