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Goldfarb's Study continued...

Phytopharm, a U.K.-based company developing hoodia weight loss products with Unilever, the giant food and consumer products company, cites a 2001 study on its web site that it did, in which the plant extract caused a reduction in average daily calorie intake and in body fat within two weeks. Caloric intake dropped by about 1,000 a day after about two weeks, according to the study.

(Phytopharm was originally developing P57 with Pfizer, but Pfizer returned its rights to Phytopharm in 2003.)

None of this is enough science to satisfy experts at the Mayo Clinic. In an online report on weight loss pills, published in March, the clinic's bottom line on hoodia was: "No conclusive evidence to support the claim [of appetite suppression]."

What Doctors Say

Other doctors are skeptical, including Adrienne Youdim, MD, medical director of the Comprehensive Weight Loss Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles. When asked by patients about hoodia and whether they should try it, Youdim tells them: "There is no [published scientific] data to support its use. But, similarly, there is no data suggesting adverse effects. It's kind of uncharted territory." She doesn't recommend using the product.

Michael Steelman, MD, chairman of the board of trustees for the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, treats obese patients in his practice in Oklahoma City, and many of them ask him about hoodia. "I remain pretty skeptical," he says. "Some of my patients have tried it, but I haven't had any who felt like it was helpful to them."

Consider Your Sources

On one point nearly everyone agrees: there's plenty of fake hoodia out there. MacLean is especially suspicious that hoodia products

sold over the Internet aren't the real thing or don't have enough hoodia in them to work.

It's "buyer, beware," Blumenthal says. "There appears to be much more hoodia offered in North American markets than the production ability of the South African markets."

If you decide to try hoodia, "Buy at a reputable store and buy a reputable brand," suggests Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, an industry group. If it seems too cheap to be good, it probably is, he says.

To boost your odds of finding the real stuff, experts suggest asking the manufacturer if it sends its hoodia to an independent lab for testing.

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