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Many of us have wished we could magically shed a few pounds. So it’s no surprise that
“miracle” weight-loss products rake in millions of dollars – especially when their
advertisements sandwich (so to speak) endorsements by leading news organizations
between pictures of impossibly ripped bodies. It’s also no surprise that the products
rarely live up to their billing. This lesson assesses misleading claims for a weight-loss
product called Hoodia that is advertised heavily on the Internet and elsewhere. Students
will dig beneath the hype to find the single scientific study on which the marketing is
based and analyze whether it can support the claims.
In this lesson students will:
• Assess the credibility of various Internet sites that advertise and review Hoodia • Review news stories on Hoodia weight-loss products and compare to the claims • Review studies conducted on the effectiveness of Hoodia weight-loss products by the manufacturers of those products and assess their credibility and the significance of their findings. • Assess whether enough evidence exists to accurately determine the effectiveness • Review the extent of FDA regulation of “dietary supplements” like Hoodia and take a position on whether there’s enough oversight of the products’ effectiveness and safety.
The Internet is awash with ads for a supposedly miraculous weight-loss supplement
called “Hoodia,” which marketers claim will suppress a person’s appetite for food. They
say their products are based on a cactus plant, Gordon’s Hoodia (or Hoodia Gordonii),
that grows only in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert.
The Hoodia cactus is indeed eaten by native San tribesmen to reduce hunger, and it is
also true that the government of South Africa owns a patent on the chemical P57, which
is said to be the appetite-suppressing active ingredient. A British pharmaceutical
company has been licensed to develop a safe, marketable and effective diet drug from
the plant. However, as students will discover as they examine the claims and dig for
evidence, there is as yet no such drug. There is little or no scientific proof that what’s
being offered for sale today, often in the form of unregulated “nutritional supplements,”
will work or is safe.
1. Examples of Web sites offering Hoodia products for sale. An Internet search for “Hoodia” will bring up multiple sites. Include some “product review” sites that are actually marketing sites posing as consumer sites. Examples: http://www.hoodiareviews.com http://www.hoodia-gordonii-diet.com/productreview.htm http://www.bestratedhoodia.com/hoodia_reviews.php http://factchecked.org/Downloads/LessonPlans/HoodiaHoodoo/Hoodia%20Hoodoo_Questions%20Exercise%201(1).pdf 3. Brief clip from Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes report on Hoodia, offered by many Hoodia marketers as part of their sales pitch: http://video.cgi.cbsnews.com/video/video.pl?url=/media/2004/11/18/video656472.
wmv&sid=3415&ad=/media/2004/11/15/video655798 4. CBS News story: “African Plant May Help Fight Fat: Lesley Stahl Reports On Newest Weapon In War On Obesity,” Nov. 18, 2004. This is a summary of Stahl’s broadcast report on 60 Minutes. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/11/18/60minutes/printable656458.shtml 5. BBC News story: “Sampling the Kalahari cactus diet,” May 30, 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/correspondent/2947810.stm 6. Consumer Reports story: “Hoodia: Lose weight without feeling hungry?,” March 2006 (subscription required). http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/health-fitness/drugs-supplements/hoodia-supreme-306/overview/index.htm 7. Press releases from Phytopharm, the British pharmaceutical company trying to develop a safe and effective appetite suppressant from Hoodia. (See links in Exercises, below) 8. Don’t be Fooled” guide to avoiding deception. http://factchecked.org/ToolsOfTheTrade.aspx
Before class, determine how many packets of material you will need for small groups of
3 to 5 students each, and make packets of the supporting materials. Pass out the
storyboard by itself.
In the full class, ask students some general questions:
• Do they believe what they see and hear in TV commercials and other such advertising? (To the teacher: It might be worth pushing students on this question. They will often initially answer “no.” So ask them some simple questions about commonly advertised products. They’ll be surprised how much advertising they accept uncritically.) • What do they know about weight-loss programs? How about one highly advertised household product: Hoodia supplements? What do they do? Are they effective? • How many in the class use Hoodia or a similar product? For what reasons did Now explain to the class that they will be examining some claims made about Hoodia weight-loss supplements, along with evidence that may support or contradict those claims. Explain that they should apply the five steps we have outlined in “Don’t Be Fooled: A Process for Avoiding Deception.” Have them refer to their handout on this. Specifically, they should: • Keep an open mind. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a claim is correct just
• Ask the right questions. Look for the conclusion of the argument and then ask
yourself what reasons you are being given for believing that conclusion. Examine each factual claim and ask what evidence would prove it right or wrong. Then ask whether the premises logically support the conclusions. • Cross-check. Look for more than one source of evidence before making up your
• Consider the source. Think about which sources of information are most
• Weigh the evidence. Do the facts support the ad’s message?
