Friday, October 06, 2006

Hey Fatso, Buy My Stuff

The weight loss industry loves to hype new products. The world, particularly America, is getting heavier and there's HUGE money in selling the hope of a skinnier future.

Ephedra and Phenfen were monster sellers before they were finally banned, caffeine has been popular since the '50s and fad diets come and go like some kind of a cash cow meteor shower. It's estimated that $40 Billion dollars, yes with a big B, is spent each year on slimming down. $40 Billion!

It's no wonder everyone wants to cash in. For perspective, even 1% of that market is worth $400 million annually. That's too many damn zeros.

Normally I look at these fads, diets, supplements and so on like pure marketing schlock, but something has caught the world's attention - a plant extract from the South African Hoodia gordonii plant. I'm still skeptical, but this actually sounds interesting, and the story is worth understanding.

Back in the '60s the South African National Laboratory was doing a study on indigenous foods and included Hoodia, a succulent (sorta' like a cactus) eaten by the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Apparently lab animals started losing weight during the study and they investigated.

After a good 30 years they discovered the specific ingredient that affected appetite and applied for a patent which they then licensed to a UK company called Phytopharm. Others, of course, immediately started marketing supplements in violation of that patent, and things have started to mushroom.

What I find particularly interesting about Hoodia is that the Bushmen sued for bio-piracy and finally settled for a share of profits. Their knowledge lead to the discovery and they're now going to share in the profit. We may see Bushmen clicking around the Kalahari with gold plated Coke bottles and Yves St Lauren loin cloths in the very near future.

You caught that reference did you? Good for you. Now pat yourself on the back and move on.

The second thing I find intriguing about Hoodia is the supply and demand issue. Hoodia is a wild plant. Stripping the Kalahari bare would not produce near enough to meet the demand of even one fat state in the US, and synthesis, while possible, has not been achieved at anywhere near production levels.

The answer is Hoodia plantations, and South African coffee plantations are already being converted to meet anticipated demand. Being a new crop, they'll be facing unknown pests, disease and a host of other concerns, but that $40 Billion is a pretty big carrot. No, they can't just grow big carrots, smart guy...

The lack of supply means a lot of supplements are being sold with very little actual Hoodia in them, less than is supposed to be effective. And as far as effective is concerned, very few clinical trials have been done and the FDA has still not said one way or the other whether Hoodia is even safe - but then the Bushmen have been eating it for how many 1000s of years...? I trust them more than the FDA anyway.

So where does this leave us? I'm not sure I'm 100% confident, but Lesley Stahl burned some off her booty on the stuff and the couple studies that have been done over here sound promising, even if industry funded. Still though, the idea that the only reason Americans aren't as skinny as the Bushmen is because they eat Hoodia is a pretty ridiculous notion.

Long story short, it probably won't hurt you and may actually suppress your appetite without making you jumpy, jittery, anxious, etc. Buy some Hoodia gordonii if you like.

I have no idea if this stuff really works, so please don't come crying to me if you're still a chunk when all is said and done. My advice, get a treadmill, bump up the gradient and walk for 45 minutes a day...


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