Hoodia gordonii is a leafless spiny succulent plant with medicinal uses. It grows naturally in South Africa and Namibia. The flowers smell like rotten meat and are pollinated mainly by flies. The indigenous Bushmen call this plant ǁhoba (the initial sound is a lateral click).
In 1977, the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) isolated the ingredient in hoodia—now known as P57—which is responsible for its appetite-suppressant effect, and patented it in 1996. The CSIR then granted United Kingdom-based Phytopharm a license, and they collaborated with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer to isolate active ingredients from the extracts and look into synthesizing them for use as an appetite suppressant. Pfizer released the rights to the primary ingredient in 2002. Paul Hutson, associate professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy, told the Wisconsin State Journal, "For Pfizer to release something dealing with obesity suggests to me that they felt there was no merit to its oral use". Pfizer states that development on P57, the active ingredient of hoodia, was stopped due to the difficulty of synthesizing P57. Jasjit Bindra, lead researcher for hoodia at Pfizer, states there were indications of unwanted effects on the liver caused by other components, which could not be easily removed from the supplement, adding "Clearly, hoodia has a long way to go before it can earn approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Until safer formulations are developed, dieters should be wary of using it."
In 2002, CSIR officially recognized the San tribespeople’s rights over hoodia, allowing them to take a percentage of the profits and any spin-offs resulting from the marketing of hoodia. Hoodia gordonii is a protected plant which may only be wild-harvested by individuals and the few companies who have been granted a license.
Richard M. Goldfarb, MD, a doctor and medical director of Bucks County Clinical Research in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, claims to have conducted a preliminary efficacy study of Hoodia gordonii on seven people and reports to have found it effective. None of the findings were ever published in any peer-reviewed journal. Such information cannot be considered as evidence that hoodia is effective as a weight loss product.
Other medical weight loss experts remain skeptical and do not recommend hoodia to obese patients. Adrienne Youdim, MD, medical director of the Comprehensive Weight Loss Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Michael Steelman, MD, chairman of the board of trustees for the American Society of Bariatric Physicians says "There is no [published scientific] data to support its use." In addition, the FTC recommends against the use of such diet products marketed with exaggerated claims.
As Hoodia gordonii is a species threatened with extinction if international trade is not monitored, it is listed under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and is illegal to export from Africa without a CITES certificate being issued by proper authorities.
In the USA, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and United States Customs and Border Protection (part of the Department of Homeland Security) regulate the importation and re-exportation of species such as Hoodia gordonii. Current U.S. laws stipulate that not only must a CITES certificate accompany shipments of Hoodia gordonii but that the importers must possess a permit issued by the USDA to import Terrestrial Plants. a CITES re-export certificate is needed to re-export H. gordonii.
In addition to looking for a copy of a CITES and USDA permit from a manufacturer of "Hoodia" products a consumer should also look for a report from an independent testing lab which has conducted scientific analysis on the product in question, testifying that they have been able to authenticate the presence of Hoodia gordonii.
The primary testing methods for authenticating Hoodia gordonii are:
As of 2007 there are four independent labs which are conducting tests to verify Hoodia gordonii in consumer products. They are: Advanced Laboratories, Inc. in Smithfield, North Carolina, Alkemist Pharmaceuticals, Chromadex Labs of Irvine, California, and the University of Mississippi. The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) is also working on a Hoodia Standard which is believed to be available in the industry in late 2007 in response to scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission of the hoodia industry and complaints by consumers of fraudulent hoodia products being marketed.
Prior to this 60 Minutes report, there were a total of three hoodia products on the U.S. market and Hoodia gordonii was being sold by African farmers at US$13 per kilogram. In 2007, there are an estimated 300 products being sold worldwide being touted as "authentic Hoodia gordonii" with a street rate for Hoodia gordonii at $250 per kilogram on average.
The media coverage and heavy marketing by nutritional supplement companies that followed those reports have created such a demand for Hoodia spp. plants that a protected status was imposed in several countries like Namibia. Many products claiming to contain Hoodia spp. do not actually contain the active ingredient alleged to suppress appetite. An ongoing review of hoodia pills by Alkemists Pharmaceuticals found that at least half of the products advertised as containing hoodia contained none.
In December 2004, Unilever entered into an agreement with Phytopharm to start marketing Hoodia gordonii commercially in the form of shakes and diet bars although as of April 2007 no products have yet surfaced on the consumer market from that venture.
On February 17, 2006 a U.S. trademark was issued to an American individual for a Hoodia gordonii protein shake being marketed as "Hoodia Shake", which expanded U.S.-based Hoodia gordonii supplements beyond the venue of capsule products only.
Between March and June 2006, millions of E-mail spam and forum messages were sent out concerning hoodia, ostensibly offering hoodia extracts for weight control purposes. The Federal Trade Commission has logged numerous complaints of consumer fraud associated with hoodia and the number is expected to continue to rise.
As of April 2007, Hoodia gordonii products are being marketed in a variety of formats to include: capsules, tablets, liquid tinctures, coffee and infusions, syrups, protein shakes and even diet fruit bars.