Exercise #1 – Keeping an open mind, asking questions
To the teacher: Emphasize to students the need to keep an open mind in their research
and analysis. People tend to accept any information that already supports what they
believe and reject information that conflicts with those beliefs. Students need to make
an effort to listen to all sides to avoid accepting inaccurate information as truth.
This can be a take-home assignment, or, if Internet access is available in the
classroom, an in-class exercise.
Have students conduct an Internet search for Hoodia to find reviews of Hoodia
products. This will bring up page after page of marketing sites, some claiming to be
“consumer review” sites rating the “best” Hoodia. Pick a few good examples and briefly
present them to the class.
Divide students into small groups of 3 to 5 each. Ask students to consider the following
questions, which they’ll also find on their handout:
• What do marketers of this product claim it does? What do you think of those • What evidence do these Internet sites present to support their assertions? Is solid evidence needed to make people believe a product’s claims? How might someone’s desires or prior experiences influence whether he or she believes the marketing materials? • How widely is Hoodia being advertised? What does the prevalence of ads tell us about the product? What is the effect of repetition of a message? • Find examples of testimonials for the product. How much weight should we give these? Are they opinions or statements of fact? If facts are being stated, how do we know they are true? Even if they are genuine, do we know whether or not the effects described really resulted from the product? Could they be coincidental? • Are the “consumer review” sites that recommend some products over others really independent and trustworthy? How can we tell? Are these sites likely to make money if we buy the product they recommend, and if so, how much should we trust their advice? For the sites that rate products, what criteria do they use? What tests did they conduct?
Have students write up their answers and report back to the class.
Exercise #2 – Cross-Checking
To the teacher: It’s important that students review several sources when verifying
information. When political ads make statements as fact, these should be verified
through different, preferably neutral sources. Two or three reliable sources
independently reporting the same fact is a good indication the information is accurate. If
two sources report different information, then more investigation will likely be needed.
Note that many Hoodia marketers refer to a CBS News 60 Minutes report and feature a
brief video clip from that program,
Watch the clip, then read the full account from CBS News, summarizing correspondent
Lesley Stahl’s report on Hoodia:
Also read the BBC story on Hoodia at:
And a Consumer Reports piece from March 2006:
Questions for discussion:
• Does the clip make you more or less likely to accept claims for the product? • Is the clip a full and balanced account? How has your impression of Hoodia changed, if at all, as a result of seeing the full report? What kind of information does the clip leave out? • Does the BBC story reinforce what you learned from the CBS story? Explain. • Consumer Reports is a magazine that does not accept advertising. It is funded only by subscribers and donations, and conducts independent research on products. Is this a more credible source for information than the marketers of Hoodia products? Why? • Does having several sources of information make you more confident you’re
Exercise #3 – Consider the source / Weighing the evidence
To the teacher: Students need to understand that not all sources are equal. Physical
evidence may be more trustworthy than an eyewitness, for example, because the
memory can play tricks. Similarly, an Internet Web site that offers primary source
material is more reliable than one that publishes information gained second- or third-
hand: Voting returns posted by a state election board are more authoritative than ones
reported by a newspaper. To make the best use of the evidence, students need to
evaluate the credibility of the relevant sources of information and know the difference
between random anecdotes and real scientific data based on credible studies. They
should avoid common errors of reasoning, such as assuming that one thing causes
another just because the two happen in close succession.
Many Hoodia marketers cite a study by Phytopharm — a British company licensed to
develop a diet drug from Hoodia’s active ingredient — which is now working with a
larger company, Unilever. The study showed that subjects given the ingredient, P57,
consumed an average 1,000 calories less per day. Visit the Web site of Phytopharm to
read what it says about the company’s own research and about Hoodia. Check its news
releases and its most recent report of business operations. Note especially its
announcement about the study, Successful Completion of Proof of Principle Clinical
Study of P57 for Obesity, at
Also be sure to review this portion of the company’s “Preliminary Results” released Nov.
