According to CEO Paul Pearson, Pure Herbal Extracts' discovery does not interfere with Phytopharm's patent on P57, the molecule extracted from hoodia gordonii, since it is extracting it from another strain of the cactus-like plant.
Unilever obtained the global rights to P57 from Phytopharm in December 2004 but the first products are not expected to appear on the market for about two-and-a-half years. This means that Pure Herbal Extracts, a private label manufacturer, could steal a significant march on the food giant in a fiercely competitive market.
Pearson said that the molecule has the ability to reproduce itself 24 times in 12 hours. The company will now be able to source it from hoodia grown in the US and Mexico where, in its natural state, contains too little of the active ingredient to have any effect in capsule-sized doses.
Hoodia, a cactus-like plant, has been eaten by the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert to reduce hunger and increase energy for around 100,000 years.
In the 1990s, South African scientists isolated the active ingredient in hoodia gordonii, called P57. In 1997 this was licensed exclusively to British pharmaceutical company Phytopharm by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
After conducting a clinical trial showing that obese people who took P57 reduced their daily calorie intake by 1,000 and suffered no adverse effects, Phytopharm initially pinned its hopes for the molecule on the diet drug market. It sold the worldwide marketing rights to Pfizer, which intended to study the molecule and develop a synthetic version. However this was shown to be prohibitively expensive and Pfizer returned the rights, which Phytopharm then touted to the food industry.
Pure Herbal Extracts started manufacturing hoodia products four years ago, at which point it thought it would be similar to other herbal products it has sold throughout its 24-year history - peaking after 18 months then droping-off in popularity.
Now, however, hoodia accounts for 50 percent of the company's turnover, with 98 percent of sales from North America. Other countries are also getting in on the scene, with rising demand from Latin America - in particular Mexico, Chile, Brazil and Costa Rica - and the UK, Germany, Spain and Portugal.
"Hoodia will be part of people's lives for the rest of their lives," Pearson told NutraIngredients-USA.com.
Pure Herbal Extracts is said to be one of three companies licensed to buy hoodia from government-controlled licensed outlets in Africa. At present, only wild hoodia is available, since the cactus takes five or six years to cultivate and the first crop is still a year away.
With the market overrun with illegitimate and ineffective hoodia products, the company prides itself on being able to provide its export license on request. Pearson said that on one occasion a shipment was held by Canadian customs whilst its provenance was investigated - a procedure that he wishes was followed more often to prevent hoodia from dubious sources from entering the marketplace.
To help prevent consumers from being hoodwinked by companies offering substandard hoodia, Power Discovery, a New York distributor of Pure Herbal Extract's Hoodia SuperSlim product, has launched an online information service called Hoodia Advice listing pointers they should bear in mind. It advises consumers to ask to see an export permit from a licensed hoodia grower to ensure the product really originates from the Kalahari desert, and a plant botanical lab assay to ascertain that the product really contains the hoodia gordonii species.
The product should be made from the core of the plant, which contains the active ingredient, and not the whole plant. It should also have been manufactured in an FDA approved lab that exceeds GMP (good manufacturing guidelines) where there is little chance that impurities will enter the capsules.
Hoodia Advice warns that companies that not offering a money-back guarantee may have something to hide. Comparisons should be made on a cost per gram basis: supplements selling for less than 60 cents per gram are likely to contain no hoodia gordonii.
Owner Dan Nessel told NutraIngredients-USA.com that he started the site in response to frequent enquiries from consumers as to how to distinguish authentic hoodia.
But he said the advice has relevance for other suppliers when sourcing their product: "We would like to get the rest of the industry on board with this to try to make it as transparent as possible.
"We want people to buy products that work. If they buy ineffective hoodia they will never try it again and that will hurt us all."
Nessel said that little research has been carried to date into the efficacy of hoodia, apart from Phytopharm P57 study. In an effort to address this, he is about to begin a 30-day trial using the product made by Pure Herbal Extract's product.
Although this is not a controlled clinical study and participants will self-report, he hopes that it will encourage funding for a full clinical study to be carried out by a university.