Hoodia Gordonii: Appetite Suppressant Is Diet World's Newest Fad

IN THE 1980 FILM The Gods Must Be Crazy, a San Bushman in the Kalahari Desert stumbles across a Coke bottle that has been tossed from a passing plane. The experience introduces the San to the modern world, warts and all.

Hoodia Gordonii: Appetite Suppressant Is Diet World's Newest Fad

IN THE 1980 FILM The Gods Must Be Crazy, a San Bushman in the Kalahari Desert stumbles across a Coke bottle that has been tossed from a passing plane. The experience introduces the San to the modern world, warts and all. Today, the San of southern Africa are sharing something of their world with the West - a prickly, cucumber-like plant called hoodia gordonii - pronounced hoo-dee-uh gore-doh-nee. The San eat hoodia to suppress their appetite on long desert treks. And somewhere someone got the bright idea that if it works for desert-dwelling aborigines like the San, it might be just the drug for pudgy North American couch potatoes trying to stave off that last litre of Häagen-Dazs. As a result, hoodia has suddenly become one of the hottest diet trends to hit the lucrative weight-loss scene with promoters like Anna Nicole Smith, former Playboy Playmate of the Year and dubious cultural icon, who shills for a hoodia-based pill called Trimspa X32. Her fluctuating corpulence well-established, Smith says she lost 70 lb. with the help of the capsules. And yet, no one really knows whether hoodia actually works.

At the Canadian Health Food Association trade show in Vancouver in April, hoodia was "definitely in the top five of what was being promoted as the next Holy Grail," notes Allison McCutcheon, a medicinal botanist at the University of British Columbia. What is making it so popular at the moment is the unmistakable whiff of plausibility. The San have been around forever. They obviously know a thing or two about indigenous plants. "There's an ethno-botany behind hoodia that gives you some reason to think maybe there's something here," says McCutcheon. "On the other hand, when I look at the science, I'm amazed at the types of claims that are being made."

Where things get really complicated is when hoodia is refined, packaged in capsules and sold on the Internet, or in health food stores. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says a number of companies - including Trimspa, the one Smith represents (its parent is Goen Technologies Corp. of Cedar Knolls. N.J.) - have failed to convince the regulator that their hoodia-based products are safe. If it really feels the pill is unsafe, the FDA can mount a court challenge against Goen to force X32 off the market, although as a matter of practice the FDA won't comment on the likelihood of that occurring. Meanwhile, Health Canada hasn't approved any hoodia products for sale and says it plans to investigate whether Trimspa's X32 is okay for consumers. Trimspa has been getting its message out with ads - some of which have run in this magazine - featuring a svelte Smith in a wetsuit with a surfboard. A Health Canada spokeswoman said the department will have a close look at the advertising claims.

Many natural health products must now bear Health Canada's stamp of approval, in the form of a natural product number (NPN). Distributors of plant materials such as pure hoodia have until June 2006 to apply for an NPN. But X32 also contains additives like glucosamine - a newly regulated drug. As such, X32 falls in the category that is supposed to conform right away.

Ottawa, however, is currently facing a huge backlog in its review process and can't keep up with all the concoctions flooding the market. "It's another gun registry," says Jen Cully, owner of Millennium Health Supplements Inc., a small Bowmanville, Ont.-based distributor of hoodia. She's convinced her additive-free hoodia poses no risk - and bases this on having given it to friends and taking it herself. "I've taken as many as 30 of these capsules a day," says Cully, "because when we first got this we didn't want to kill anyone." For its part, Trimspa is convinced it's done nothing wrong, and has complied fully with all applicable Canadian rules and regulations for a natural health product, says Chrissy Kulig, a Goen spokeswoman.

The Canadian market for over-the-counter diet aids, including appetite suppressants, is worth more than $91 million a year, according to market research firm ACNielsen Canada. With big money at stake, and an increasingly overweight population desperate for easy answers, the hoodia market is ripe for abuse, warns UBC's McCutcheon, who is also president of the Natural Health Products Research Society of Canada. When prices rise, as they have, people have more incentive to cheat, she says. (A case in point: in July, Canadian researchers reported finding the key ingredients in Viagra and Cialis - prescription drugs that can cause heart failure when taken with certain other drugs - in herbal remedies for erectile dysfunction.) "A lot of what's in the market isn't really hoodia," warns McCutcheon, "or if it is, it's hoodia cut with God knows what else."

For their part, hoodia distributors are becoming increasingly more responsible, says Sidney Sudberg, director of Alkemists Pharmaceuticals Inc., an independent lab in Costa Mesa, Calif. "Basically, many vendors are testing before they buy, and then after they receive shipment, to be sure they actually have hoodia," says Sudberg. Still, it's buyer beware. Over the past year, Sudberg's facility has screened more than 100 hoodia samples and found as many as half fail quality standards. "Hoodia's too hot an item to be lax about," warns Sudberg. "It's an easy target for crooks."

John - who asked not to be identified by his real name - swears by hoodia. Until recently, the 53-year-old grocery store employee in Nova Scotia weighed 345 lb. After some online searching, he bought 60 capsules for $55. Three weeks after taking one pill in the morning and another at night, he had lost 20 lb. John, however, coupled his hoodia intake with the low-carb Atkins diet. "I've eaten my two small meals - in the morning and at suppertime - and that's it," says John. But how does he know it's the pills? "I've dieted many times," says John. "I know myself and I'm always hungry. If you can't lose weight with hoodia, it's not likely you will ever lose it - it's really that good."

But is it? The only available scientific studies are based on animal research with, some say, only limited application to humans. Still, in 2003, the San people were able to strike a revenue-sharing agreement with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria. The CSIR holds the patent to a chemical compound called P57, suspected of being the active ingredient in hoodia. The two groups in turn reached a development deal with Phytopharm in Britain. That drug-maker then did the same with Pfizer, the New York-based pharmaceutical giant. Pfizer has since abandoned hoodia research after middling lab results. But Unilever, one of the world's biggest manufacturers of brand-name foods, has stepped up in its place.

Not everyone is a happy customer. Vi Ashcroft, 50, is a Calgary mom who bought two bottles of hoodia for about $130. She took two capsules before each meal. "I have about 15 lb. that I would like to get rid of," says Ashcroft. "I took it for almost four weeks, and didn't feel a thing. In fact, it made me feel nauseous now and then." Her advice? "Save your money." Many desperate dieters won't, of course, and they'll have no trouble finding those happy to take their cash.

See also EATING DISORDERS.

Maclean's August 1, 2005