9, 2006 (or similar language from any more recent report):
“Phytopharm and Unilever have also become aware of many companies that are selling
products over the Internet and in some stores claiming to contain Hoodia and causing
weight loss. Analysis of these products has demonstrated that the great majority of
them contain little or no Hoodia. Phytopharm and Unilever have made contact with the
relevant authorities concerning this development and are satisfied with the progress
being made in these key discussions.”
Questions for discussion:
• What did the study actually conclude? Should we accept the study’s findings? • How many persons were sampled for the study? Might a larger group have • Was the study published in a scientific journal and scrutinized by other scientists (“peer review”)? Does that influence how much weight we should give to this study? • What does the study tell us about possible bad side effects? Is Hoodia safe to • Why isn’t Phytopharm currently selling a weight-loss product to the public? When • What do Phytopharm and Unilever say about the products now being sold on the
Exercise #4, wrap-up – Weighing the evidence
To the teacher: Help students understand what all the evidence means. They need to
evaluate the credibility of the sources of information presented, the difference between
random anecdotes and real scientific data based on credible studies. They also need to
examine “cause and effect” relationships to make sure the effects are credibly related to
the causes. If your class has completed the FactCheckED.org lesson plan on fallacies,
you’ll see that the Hoodia advertisements contain a number of different fallacies and
booby traps. The most common problems include the fallacy of false cause (anecdotal
evidence of the form, “I took product X and then lost Y pounds” is typically a false
cause, as there is no supporting evidence to show that product X actually caused
weight-loss Y). Suppressed evidence is another common problem (ads almost never
point out that their products are not scientifically tested; those that cite the Phytopharm
study do not mention that the product they are selling is not identical to Phytopharm’s
product). The Phytopharm study itself is a questionable use of statistics, as the sample
size is extremely small.
Choose one of the Internet sites that advertise Hoodia weight-loss products and write a
report on its credibility and truth in advertising. Incorporate the findings from this lesson
into your report, and include a visual example of the advertisement.
Questions for final discussion:
• What have you learned about how to gauge the truth of advertising? • What qualities should you look for in a source when seeking unbiased and
Optional Exercise #1 (Advanced) – Consider the source / Weighing the evidence
Hoodia products are considered “dietary supplements” rather than drugs. Both are
regulated by the Food and Drug Administration but in different ways. Read what the
FDA says about its own authority over dietary supplements, as well as other materials
about Congress’ role in determining the agency’s powers. Does a dietary supplement
manufacturer have to prove its product is safe before it goes to market? What about
proving whether the substance is effective? Did politics play a part in congressional
decisions about what the FDA could and couldn’t do? Take a position on the following
question and write a short essay supporting your view: Should dietary supplements be
more tightly regulated by the government or not?
• U.S. Food and Drug Administration Dietary Supplement Overview http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/supplmnt.html (be sure to click on the links under “Frequently Requested Information”) • National & Dietary Recipients: Top Twenty http://opensecrets.org/industries/recips.asp?Ind=H4600&Cycle=2006&recipdetail=A&Mem=N&sortorder=U • O'Keefe, Michael. "Dirty little secrets: supplement ingredients come under fire." Daily News. 10 Apr. 2005. http://factchecked.org/Downloads/LessonPlans/HoodiaHoodoo/Hoodia_Attachment2.pdf • "Follow the Money." Daily News. 25 Dec. 2005. http://factchecked.org/Downloads/LessonPlans/HoodiaHoodoo/Hoodia_Attachment3.pdf • Struglinski, Suzanne. "Hatch War Chest Juiced Up." Deseret Morning News. 23 Jan. 2006. http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,635178407,00.html • Weeks, Andrew. "Dietary supplements could become state's first $10 billion industry," The Enterprise. May 2006. http://factchecked.org/Downloads/LessonPlans/HoodiaHoodoo/Hoodia_Attachment%201(2).pdf
Optional Exercise #2 (Advanced) – Weighing the evidence
Write an essay on the history of attempts to create a marketable product from the active
ingredient in Hoodia.
