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!"
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. .
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.