The hoodia plant (Hoodia gordonii) is a succulent and a member of the Asclepiad family. Supplement manufacturers heavily market hoodia gordonii extract as a weight-loss aid. Numerous companies sell hoodia as a pill, a powder, a liquid or a tablet, but research has been inconclusive as to hoodia's effectiveness. The picture is further muddled by the many hoodia formulas, which vary widely in quality.
In 1996, researchers with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa determined a certain chemical, found in hoodia gordonii, gave the plant its hunger-suppressing quality. They named the chemical P57, and the CSIR filed for and received a patent on P57. Two years later, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer joined Phytopharm, an English company, in refining and marketing P57. After a Pfizer representative revealed that the San tribe of southern Africa had been using hoodia gordonii for centuries and was the original source of the CSIR's interest, the CSIR signed an agreement giving the San tribe a percentage of the profits. This 2003 agreement was a landmark in cultural knowledge rights.
Hoodia gordonii is a flowering succulent and is often incorrectly identified as a cactus. It grows in clusters of upright, spiny columns, and the spines run in vertical rows down the column of the plant. The orange, morning-glory shaped flowers have a pungent aroma that attracts pollinating flies. Hoodia grows in arid regions of southern Africa and may reach up to 3 feet tall, but is usually half that height.
Modern consumers use hoodia to suppress hunger, easing weight-loss programs. The supplements may contain only trace amounts of hoodia, or may be combined with other herbal supplements like green tea. According to the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, some products may not contain any hoodia extract at all. Research is inconclusive on hoodia's effectiveness.
Hoodia makes the brain register adequate blood sugar levels, thereby blocking hunger cravings. Because of this, blood sugar levels may be lower than the body registers. Diabetics or other people concerned with blood sugar levels should consult a doctor before taking hoodia. An article from the Penn State Hershey S. Milton Medical Center also reveals that a Pfizer researcher voiced concerns about “unwanted effects on the liver.”
Websites often illegally market hoodia products as drugs. The FDA sends letters to the non-compliant retailers, but many products still claim to be miracle weight-loss products or to have the same effect as doctor-prescribed drugs.
Additionally, hoodia suppliers cannot harvest or transport the plant or plant parts without the proper authorization from the countries of origin. Products that are legally harvested have an official stamp from the exporting country. Because of heavy and often illegal harvesting, the hoodia plant is a threatened species.