The Commercialized World of Traditional Medicine

Written by Caitlin Hall on April 28, 2021

“Antique illustration of garcinia cambogia from Medical Botany (1836)” is marked with CC0 1.0

Garcinia cambogia was advertised as a “miracle” for weight loss in the US

The famous chef Paula Deen and actress Melissa McCarthy lost a tremendous amount of weight thanks to the help of celebrity physician, Dr. Mehmet Oz. The Dr. Oz Show has long been looked to as a source of celebrity health news and as a tabloid source of weight loss tips⁸. On his show and in his magazines, Dr. Oz has been known to promote ‘natural’ methods of weight loss, including herbal supplements, pills, cleanses such as juice diets, and the highly controversial, but mass-marketed, apple cider vinegar shots and Garcinia cambogia supplements.

Garcinia cambogia hit the US consciousness around 2016, when it was billed as a ‘wonder supplement’ by Dr. Oz and Oprah Winfrey, and several other celebrity users, such as the Kardashians, Rachel Ray, and Christina Aguilera³. The miraculous weight losses of Deen and McCarthy in 2016 were credited in part to Garcinia cambogia, which fueled interest in the US and abroad. As promoted by Dr. Oz, Garcinia cambogia is a ‘natural’ supplement having ‘magical’ effects such as curbing cravings, boosting metabolism, and suppressing appetite.

So, what is Garcinia cambogia? It’s a supplement derived from Garcinia gummi-gutta, the scientific name for a small, pumpkin-like, fruiting plant that is native to southwest India, Myanmar, and Indonesia. Garcinia is commonly also known as brindleberry, Malabar tamarind, and kudampuli, depending on its region of growth. Traditionally, Garcinia cambogia extract is used in its native environments to treat bowel issues, rheumatism, and intestinal parasites. The fruit rind and extracts of Garcinia species are called for in many traditional recipes including in many popular curries¹, where its “sour” flavors are said to activate digestion. Although the plant has been known for centuries in South Asia, it was largely unknown in the US until Garcinia cambogia supplements hit the markets full-force in 2016 through international retailers and then domestic suppliers.

Sliced and sun-dried Garcinia cowa
fruit used in Assam cooking

Traditional Kerala fish curry made
with Garcinia cambogia

In contrast to its traditional culinary and medicinal purposes, Garcinia cambogia was advertised as a ‘miracle’ for weight loss within the US market. This is because it was originally recognized as a product that suppressed appetite in individuals who consumed the fruit, which eventually led to variable weight loss depending on the individual.

Hydroxycut weight loss supplement contains hydroxycitric acid from Garcinia cambogia

So, is Garcinia cambogia all hype or does it really work? In a 1998 study, the active ingredient in Garcinia cambogia was found to be hydroxycitric acid⁵. Hydroxycitric acid (HCA) gives Garcinia cambogia its distinct sour flavor profile but also blocks fat synthesis, which reduces the formation of new fat. This explains why Garcinia cambogia supplements led to weight loss. In fact, a research article published by Onakpoya et al.⁶ in 2010 found that the HCA found within the Garcinia fruit could be used as a weight loss supplement for “stubborn fat”. It turns out that Garcinia cambogia is simply loaded with HCA, which means it’s a great source from which to purify HCA for mass market consumption as a weight loss aid.

So, several companies, such as Shri Ahimsa Mines and Minerals Ltd, Sunhills and Pharma Inc, and many others, including those on the black market, did just that. They were banking on the idea that Garcinia cambogia would be the long-awaited miracle drug for weight loss. But is the fat loss worth it?

These victims’ stories proved that there is a dark side to Garcinia cambogia…

— A 61-year old woman who had taken a single supplement of Garcinia cambogia every day for two months: suffered from a 10-day period of abdominal pain, nausea, progressive weakness, jaundice, dark urine, and abnormal stools. After her doctors advised her to stop the supplements, she returned to a healthy state within 3 months.

— A 24-year old healthy woman living in India who succumbed to liver failure after taking dietary supplements containing Garcinia cambogia: she had an extremely high amount of HCA, which had caused the liver failure.

— A 23-year old male had been taking dietary supplement Hydroxycut, a supplement containing concentrated HCA made from Garcinia cambogia, for several months: four-day symptoms of a light-sensitive rash on his upper body parts and hands, nausea, vomiting, jaundice and abdominal pain. He also had an abnormally high fever and high heart rate.

–A 34-year old Hispanic man taking two capsules of concentrated Garcinia cambogia three times a day before eating, for a five-month period: initial symptoms began as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and dark urine. Six weeks later, he presented with jaundice, confusion, and hand tremors. His health and mental capacity continued to diminish until he underwent a liver transplant. If he had not gotten a liver transplant, he would have died of liver failure.

Many individuals who have taken Garcinia cambogia supplements also reported feelings of jitteriness, shakiness, and other intense sensations. Additionally, individuals diagnosed with mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, reported episodes of mania, euphoria, excitability, delusions, accelerated speech, and irritability when taking Garcinia. However, hardly any research has been done to fully determine how Garcinia cambogia causes the negative metabolic effects, such as liver failure, and psychological effects in people with and without mental disorders.

Garcinia cambogia can be bought in mass quantities from suppliers overseas as well as internationally within the US. An online provider called go4WorldBusiness is an online buyer and supplier of many different types of supplements. The website boasts 1,560 Garcinia cambogia suppliers across the world who will deliver your supplements right to your door⁴. However, in the US, this supplement is classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a natural dietary supplement. This classification means that Garcinia cambogia remains unregulated in terms of the location in which it comes from, and also there is no requirement to specify the concentration of HCA or the presence of other potentially active ingredients⁷.

