History of Hoodia
In the Overview of Hoodia article
we touched on the
history of Hoodia and its ability to suppress appetite.
In this article we go over the history of Hoodia. If you
are not a history buff - feel free to skip this article
and jump to the Science of Hoodia article. Still, we
include it because some people want to know how a plant
from the deserts of South Africa may revolutionize the
How did the Bushmen secret get out?
As we discussed in the Overview of Hoodia, the Bushmen
(or the San) have used Hoodia plants as a natural
appetite suppressant for thousands of years. But how did
the secret of the San get out? It turns out by accident…
In 1996 the Council for Scientific and Industrial
Research (CSIR) in South Africa was doing a study of
indigenous foods that the Bushmen ate. Part of the study
was to test for toxic effects of any plants that were
consumed by the Bushmen. When they came to Hoodia Gordonii, not only was it non-toxic - it helped animals
They found when they fed hoodia to animals, the animals
lost weight. By 1997, the CSIR isolated the bioactive
compound in Hoodia responsible for appetite suppression
and obtained a patent. The patent was licensed to
Phytopharm and they named the molecule - P57 (because it
was the 57th product they spent money on).
What did the Bushmen get for their discovery of the
Hoodia Gordonii plant?
At first - nothing! Turns out the CSIR told Phytopharm
that the tribe which discovered the Hoodia Gordonii
plant had died out and therefore no royalties were due.
However, as Mark Twain might say - "tales of the
Bushmen's death were greatly exaggerated". When the
Bushmen got word that Phytopharm stood to make billions
of dollars off their knowledge about the hoodia gordonii
plant they were not happy.
Roger Chennells, a lawyer in South Africa who represents
the Bushmen, was quick to apply strong legal , moral and
political pressure on both the CSIR and Phytopharm.
Chennells pointed out to anyone who would listen that
the taking of traditional knowledge without compensation
was "bio-piracy" and must be stopped.
In what is seen as a landmark case, Chennells was able
to convince the CSIR and Phytopharm to compensate the
Bushmen. Now, any company that legally harvests hoodia
gordonii from the Kalahari desert must pay royalties
back to the Bushmen. Not only is this fair and just, it
also provides an excellent way to check if the hoodia
you buy is legitimate. If the company that makes the
hoodia is NOT paying royalties to the Bushmen, you do
NOT have a legitimate hoodia gordonii product.
So when will Phytopharm release a P57 based appetite
Probably never. As we touched on in the overview, Pfizer
had originally paid Phytopharm for the rights to market
a P57 based diet pill. After a few year of unsuccessful
attempts to make P57 synthetically, Pfizer pulled out of
the deal. If a large amount of P57 could not be created
inexpensively in the lab, Pfizer was not interested.
While Phytopharm was discouraged by the Pfizer decision,
they knew that Hoodia Gordonii was too powerful an
appetite suppressant to give up trying to bring it to
the market. In December 2004, Phytopharm announced that
Unilever had entered a deal to market hoodia gordonii in
its diet food product line. Therefore, rather than
producing diet drugs, it looks like Phytopharm and
Unilever will product diet supplements and diet foods
with hoodia. The first Unilever products will not be out
Does Phytopharm own the patent on the whole Hoodia
This is an interesting question that we are sure will be
decided in court one day. Here is our take on the
situation - Phytopharm clearly owns the patent on the
extraction of the P57 molecule. If you want to try to
make a diet drug with P57 you need to work through
The question of the Hoodia Gordonii plant itself being
patented is much more complicated. It is our belief that
you can not patent a plant, but you can patent the use
of plants and a process to extract plants. Here is an
exact quote from Richard Dixey, CEO of Phytopharm when
he appeared on 60 minutes…
"The patent is on the application of the plant as a
weight-loss material. And, of course, the active
compounds within the plant. It's not on the plant
itself," says Dixey.
So no one else can use hoodia for weight loss? "As a
weight-management product without infringing the patent,
that's correct," says Dixey.
The way we read this (and again we are not lawyers and
are not giving any legal advice) is as follows - you can
sell a Hoodia Gordonii supplement, you just can NOT say
it is for weight loss. This is why many of the best
Hoodia supplements have very plain labels that just say
"Hoodia Gordonii" but do not say anything about using it
as a weight loss or appetite suppressant supplement.
Do I have to wait until 2008 to try Hoodia?
No. Unilever is a huge company that goes through a very
lengthy process before it brings any new food
supplements to the market. In addition, Phytopharm is
busy stockpiling Hoodia Gordonii from the Kalahari
Desert so they will have enough supply to meet
Unilever's demands and this will take a few years of
Currently, you can buy hoodia gordonii from numerous
companies that have no affiliation with Phytopharm. As
long as they do not advertise P57 or state they are
selling the hoodia for weight loss applications, they
appear to be clear of the Phytopharm patent. We do
believe Phytopharm will bring a number of lawsuits to
test how wide their patent will be interpreted.
So, between now and 2008 you have a wide open hoodia
market. The media has created a great deal of hype about
the hoodia plant, but the biggest player in the hoodia
game - Phytopharm - will be on the sidelines until about
2008. In a later article we will give tips on finding
quality hoodia supplements, but first let's review the
science behind Hoodia…