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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Hoodia, Revisited


I remember about a decade or so ago when Hoodia gordonii, a succulent plant from the desert regions of South Africa, was all the rage in discussions of natural weight loss aids.  But then it seemed to almost fall off the map.  Or did it?

The hype seemed to originate from reports that this plant, which quickly became known in common parlance just as hoodia, has been used since time immemorial by Kalahari bushmen in the manner of a natural appetite suppressant.  They would consume it during very lengthy hunting forays, and it would sustain them throughout their grueling foot journeys.  I see no reason to doubt the authenticity of this otherwise anecdotal usage, as it certainly seems plausible that indigenous peoples would find a practical use for something which grows locally in their environment.  But beyond that, the story becomes muddled in a tangled mess of the usual exaggerated marketing claims, threats to native populations of hoodia from unregulated over-collecting, and evidently, some potentially very dangerous side effects.

You really don't hear too much about hoodia anymore from any media source, big or small.  Nonetheless, in my regular scrolling through supplement catalogs prior to making my own purchases, I've noticed that hoodia is still commonly offered for sale.  Furthermore, a casual search finds it for sale, apparently very lucratively, through the Internet's largest online retailer (I'm sure you can figure out who that is on your own).

Now, my own general assessment of nutritional supplements is that if a given supplement didn't work for anyone, and worse yet, made everyone who tried it sick, it wouldn't last long on the market.  With this in mind, my own researching into hoodia has let me to but a few tentative conclusions about it.

A major handicap (if not the major impairment) of hoodia's success as a natural weight loss aid seems to have much to do with its authenticity.  It seems than, unsurprisingly, a lot of what was sold when the initial hoodia craze exploded was far from pure, real hoodia; the supplements either had very little of it in their formulation -- or in at least one case charged by the Federal Trade Commission, no actual hoodia at all.  If hoodia does indeed live up to its traditional claims, its reputation has suffered enormously in more contemporary times due to the antics of the usual "vultures" of the supplement industry who circle overhead in search of opportunities to make a fast but shady fortune.

As a sidenote, there had been at least one major pharmaceutical company which took a great interest in hoodia many years before it was familiar in the mainstream, but when they found that its most active isolated component, called p57, was extremely difficult to synthesize, they more or less abandoned the entire project.  Furthermore, as Hoodia gordonii does not grow well outside of its native habitat, it was likewise realized that large-scale commercial growing of the shrub elsewhere was an unworkable proposition.

There are some indications that hoodia could cause blood pressure problems or liver problems in some people, but again, like many supplements, it's hard to find a lot of hard evidence that this has actually happened to anyone.  Since hoodia seems to function not only as an appetite suppressant but also a thirst-quencher, dehydration among hoodia users may indeed be a very real concern.  However, this could be easily rectified via the conscious decision to drink plenty of water every day (as we all should be doing anyway).

As with any supplement, it's a buyer-beware situation; an adult is assumed to educate him or herself on the potential hazards of taking a supplement, and/or consult with their physician to address any foreseeable contraindications.  Otherwise, assuming the substance is legal in one's area, if we opt to try the supplement, it boils down to our choice.  But for those choosing to obtain hoodia, the only dependable way to ensure that it's real hoodia which is being sold is through a vendor's presentation (or lack thereof) of their collector's license.  Like a number of herbs collected from the wild throughout the world, in South Africa, a hoodia collector is required to be licensed in order to legally remove it from its habitat.  So, if a seller has no such credentials, then one can only surmise that either it's real hoodia but illegally harvested (at great detriment to its native environment), or it's not even real hoodia but some ineffective or dangerous imitation.  To me, it seems like quite an unworthy gamble, but it's not a decision I can make for someone else.

(Hoodia gordonii photo courtesy Dick Culbert/Flickr.) 

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