AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Ben Carson hawked questionable supplements

As an outsider who has become a top contender in the Republican presidential field, Dr. Ben Carson has attracted fresh media attention to an unusual part of his record: his ties to a dietary supplement company once accused of promoting phony cures.

Texas-based Mannatech had been a magnet for controversy over claims that its signature products could “cure” everything from cancer to  Down Syndrome. In 2009, the firm was forced to cough up $7 million to settle a civil suit brought by the Texas attorney general’s office accusing it of operating an illegal marketing scheme. "Bottom line, this is a warning to the general public," said Greg Abbott, attorney general at that time and now Texas governor. "Beware of phony claims of magic cure-all pills or false hope in a bottle."

The retired pediatric neurosurgeon started using Mannatch products in 2002 after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. In a 2004 speech at a Mannatech sales meeting, he reportedly said his symptoms went away within three weeks. “I was really quite amazed,” he told the group.

Carson, the first to separate twins conjoined at the head, has given four paid speeches at Mannatech events and has appeared in videos posted on the company’s website, including two in 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. The Journal said Carson praised the firm in one of the videos for “trying to find a way to restore the natural diet as a medicine or as a mechanism for maintaining health.” The videos were removed from the website after the newspaper’s inquiries.

Mannatech is a multi-level marketing company in which independent sales “associates” sell “glyconutrients,” products purported to contain certain sugars that aren’t available in modern diets. Company officials have long argued that the unsubstantiated health claims have been made by its associates - theoretically independent contractors outside the firm’s control. However, materials containing those claims were openly distributed at official Mannatech functions.

Mannatech’s product claims have particularly rankled researchers in glycobiology, a real science that deals with the function of sugar molecules.

Hudson Freeze, professor of glycobiology and director of the Human Genetics Program at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., told me at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2006: “We have no connection (to Mannatech) and really feel in fact they are ruining the reputation of our field.”

When I interviewed Carson in 2006, he said that his urinary-tract problems disappeared after he used glyconutrients, but he added a note of caution.

“I do believe in the products,” he said. “But, as a scientist, I cannot and will not make scientific claims about them until the science has been proven.”

That has yet to happen.

Note: Carson will be in Gainesville on Sunday, talking about his new book at 9 and 11 a.m. with Pastor Jentezen Franklin of Free Chapel.

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About the Author

Danny Robbins in an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.