How much would you pay for a pill made of sugar?
Try $415 million. That's how much Mannatech, a Texas-based company, made in the last 12 months selling sugar pills and powders made from larch bark and aloe, known as glyconutrients.
Mannatech says its product, Ambrotose, is a simple nutritional supplement that helps the cells in one's body communicate with one another. Ambrotose is sold exclusively by multilevel marketing sales associates who, functioning as independent contractors, try to sign up customers to buy the product and become sales associates themselves.
The product is shipped directly from the company to customers, with sales associates getting a cut of the profits.
But critics say the company's bottom line is has been boosted by unverifiable health claims made by some of it's multilevel marketing sales force.
A three-month "20/20" hidden camera investigation found outlandish claims being made by some Mannatech sales associates around the country, extolling what they say are the extraordinary powers of Mannatech's patented product, called Ambrotose. Ambrotose costs at least $200 a month -- more than some prescription drugs.
For example, one Mannatech sales associate in Austin, Texas, said: "People with cancer call us every single day: 'The tumor is gone!'"
Another in New York said: "She comes in five months after we've worked together, and she's breast cancer free!"
A Cure for Cancer?
Is this truly a grass-roots, word-of-mouth miracle? Can a nutritional supplement actually cure cancer?
Angie Rhoads is betting her life that it can.
Most people would say that Rhoads has had the most horrible luck in the world. The 22-year old lost her mother to a hemorrhage and her father to a fast-growing brain tumor. Then last year, as she was about to graduate from a college in the Midwest, doctors discovered that she too had a brain tumor. Rhoads' classmates rallied around her and raised the money for an operation.
"You know how everyone says, 'Well, it's not brain surgery?' I'm like, well, yeah it is," said Rhoads.
Surgeons got almost all of the tumor, but were forced to leave two areas behind to avoid paralyzing her. Rhoads' oncologist told her she stood a good chance if she underwent an immediate course of radiation and chemotherapy.
But Rhoads had a different idea. She had heard from a friend and from testimonials that Mannatech's Ambrotose would make her cancer go away, without the terrible side effects of drugs and radiation. She turned down the doctor's recommendation in favor of a sugar pill.
She said her doctors were not pleased with her decision. "They pretty much said, 'If you were my daughter you would be doing chemo and radiation,'" said Rhoads.
Rhoads explained that she and one of her doctors agreed that she can always start chemo and radiation later if her cancer starts to grow, but for now she is sticking with Ambrotose.
Although she would never counsel others to forgo medical treatment, Rhoads believes so much in Ambrotose that she even began going on cancer survivor Web sites to recommend it to other cancer patients. .
What Exactly Is Ambrotose
Mannatech says Ambrotose draws on a new cutting-edge field called glycobiology. Glycobiology is a legitimate science that looks into how complex carbohydrates promote cellular communication.
But two of its leading scientists, Dr. Hudson Freeze from the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, Calif., and Dr. Ronald Schnaar from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, say there is a huge disconnect between this new science and what Mannatech sells.
"There are authentic, scientific studies that have looked at people drinking these kinds of materials," said Freeze, referring to glyconutrients. "And it doesn't really do anything except increase flatulence."
According to Mannatech, many people's bodies don't produce enough of the simple sugars needed for cells to communicate properly. By ingesting Ambrotose, Mannatech claims, people get the sugars they need.
But Schnaar says that except for a mere handful of people with a congenital deficit, virtually every person on earth produces enough of these sugars on his/her own. "All of the sugar building blocks that we need in our body are made from the most common foods we eat," he says.
He also says that there is little or no proof that these sugars, if swallowed, can be absorbed and broken down by the human body.
Mannatech strongly contests these conclusions, citing a large number of studies and research papers that can be found on the Web at www.glycoscience.org. But articles, published in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, have linked some of those studies to a research institute that Mannatech funds.
Our "20/20" investigation found that some of Mannatech's sales force was touting Ambrotose as a miracle cure that could fix a broad range of diseases from cancer to multiple sclerosis and AIDS.
Sales meetings and testimonial DVDs recommended by sales associates at meetings that "2020" attended always began with disclaimers, stating that Mannatech's products are not meant to "cure or mitigate" any disease. But then began the testimonials that seem to imply that glyconutrients do just that. For example, one DVD testimonial stated: "Two months ago, I got a CT scan and my cancer is gone."
And another said: "I was going into a wheelchair and give up my life. Glyconutrients have changed my life. They work."
Testimonials like these helped to convince Rhoads, she said, to forgo medical treatment.
They have also helped to trigger an investigation of Mannatech by the Texas attorney general into possible "unproven health claims." The attorney general has yet to file any charges.
There is also a class-action filed by shareholders who allege the company encouraged its sales associates to say Ambrotose cures a wide range of diseases to boost sales. Mannatech has denied the allegations and filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Mannatech CEO Sam Caster has previously been investigated by the Texas attorney general and been accused of making misleading claims about a rodent repelling device that didn't work, and a home insulation product that was reportedly not as effective as claimed.
Caster told "2020" that Mannatech makes no specific health claims about its products. "I don't think dietary supplements treat, cure, mitigate anything. It is not meant to substitute a doctor's oversight, but it plays an important role in the whole health equation."
He also said that Mannatech actively polices its sales force to prevent associates from crossing the legal line in their sales pitches.
Walking the Fine Line
But "20/20's" hidden camera investigation found some Mannatech sales associates teaching potential recruits how to work around legal restrictions.
"You can't tell people that it's going to cure anything, but you can say, 'I think I have something that will help you with your cancer,'" a sales associate told a "20/20" producer who attended one meeting.
And even at Mannatech's corporate-sponsored annual convention held in 2006, a video obtained by "20/20" shows a high-level sales associate counseling front-line salespeople in the fine art of walking the fine line.
"How many of you can think of a target or a market to target?" As the audience calls out, he repeats their suggestions. "Autism? Cancer? Diabetes? There's millions, right? Now, if they are health specific, can you mention Mannatech? No, absolutely not. But can you build a list of people who want to know about that particular situation? Yes."
Rhoads recently went for an MRI. She said that although the results show she is not cancer-free, she believes Mannatech's products are benefiting her, and she will continue to ignore her doctor's recommendation for chemotherapy and radiation.
Editors Note: ABCNews.com has received a notice from a representative from Mannatech, Inc. that some postings on this story's message board include unauthorized health claims for their products which they do not condone. The notice says the company does not make or support any claims which :
1. state or suggest that Mannatech products prevent, treat or cure disease;
2. state or suggest that Mannatech products are a substitute for a doctor's standard of care;
3. in any manner contradict Mannatech's existing policies or procedures. - The Editors