• Future Development of P57, July 30, 2002: http://www.phytopharm.co.uk/news/newsreleases/?filterType1=text&dateMode=years&year=2002&filterArg1=P57&y=9&range=today&filterType2=date&id=1726&x=11 • Pfizer Returns Rights of P57, July 30, 2003: http://www.phytopharm.co.uk/news/newsreleases/?filterType1=text&dateMode=years&year=2003&filterArg1=P57&y=6&range=today&filterType2=date&id=1698&x=6 • Phytopharm and Unilever enter into a License and Joint Development Agreement for Hoodia gordonii extract, Dec. 15, 2004: http://www.phytopharm.co.uk/news/newsreleases/?filterType1=text&dateMode=years&year=2004&filterArg1=hoodia&y=9&range=today&filterType2=date&id=1560&x=9 • Phytopharm successfully progresses to second stage of Joint Development Agreement for Hoodia gordonii extract with Unilever, April 10, 2006: http://www.phytopharm.co.uk/news/newsreleases/?filterType1=text&dateMode=years&year=2006&filterArg1=hoodia&y=10&range=today&filterType2=date&id=1414&x=7
Be sure to consider where the companies stand in their research, how long it’s taken to
get there, and how you interpret the actions of the various corporations involved as they
relate to the likelihood of getting a product to market.
CORRELATION TO NATIONAL STANDARDS
For a more detailed version of these standards, please click here:
National Social Studies Standards
VI. Power, Authority, and Governance Social studies programs should include
experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of
power, authority, and governance.
VII. Production, Distribution, and Consumption Social studies programs should
include experiences that provide for the study of how people organize for the
production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
X. Civic Ideals and Practices Social studies programs should include experiences that
provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a
Essential Skills for Social Studies
A. Reading Skills
B. Study Skills
1. Find Information
2. Arrange Information in Usable Forms
C. Reference & Information-Search Skills
2. Special References
3. Maps, Globes, Graphics
D. Technical Skills Unique to Electronic Devices
Organizing & Using Information
A. Thinking Skills
1. Classify Information
2. Interpret Information
3. Analyze Information
4. Summarize Information
5. Synthesize Information
6. Evaluate Information
B. Decision-Making Skills
C. Metacognitive Skills
Interpersonal Relationships & Social Participation
A. Personal Skills
C. Social and Political Participation Skills
Democratic Beliefs and Values
B. Freedoms of the Individual
C. Responsibilities of the Individual
National Mathematics Standards
Data Analysis and Probability Standard
Formulate questions that can be addressed with data and collect, organize, and display
relevant data to answer them
Reasoning and Proof Standard
National Education Technology Standards
Profiles for Technology Literate Students
2. Make informed choices among technology systems, resources, and services
7. Routinely and efficiently use online information resources to meet needs for
collaboration, research, publication, communication, and productivity
8. Select and apply technology tools for research, information analysis, problem solving,
and decision making in content learning
Information Literacy Standards
Standard 1 accesses information efficiently and effectively
Standard 2 evaluates information critically and competently
Standard 3 evaluates information critically and competently
Standard 4 pursues information related to personal interests
Standard 7 recognizes the importance of information to a democratic society
Standard 8 practices ethical behavior in regard to information and information
Standard 9 participates effectively in groups to pursue and generate information
English Language Arts Standards
Standard 1 Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an
understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States
and the world; to acquire new information to respond to the needs and demands of
society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment.
Standard 3 Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret,
evaluate, and appreciate texts.
Standard 6 Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions
(e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to
create, critique and discuss print and non-print texts.
Standard 7 Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and
questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a
variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their
discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
Standard 8 Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g.,
libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information
and to create and communicate knowledge.
Standard 12 Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their
own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of
National Science Standards
Science as Inquiry
Content Standard A
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Content Standard F
History and Nature of Science
Content Standard G
Health Education Standards
Health Education Standard 2 Students will analyze the influence of family, peers,
culture, media, technology and other factors on health behaviors.
Health Education Standard 3 Students will demonstrate the ability to assess valid
information and products and services to enhance health.
Health Education Standard 5 Students will demonstrate the ability to use decision-
making skills to enhance health.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brooks Jackson is a journalist who covered Washington and national politics for 34
years, reporting in turn for The Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and CNN. At
CNN he pioneered the "adwatch" and "factcheck" form of stories debunking false and
misleading political statements starting with the presidential election of 1992. His
investigative reporting for The AP and the Journal won several national awards. He is
the author of two books: Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process
(Knopf, 1988) and Broken Promise: Why the Federal Election Commission Failed
(Twentieth Century Fund: 1990).
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