Because of the lack of clarity and consistency surrounding natural supplements like Garcinia cambogia, the FDA generally warns against the use of unregulated ‘natural’ products due to the possible illegal or harmful substances that could be mixed in or replacing the stated ‘active’ ingredients. The last time the FDA published their findings about Garcinia cambogia was in 2017, but articles falsely claiming FDA approval for Garcinia have continued to be published up to the present day. Additionally in 2019, the top 29 Garcinia cambogia supplements in the US were tested for their active ingredients and product safety and none of the products were graded above a D+, 17 of which scored an F in quality ranking⁹.

Garcinia cambogia has been used safely for hundreds of years by native groups in South Asian countries for its soothing properties for upset stomachs and to aid in activating digestion. Although the HCA within the fruit can suppress appetite and prevent fat production, this should not be the main goal of garcinia consumption. As seen in the studies of the individuals who have taken Garcinia cambogia supplements for dietary purposes, the harm of excessive HCA exposure outweighs, literally, the weight loss benefits. The Garcinia cambogia story highlights an important truth about herbal products: it is important to recognize that traditional uses of these products may have been instilled and unchanged in cultures for hundreds of years for a reason.

Garcinia gummi-gutta tree at Aanakkulam

Works Cited

Drury, Heber. “Garcinia.” The Useful Plants of India with Their Chief Value in Commerce, Medicine, and the Arts, vol. 2, 1873, pp. 220–224., doi:10.7554/elife.48212.024.

D’Onofrio, Kaitlyn. “Hydroxycut and Garcinia Cambogia May Lead to Liver Failure.” Docwire News, 31 May 2019, www.docwirenews.com/condition-center/gastroenterologycc/hydroxycut-and-garcinia-cambogia-may-lead-to-liver-failure/. Accessed 04/01/2021.

“Garcinia Cambogia Extract and the Hollywood Celebrities!” True Garcinia Cambogia, WordPress, 29 May 2014, truegarciniacambogia.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/garcinia-cambogia-and-the-hollywood-celebrities/. Accessed 03/27/2021.

“Garcinia Cambogia Suppliers and Manufacturers.” Garcinia Cambogia : Manufacturers, Suppliers, Wholesalers and Exporters | go4WorldBusiness.Com . Page – 1, www.go4worldbusiness.com/find?searchText=garcinia-cambogia&BuyersOrSuppliers=suppliers. Accessed 03/27/2021.

Heymsfield, Steven, et al. “Garcinia Cambogia (Hydroxycitric Acid) as a Potential Antiobesity Agent A Randomized Controlled Trial.” JAMA, vol. 308, no. 9, 11 Nov. 1998, p. 863., doi:10.1001/jama.2012.10086. 

Onakpoya, Igho et al. “The Use of Garcinia Extract (Hydroxycitric Acid) as a Weight loss Supplement: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomised Clinical Trials.” Journal of obesity vol. 2011 (2011): 509038. doi:10.1155/2011/509038

Poole, Jade. Garcinia Cambogia – Everything You Need to Know About This Popular Fruit. MyMed, www.mymed.com/health-wellness/nutrition-and-weight-loss/garcinia-cambogia. Accessed 03/29/2021.

Sachteleben, Marilisa, and Milos Kitanovic. “Dr. Oz’ Touted Celebrity Weight Loss Supplement Garcinia Cambogia Has Freaky Side Effects.” Blasting News, 21 Sept. 2016, us.blastingnews.com/showbiz-tv/2016/09/dr-oz-touted-celebrity-weight-loss-supplement-garcinia-cambogia-has-freaky-side-effects-001135141.html. 

“Top 10 Garcinia Cambogia Supplements.” Labdoor, Labdoor Inc, 2019, labdoor.com/rankings/garcinia-cambogia.

Image Sources

Illustration of Garcinia cambogia: Color plate from Medical Botany (1836), Vol. III, by J. Stephenson, Printed for J. Churchill, illustration drawn by G. Reid, engraved by Weddell; (https://www.rawpixel.com/image/405412/free-illustration-image-garcinia-flower-garcinia-cambogia); Public Domain CC0 Image.

Sliced and sun-dried Garcinia cowa fruit used in Assam cooking: Mozzworld (License: CC BY-SA 4.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Traditional Kerala fish curry made with Garcinia cambogia: Samphotography (License: CC BY-SA 4.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fish_Curry_Kerala.jpg via Wikimedia Commons

Hydroxycut: Hydroxycut, Walmart, 8/2014 by Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel and JeepersMedia on YouTube (License: CC BY 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/14853339300/in/photolist-oCxfhU-oCxKy6-oCxJCt-oUZZyC-oCxKHp-oCxfDW-oULdjK-oCxeAJ-oULdz4-oCxwhC-oENhHr-6n2TBr-nBVyEs-oUZYSs-2iu42V2-7itUTN-56aEDo-o1bE3C-36WWi-4iPdZu-7fQqwv-cHot8q-2aZTDm3-edZSHJ-em3z4z-EUSpNX-5ZEpsN-36VtE-rDZRWU-ewA624-9ygEpn-3peE2n-kcP3ci-fzgvZA-ndx2B8-fNaTcN-fzgwMG-fzgwh3-ShsXmw-ctskSb-k3Dex6-v7gqqP-9Mcy9n-9GYf9Q-9ygEg2-apJPMr-k4bQ8i-agyj6k-eGdPLp-JComm1 via Flickr

Garcinia gummi-gutta tree at Aanakkulam: © 2010 Jee & Rani Nature Photography (License: CC BY-SA 4.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Garcinia_gummi-gutta_at_Aanakkulam.jpg via Wikimedia Commons

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