Having the Latin name Hoodia gordonii, some of its other names are Hoodia, Xhooba, Ikhoba, Ghaap, Hoodia Cactus and South African desert cactus. As can be guessed from its colloquial names, Hoodia (pronounced as Hoo-dee-ah) Gordonii is a cactus-like plant which grows mainly in the semi-arid regions of Africa, namely South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola.
Having been highly marketed as a weight loss product for the past few decades, Hoodia has gained immense popularity in the modern societies. After the herb Ephedra was banned in the United States, the market was set for the new range of diet pills. That is why the popularity of Hoodia gordonii got multiplied.
Though it's bitter in taste, it was relied upon heavily during journeys across the Kalahari Desert, where food was scarce if at all found. That's what led it to become popular as a diet product. The plant has the unique property of preventing hunger and its related symptoms for days together.
While it is often mistaken as a cactus, Hoodia is just a succulent photosynthetic plant. Though the plant can be harvested through its flowers, it takes a Hoodia plant five years to reach maturity. While over 13 varieties of Hoodia have been discovered so far, only a single active ingredient, called p57 has been found in all.
During his study of the San Bushmen, around 1937, a Dutch anthropologist discovered that they consumed Hoodia gordonii to contain their hunger during scarcity of food. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) scientists, at South Africa's national laboratory, began a rigorous study of the Hoodia plant and reported consistent weight loss in the lab animals being experimented on.
What followed was a $20 million investment by a British pharmaceutical company called Phytopharm, following extensive research along with the South African CSIR lab researchers. The single active ingredient p57, which was discovered to be found only in the Hoodia gordonii plant, was patented by the pharma company, which it sub-licensed to Pfizer around 1998 for $21 million. After Pfizer returned the rights, Phytopharm entered into an arrangement with Unilever for large scale commercialization of Hoodia as a weight loss product.
Though it had been known by scientists and some informed civilians, Hoodia gordonii gained its present level of popularity due to a 60 minutes crew member Leslie Stahl's adventure with it. They got a San Bushman to guide them to some place where they could get their hands on the Hoodia plant. Stahl later described the plant's taste as "cucumbery" and "not bad". Though there were no immediately attributable changes in the metabolic rate, or palpitations, she admitted to having lost her appetite for quite some time.