African plant can suppress hunger for days, but is it safe?

Times Staff Writer

Always on the hunt for a new diet remedy, Americans seem to be willing to do or swallow almost anything to lose weight. And their search can take them to unlikely places.

For thousands of years, African Bushmen have eaten a cactus-like plant to suppress hunger. The plant, known as Hoodia gordonii, was little-known in this country until recently, when the CBS news program “60 Minutes” sent reporter Lesley Stahl into a desert in South Africa to sample the plant for a story about a possible new weight-loss aid. Twenty-four hours later, Stahl reported back: no appetite, no thirst.

The news program seemed to whet the appetite of many U.S. dieters. The day after the Nov. 21 “60 Minutes” report, one supplier reported 400 orders for its Hoodia gordonii product, followed by 1,000 orders the next day.


“Sales have just gone ballistic since the show,” said Jen Cully, president of Ontario, Canada-based Millennium Health Supplements.

International pharmaceutical companies and herbal supplement firms are hoping that extracts from this endangered plant will be the magic pill for obesity. But there is also controversy. Conservationists worry that a surge in international demand could damage fragile ecosystems. And doctors wonder whether the product is safe.

The succulent (which Stahl remarked had a taste similar to a cucumber) grows wild only in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. Researchers in South Africa had noticed that Hoodia gordonii extracts caused animals to lose weight. Such findings attracted the attention of Phytopharm, a British botanical pharmaceutical company, which has spent millions of dollars over the years trying to isolate the appetite-suppressing ingredient of Hoodia, which it has patented and named P57.

Phytopharm’s own studies have shown that men who ingested Hoodia for two weeks consumed 1,000 calories a day less than those who did not.

Pfizer, a giant drug company that teamed up with Phytopharm in 1998 and funded some clinical trials of P57, discontinued that investment last year. Extracting the chemically active part of the Hoodia plant is extremely difficult, said Stephen Lederer, a Pfizer spokesman. “Producing large amounts of the plant-derived compound requires procedures that are not currently among our core competencies.”

Despite the lack of any published studies on the safety and efficacy of Hoodia gordonii, the plant extract is already found in a number of products, including teas and weight-loss pills. Trimspa, an Internet-based company, is promoting a diet product, Trimspa X32, that includes Hoodia gordonii as an ingredient, with an ad campaign featuring a slimmed-down Anna Nicole Smith, the reality TV star.

Millennium Health claims to be the only North American company to market a 100% Hoodia gordonii product.

Jen Cully, Millennium Health’s president, said the company didn’t have the funds to sponsor a clinical study of Hoodia to test its effectiveness. So, to date, the company’s testing has been rather informal. Cully and about 30 family members and friends tried the hoodia capsules for about three months.

The experience, she said, “was scary,” but everyone lost weight. “I felt great. I was not hungry for several days,” said Cully. “I took it before I wanted to eat something. You just lose interest in eating.”

Some doctors say the apparent physiological effects of the succulent are reason for concern. “This plant turns off not just appetite, but thirst,” said Dr. Mary L. Hardy, associate director of the UCLA Center for Dietary Supplements Research in Botanicals. “That is a little scary.”

Hardy also has concerns about the safety of Hoodia gordonii as an over-the-counter product. There is a danger, she said, in taking a botanical out of a traditional culture and using it in a different way. The Bushmen use Hoodia while stalking game out in the desert.

“It was not supposed to make you lose weight; it was supposed to allow you to hunt successfully in a difficult environment,” she said. “It’s not unsafe, used the way it was traditionally. But I don’t think we have any experience with Hoodia and obesity.”