Kalahari tribe throws weight at Unilever over hoodia rejection

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Hoodia gordonii Clinical trial

CSIR has pooled research about hoodia while the San people have attacked a damning study that prompted Unilever to drop its €20m hoodia project
CSIR has pooled research about hoodia while the San people have attacked a damning study that prompted Unilever to drop its €20m hoodia project
South Africa’s San people say food giant Unilever was working off inaccurate research data when it decided to bin a €20m investment in hoodia gordonii, the Kalahari cactus the San have used for centuries to curb hunger pangs.

The South African San Council (SASC) last week released a statement that said inaccurate data about levels of P57 – which some research suggests is the primary satiety-delivering glyceride of hoodia – were partly to blame for Unilever’s 2008 decision. Media reporting of the trial was also unbalanced, it said.

The statement comes as the country’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR​) publishes a summary of 14 clinical trials conducted between 1999 and 2003 – where mostly supplements rather than liquids were studied – that showed the cactus extracts were, generally safe and well tolerated”.

“Commercialisation of Hoodia gordonii as a dietary supplement has created major interest around the world and further development of hoodia as a functional food for management of weight remains important,” ​said CSIR technology manager, Dr Vinesh Maharaj.

Dr Maharaj told NutraIngredients that CSIR, which recently re-acquired IP around the extract from former holder, UK start-up, Phytopharm, was actively seeking licensing partners.

“The development going forward requires clinical studies which are typically multi-million rand investments. The clinical studies have not been scoped yet, so no precise budgets are available at this stage,” ​he said.

“The CSIR does not have a budget for further development [but] will engage with all stakeholders, public funding institutions and potential licensees to support further development.”

A summary of the 14 trials, which include those conducted by Phytopharm and original license holder, Pfizer, can be found here.

P57 levels

SASC said some of the initial information around the 2008 Unilever trial that ultimately led to its withdrawal did not specify P57 quantities, rather generalising that glyceride content was about 80%. There are more than 20 glycerides in hoodia.

That is what was claimed by the CSIR and what fuelled the commerciality of hoodia in the first place,”​ SASC said. If the actives are not quantified nor standardised and ensured throughout the trial, the outcomes are fatally flawed.”

It said heat treatment and the liquid application form employed in the trial contributed to a lower level of P57 than may have otherwise been present.

“It was confirmed that P57 was not stable in a liquid suspension and that the entire active compound settled to the bottom of the liquid medium,”​ SASC said.


Chairman Andries Steenkamp added that the double blind, placebo-controlled study conducted in 2008 and published this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​, was flawed.

“It was not a cross over study and therefore no comments on clinical reverence or relevance to things like blood pressure should be made as there is no cross over comparison data,”​ he said.

But a Unilever spokesperson reiterated its earlier position in stating: "Unilever terminated its hoodia gordonii project in 2008 after clinical research found that using hoodia gordonii extract in a Unilever-branded product would not meet our high standards for safety and efficacy. This research has now been published in the AJCN."

The researchers in question noted hoodia, “was less well tolerated than was the placebo because of episodes of nausea, emesis, and disturbances of skin sensation. Blood pressure, pulse, heart rate, bilirubin, and alkaline phosphatase showed significant increases in the [hoodia] group.”

But they added: “More knowledge of the mechanisms, sites of action, and active components of [hoodia] is required before a final conclusion can be drawn regarding the potential use of [hoodia] as a viable-candidate functional food ingredient targeted at aiding weight management.”

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Hoo Ray Indeed

Posted by Jan,

Steve, we couldn’t agree more with your comment and the above statement issued by The South African San Council. The industry in general needs to be better regulated to ensure that the extracts made are of the purest quality and of such a state that they do not denature the active molecules of interest. This is also to safeguard the livelihood of indigenous interest groups such as the SAN who certainly appear to have been negatively affected by the Unilever report.

As world leaders in non-harmful heat and non-chemical extraction methods, Dynamic Extractions and Formulations also read the entire report when it was first published and also noted the concerns raised by Andries Steenkamp, as we have ourselves, physically managed to achieve a consistent Hoodia Gordonii P57 extract standardised at 1.5% (not in LIQUID as we concur with the CSIR reports that LIQUID is not the best form and as you have noted, the SAN have chewed the whole plant for centuries).

Anecdotally at least, we can confirm that Hoodia Gordonii suppresses appetites and is having very good responses but perhaps it is time to conduct a trial using DCD Hoodia to reinstate Hoodia Gordonii where it belongs as a traditionally safe and effective appetite control method.

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Could Hoodia be a solution to loose weight??

Posted by Csilla Banki (Ms.),

As a Purchaser of wide range of raw materials and finished products of dietary suppliments, I always have to chase the market for the latest weight loss products as well.

At this May Vitafood exhibition in Geneve, I received Hoodia spray from a company which is specialized its distribution.
It seemed very interesting and new way of weight management.

I took the sample with me and started using before presenting it on our Purchasing & Sales Meeting.

As days passed by, more and more bone pains started on me then finally I hardly could drive my car after 2-3 weeks of using hoodia spray.

When I finished with it, I had symptoms similar to arthrosis with very strong pains in all bones of my hands and legs.
I must add, that I am young and do not have any allergy and living very sporty and healthy.

I do hope that hoodia will be researched further.
However it seems a very big business for growers, food producers and distributors.

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Posted by Steve Hurt,

As a grower of Hoodia and founder of the South African Hoodia Growers Association which ensured that the San Bushmen received profit shares from sales of Hoodia, I feel it is very important for people to understand that Hoodia has been effectively used in Africa for many centuries as a raw food, and not as an extract.

Surely it stands to reason that the extraction process used by Unilever could have adversely affect the active ingredients in their attempts to manufacture a potent, small dose of Hoodia for their diet bar/shake?
It begs the question: Why would a plant that has been used as an appetite suppressant for thousands of years suddenly lose its efficacy because of some (possibly flawed) commercialized extract trial results?

I believe, and I trust that my San colleagues and friends concur, that this is a case where we clearly need to look at other ways of extracting Hoodia, in a way that better understands traditional methods of Hoodia usage as a raw food.

Ultrasonic extraction, freeze-drying and other non-invasive methods exist that may retain the integrity of the active ingredients and still cause the appetite suppression effect. Maybe our scientists need to go back to the San elders and work alongside them, tapping into their bountiful knowledge of herbal wisdom.

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