African Plant May Help Fight
Nov. 21, 2004, 60 Minutes
(CBS) Each year, people spend more than $40
billion on products designed to help them slim down. None of
them seem to be working very well.
Now along comes hoodia. Never heard of it? Soon it'll be
tripping off your tongue, because hoodia is a natural
substance that literally takes your appetite away.
It's very different from diet stimulants like Ephedra and
Phenfen that are now banned because of dangerous side effects.
Hoodia doesn't stimulate at all. Scientists say it fools the
brain by making you think you're full, even if you've eaten
just a morsel. Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.
Hoodia is a bitter-tasting cactus-like plant. 60 Minutes
was told that if it wanted to try hoodia, it would have to go
to Africa. Why? Because the only place in the world where
hoodia grows wild is in the Kalahari Desert of South
Nigel Crawhall, a linguist and interpreter, hired an
experienced tracker named Toppies Kruiper, a local aboriginal
Bushman, to help find it. The Bushmen were featured in the
movie "The Gods Must Be Crazy."
Kruiper led 60 Minutes crews out into the
desert. Stahl asked him if he ate hoodia. "I really like
to eat them when the new rains have come," says Kruiper,
speaking through the interpreter. "Then they're really
When we located the plant, Kruiper cut off a stalk that looked
like a small spiky pickle, and removed the sharp spines. In
the interest of science, Stahl ate it. She described the taste
as "a little cucumbery in texture, but not bad."
So how did it work? Stahl says she had no after effects - no
funny taste in her mouth, no queasy stomach, and no racing
heart. She also wasn't hungry all day, even when she would
normally have a pang around mealtime. And, she also had no
desire to eat or drink the entire day. "I'd have to say
it did work," says Stahl.
Although the West is just discovering hoodia, the Bushmen of
the Kalahari have been eating it for a very long time. After
all, they have been living off the land in southern Africa for
more than 100,000 years.
Some of the Bushmen, like Anna Swartz, still live in old
traditional huts, and cook so-called Bush food gathered from
the desert the old-fashioned way.
The first scientific investigation of the plant was conducted
Africa's national laboratory. Because Bushmen were
known to eat hoodia, it was included in a study of indigenous
"What they found was when they fed it to animals, the
animals ate it and lost weight," says Dr. Richard Dixey,
who heads an English pharmaceutical company called Phytopharm
that is trying to develop weight-loss products based on hoodia.
Was hoodia's potential application as an appetite suppressant
"No, it took them a long time. In fact, the original
research was done in the mid 1960s," says Dixey.
It took the South African national laboratory 30 years to
isolate and identify the specific appetite-suppressing
ingredient in hoodia. When they found it, they applied for a
patent and licensed it to Phytopharm.
Phytopharm has spent more than $20 million so far on research,
including clinical trials with obese volunteers that have
yielded promising results. Subjects given hoodia ended up
eating about 1,000 calories a day less than those in the
control group. To put that in perspective, the average
American man consumes about 2,600 calories a day; a woman
"If you take this compound every day, your wish to eat
goes down. And we've seen that very, very dramatically,"
But why do you need a patent for a plant? "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.
But what does that say about all these weight-loss products
that claim to have hoodia in it? Trimspa says its X32 pills
contain 75 mg of hoodia. The company is pushing its product
with an ad campaign featuring Anna Nicole Smith, even though
the FDA has notified Trimspa that it hasn't demonstrated that
the product is safe.
Some companies have even used the results of Phytopharm's
clinical tests to market their products.
"This is just straightforward theft. That's what it is.
People are stealing data, which they haven't done, they've got
no proper understanding of, and sticking on the bottle,"
says Dixey. "When we have assayed these materials, they
contain between 0.1 and 0.01 percent of the active ingredient
claimed. But they use the term hoodia on the bottle, of
course, so they -- does nothing at all."
But Dixey isn't the only one who's felt ripped off. The
Bushmen first heard the news about the patent when Phytopharm
put out a press release. Roger Chennells, a lawyer in South
Africa who represents the Bushmen, who are also called
"the San," was appalled.
"The San did not even know about it," says Chennells.
"They had given the information that led directly toward
The taking of traditional knowledge without compensation is
"You have said, and I'm going to quote you, 'that the San
felt as if someone had stolen the family silver,'" says
Stahl to Chennells. "So what did you do?"
"I wouldn't want to go into some of the details as to
what kind of letters were written or what kind of threats were
made," says Chennells. "We engaged them. They had
done something wrong, and we wanted them to acknowledge
Chennells was determined to help the Bushmen who, he says,
have been exploited for centuries. First they were pushed
aside by black tribes. Then, when white colonists arrived,
they were nearly annihilated.
"About the turn of the century, there were still hunting
parties in Namibia
and in South
Africa that allowed farmers to go and kill
Bushmen," says Chennells. "It's well
The Bushmen are still stigmatized in South
Africa, and plagued with high unemployment, little
education, and lots of alcoholism. And now, it seemed they
were about to be cut out of a potential windfall from hoodia.
So Chennells threatened to sue the national lab on their
"We knew that if it was successful, many, many millions
of dollars would be coming towards the San," says
Chennells. "Many, many millions. They've talked about the
market being hundreds and hundreds of millions in
In the end, a settlement was reached. The Bushmen will get a
percentage of the profits -- if there are profits. But that's
a big if.
The future of hoodia is not yet a sure thing. The project hit
a major snag last year. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which had
teamed up with Phytopharm, and funded much of the research,
dropped out when making a pill out of the active ingredient
seemed beyond reach.
Dixey says it can be made synthetically: "We've made
milligrams of it. But it's very expensive. It's not possible
to make it synthetically in what's called a scaleable process.
So we couldn't make a metric ton of it or something that is
the sort of quantity you'd need to actually start doing
something about obesity in thousands of people."
Phytopharm decided to market hoodia in its natural form, in
diet shakes and bars. That meant it needed the hoodia plant
But given the obesity epidemic in the United
States, it became obvious that what was needed was a
lot of hoodia - much more than was growing in the wild in the
Kalahari. And so they came here.
60 Minutes visited one of Phytopharm's hoodia
plantations in South
Africa. They'll need a lot of these plantations to meet
the expected demand.
Agronomist Simon MacWilliam has a tall order: grow a billion
portions a year of hoodia, within just a couple of years. He
admitted that starting up the plantation has been quite a
"The problem is we're dealing with a novel crop. It's a
plant we've taken out of the wild and we're starting to grow
it,' says MacWilliam. "So we have no experience. So it's
different- diseases and pests which we have to deal
How confident are they that they will be able to grow enough?
"We're very confident of that," he says. "We've
got an expansion program which is going to be 100s of acres.
And we'll be able - ready to meet the demand.
This could be huge, given the obesity epidemic. Phytopharm
says it's about to announce marketing plans that will have
meal-replacement hoodia products on supermarket shelves by
MacWilliam says these products are a slightly different
species from the hoodia Stahl tasted in the Kalahari Desert.
"It's actually a lot more bitter than the plant that you
tasted," says MacWilliam.
The advantage is this species of hoodia will grow a lot
faster. But more bitter? How bad could it be? Stahl decided to
find out. "Not good," she says.
Phytopharm says that when its product gets to market, it will
be certified safe and effective. They also promise that it'll
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