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The African herb hoodia has been promoted and used successfully for weight loss for many years. Only recently, however, have scientists begun to understand how it works.

For about 15 years, "experts" have been telling the world that the claims that hoodia can facilitate weight loss are just a lot of hooey. Used by Kalahari Bush People to control appetite when food is scarce, this herb from Namibia was widely promoted as a weight loss wonder without any clinical testing and without even any kind of systematic observation of its benefits and risks. For that reason, many evidence-based natural health experts have been understandably skeptical of hoodia as a weight loss aid. A group of Chinese scientists associated with the National Center for Drug Screening in Shanghai, however, now has an explanation of how this remarkable weight loss herb really works.

What Is Hoodia?

Hoodia is a plant in the family Asclepiadoideae, which is best known for the milkweeds. Although hoodia is in the same family as milkweeds, it looks more like a cactus. It grows up to a meter (3 feet) high, and has large, tan, smelly flowers. The plant grows in the rocky Namib Desert, which extends from central Namibia to southern Angola. Botanists first identified the plant in 1844.

It was only at the end of the twentieth century, however, that the outside world became aware of the use of the plant in appetite control. The San bush people use the root of the a particular species of hoodia, Hoodia gordonii, to keep their hunger under control when they have to track food animals for days across the desert and then bring the kill back to their villages. In the early 2000's, hoodia root became a diet craze and the plant was threatened with extinction until Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and stepped in not only to protect the plant but also to make sure than the San people were properly credited, and paid, for their traditional knowledge that made the use of the plant possible.

A Major Marketing Bust

At the height of the hoodia craze, European home products giant Unilever announced plans to include sustainably produced hoodia root in a tremendous variety of diet products for sale in the European Union and North America. The problem was, no scientific investigation of the herb had been conducted. Unilever sank £20 million into product development without successful clinical studies to verify that the herb was safe and effective for weight loss, and abruptly withdrew plans to market the plant. European and American researchers had investigated a plant chemical from hoodia known as P57, but failed to find any mechanism through which P57 would affect appetite control. The hoodia craze was over, and the plant became largely forgotten even among natural health fans.

Chinese Investigators Take a Closer Look at Hoodia

When the Chinese government began to encourage investments in Africa, however, scientific investigators decided to take a second look at the herb. They focused on another chemical component of the plant, Gordonoside F, which they were also able to synthesize in the lab. It turned out that this plant chemical goes a long way toward explaining how hoodia helps dieters control their appetites.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Zhang S, Ma Y, Li J, Ma J, Yu B, Xie X. Molecular matchmaking between the popular weight-loss herb Hoodia gordonii and GPR119, a potential drug target for metabolic disorder. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Oct 7. 111(40):14571-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1324130111. Epub 2014 Sep 22. PMID: 25246581.
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