Experts say that hoodia might be harmful, that you can’t really get it here, and even if you think you can, you’re wrong.
Hoodia gordonii is the scientific name for one of 20 species of a cactus-like plant in South Africa’s Kalahari Dessert. The San tribe (we used to call them the Bushmen) eat it to suppress appetite. In 1997 a British firm, Phytopharm, partnered with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. to patent and develop hoodia’s active ingredient, tagged “P57.”
So, is hoodia (pronounced HOO-dee-uh) for real?
“Pfizer did not think so. It released the rights to the primary ingredient about three years ago,” says Paul Hutson, associate professor in the UW-Madison School of Pharmacy. “For Pfizer to release something dealing with obesity suggests to me that they felt there was no merit to its oral use.”
He’s not a naysayer - he teaches about dietary supplements at the UW - but, “there’s really no human literature that I can point you to, to prove or disprove this stuff.”
Which is not to say that there’s no proof at all. Tests show P57 works very well when it’s pumped through a needle stuck into the fluid-filled cavities of a rat brain, an image which itself might suppress appetite. “They tended to appear more satiated,” says Hutson of the rats. “That’s the only reference I can suggest from a legitimate scientific journal that I have access to.”
And before buying a hoodia supplement, remember that “some of it doesn’t have any hoodia in it at all,” says Cheryl Myers, director of health sciences at Enzymatic Therapy Inc. It’s a Food and Drug Administration-registered pharmaceutical dietary-supplement company based in Green Bay.
“Hoodia has not been allowed as an ingredient in the United States,” she says. “It is not technically legal to import it as a dietary supplement. There was some company that was working with Anna Nicole Smith that was trying to market hoodia and they got slapped by the FDA.”
Pam Wadler, a spokesperson for JEC Nutrition, New Jersey-based distributor of “H57 Hoodia,” said, “H57 has its name because it is an easy way for the consumer to remember that our product is the real South African hoodia gordonii.” She would not, however, say whether the product contains P57.
Even if hoodia is ever available, you might have to eat it as a potted plant instead of a pill. “Remember, this comes from a food source,” Myers says. “Hoodia for many people takes a fair chunk. It may be that you have to eat it to get it to work. I’m convinced that it probably does something. I’ve read too many reports from reputable people.”
Even so, you might want to go easy on the hoodia. Its magical ingredient, P57, “apparently is related in structure to (the drug) digoxin, which is a bit of a concern for me,” says Hutson. “Digoxin has potentially lethal effects, in terms of effects on the heart. I can’t find any evidence that hoodia is toxic. However, given the similarities, however vague they are, I would be concerned.”