Ben Carson denied ties to dietary supplement company Mannatech at last night’s GOP debate. “Total propaganda,” the candidate said. Carson’s denial is easily refuted. He has promoted the company in infomercials and at live events since 2004, and admitted that it helped fund his endowed chair at Johns Hopkins.
So why the denial? Mannatech was accused of deceptive sales practices and dubious health claims in the 2000s. The suburban Dallas-based company has used multi-level marketing to sell its products, including Ambrotose, its signature “glyconutrient” pill made of plant polysaccharides.
During a 20/20 investigation into Mannatech’s pills, a glycobiologist noted that the ingredient cocktail in the pills “doesn’t really do anything except increase flatulence.”
Mannatech contested 20/20’s conclusions.
The pyramid-shaped business organization relied on independent sellers, which has given Mannatech opportunities to contest that its full-time employees at the top of the chain are responsible for the extravagant claims made by its contractor shills on the bottom.
Mannatech pushed its pills for far more than farts, and it butted up against scientists and the legal system along the way.
The mother of a child with Tay-Sachs disease sued Mannatech in 2004 for intentional misrepresentation, conspiracy to commit fraud, and invasion of privacy, among other charges. She accused Mannatech of showing nude photos of her son at seminars and in promotional materials, claiming that his health had benefitted from its products. She had given the photos to her chiropractor for confidential use—but her chiropractor was also a Mannatech sales associate. Her son died around the time the photos were distributed. The lawsuit was dismissed, but Mannatech paid $750,000 and agreed to stop using the photos in a confidential settlement.
In 2007, the Texas Attorney General charged Mannatech with illegal, misleading sales practices for claims that its pills could cure an array of medical problems, from autism to Non-Hodgkin’s B-cell Lymphoma.
“Texans will not tolerate illegal marketing schemes that prey upon the sick and unsuspecting,” the Attorney General said, emphasizing that Mannatech hadn’t done any legitimate studies proving its pills worked and calling its sales practices an “elaborate scheme to defraud innocent consumers.”
The case settled out in 2009. Mannatech didn’t admit to wrongdoing, but it agreed to a final judgment that the AG said would “halt deceptive trade practices” in Texas and paid $4 million to Texas customers. Founder Samuel Caster was banned from being an employee of the company for five years; he continued to work as an independent consultant.
While Mannatech dodged legal problems, biologists weren’t as easy to shirk. “We feel that there is a moral obligation for glycobiologists to speak out,” glycobiology researchers wrote in a 2008 article examining Mannatech and the potential for the misrepresentation of glycobiology discoveries.
“A Glyconutrient Sham” busts Mannatech for staking its credibility on a reference inserted into the medical textbook Harper’s Illustrated Biochemistry by Mannatech consultant, along with research presented at conferences sponsored by Mannatech. It also pokes holes in the company’s claims about the health benefits of its glyconutrient ingredients:
Claims of health benefits of ingesting Ambrotose® Complex, or its components, remain untested in controlled human trials, or have been disproved in such trials, depending on the indication.
So what are Carson’s ties to the company? As I mentioned earlier, he has given speeches promoting its pills as medically helpful for over a decade. In 2004, after allegedly taking Mannatech products as supplements following prostate cancer diagnosis, Carson spoke about them as integral to feeling better.
“Within about three weeks my symptoms went away, and I was really quite amazed,” he says in the video, which you can still watch online:
The National Review looked at Carson’s relationship with Mannatech earlier this year, highlighting that Carson was paid to speak about the company on numerous occasions through the Washington Speakers Bureau:
“I don’t know that he’s ever had a compensated relationship with Mannatech,” says Armstrong Williams, Carson’s business manager, when asked about those appearances. “All we know is that the Washington Speaker’s Bureau, which booked hundreds of speaking engagements for him through the year, booked these engagements. He had no idea who these people are. They’re booked through the speakers’ bureau. The question should be asked to the Washington Speakers Bureau, when did they have a relationship with Mannatech, because Dr. Carson never had one.” (At Washington Speakers Bureau, Carson is listed as a level-6 speaker, meaning his fee is more than $40,000 per speech.)
As for his endowment, there is 2011 video of Carson explicitly stating that Mannatech was a prominent donor. “Three years ago I had an endowed chair bestowed upon me,” Mr. Carson said in his 2011 Mannatech convention keynote speech. “It requires $2.5 million to do an endowed chair and I’m proud to say that part of that $2.5 million came from Mannatech.”
But when the Wall Street Journal asked Carson’s campaign about this video, a spokesman called the Mannatech reference “a legitimate mistake.”
“He simply got mixed up,” the spokesman told the WSJ.
Mixed up or not, as much as he might want to shrug off Mannatech like an old mistake, Carson remained an eager shill for the company as recently as last year:
“I still use them to this very day,” Carson says in the video.
Last night, he echoed that sentiment, plugging Mannatech’s pills even as he denied his relationship with the company. “I take the product. It is a good product.”
Update 5:49 pm: Mannatech sent me this response from a spokesperson:
Dr. Ben Carson accurately described his relationship with Mannatech in Wednesday night’s presidential debate. He stated:
“I did a couple of speeches for them. I did speeches for other people – they were paid speeches. It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them [Mannatech]. Do I take their product? Yes, I think it’s a good product.”
That is a true statement and clearly defines the limits of his relationship with the company.
Dr. Carson is a long-term customer and has spoken about his personal and professional experiences at Mannatech events. Dr. Carson has never been a paid endorser or spokesman for Mannatech or its products.
Dr. Carson chose to participate in videos while attending corporate events, where he gave his personal perspective and testimony. He was not compensated for his participation in these videos. While Dr. Carson has talked positively about Mannatech and its products, he is not a spokesman or a paid endorser.
In participation with Dr. Carson’s campaign team - in order to comply with Federal campaign finance regulations - all references to Dr. Carson were removed from Mannatech digital sites and tools prior to his announcement of a presidential bid in 2015.