The firm set out in 2005 on a five-stage development programme to research products using the active extract of Hoodia gordonii. Unilever has been contributing to the work, and will offer up to £21m (€30m) in funding. A company spokesperson said Stage 3 "activities" include supply chain expansion and further safety studies have begun. Once the safety studies are complete consumer studies will be carried out to evaluate reductions in calorie intake as part of a weight management programme in the general population, the firm said. This move marks a significant step for the Hoodia plant ingredient to come even closer to hitting the shelves, however, no date has been set for completion and the industry could be forgiven for wondering whether this will ever happen given the already lengthy road hoodia research has taken. Hoodia gordonii, a plant that grows wild in the area stretching from the Ceres-Karoo, through the Northern Cape, to the Kalahari, has been consumed by the bushmen for thousands of years to suppress appetite on hunting trips. Research into its appetite suppressing properties and the isolation of the active ingredient P57,) has spawned immense interest in the plant in the West. As appetite management gains credence as an approach to weight management, demand has exceeded supply. Inexpensive Hoodia imitations are currently discrediting the market. Extracts of the cactus-like plant hoodia gordonii have become one of the hottest products in the natural weight loss category. Phytopharm had initially struck a deal with drug company Pfizer to bring the product to market but after this fell through last year, it set its sights on the booming meal replacement market. The active ingredient is now under license to Unilever Under the terms of the agreement, Phytopharm and Unilever "are collaborating on a research and development programme of safety and efficacy studies with a view to bringing new weight management products to market." Stage two saw the successful progression of clinical safety trials, manufacturing and plant cultivation, Phytopharm said. Research and development programme director Kevin Povey added: "We are satisfied with the good progress to date. The timing is now right to further develop our supply chain and we look forward to advancing this product through additional clinical and consumer studies." Obesity is an increasingly growing problem. According to the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) and WHO, more than half of the population in the EU is overweight. According to the IOTF in Austria one person in three is overweight and one person in five is obese, and it is predicted that the incidence of obesity will double in the next four decades in Europe. The weight loss and management market is estimated be worth $7bn (€5.2bn) globally. Obesity has been linked to contributing to a large number of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome and arthritis.