Mannatech's sugar-coated moneymaker

New Zealand Herald/November 17, 2005
By Chris Barton

Forget making the medicine go down. This spoonful of sugar makes a lot of money. And to its champions it is better than medicine anyway - a miracle cure-all and a "wellness revolution".

At least on the money side of the equation, they may be right. Last year, New Zealanders bought US$12.9 million ($19 million) worth of Ambrotose sugar pills and powder made by Texas company Mannatech.

That was 4.4 per cent of the company's global sales of US$294.5 million ($436.4 million). But you won't find Ambrotose and its ilk - Glycolean, Manna-Bears (for children) and Phyt-Aloe - in shops.

The secret to these stellar sales is a multilevel marketing structure where an army of "associates" (7000 in New Zealand) peddle and push product and mobilise new recruits.

"First of all we don't make any claims whatsoever that it cures or is an alternative treatment for a doctor's care because we can't say that," says Larry, a Mannatech associate who discovered the company's products about three years ago.

I'm talking to Larry undercover - feigning interest in finding a treatment for my mother who, in this instance, has diabetes and a problem with a wound healing on her foot.

The deception is necessary because all Mannatech associates are banned from talking to the press, apparently because of bad publicity a few years ago.

Actually, it is because the company got in trouble here and in Australia for breaking the law. In March last year our Medical Devices Safety Authority (Medsafe) contacted the company about a number of associates who were pushing Mannatech's dietary supplements as though they were medicines providing therapeutic benefit - thereby contravening our Medicines Act.

In June there was a similar breach in Australia of the Therapeutic Goods Act. Mannatech addressed the complaints in both countries by disciplining the associates concerned and educating them about what they could and couldn't say.

"All I can say to you is that we see what the results are and unfortunately with the legislation we have we can't say anything," says Larry. "We can share the information with people once they have joined because it is for educational purposes. But we are unable to be too specific. It's not legal."

It is also not legal to refer people to Mannatech's official website,

"My information is that website theoretically provides information which contravenes health department regulations on therapeutic claims," says Klaus Sorensen of Sorensen Group, which helps Mannatech with public relations here.

Thousands of unofficial websites are run by associates promoting the Mannatech message, many implying that the products have curative and healing effects.

New Zealand site, for example has a "testimony" section with before and after photos showing how Mannatech or "glyconutrients" have had remarkable effects on a bevy of diseases and conditions, including multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, diabetes, Down syndrome, arthritis and ruptured brain aneurism.

Mannatech is being sued in the United States for misrepresenting one such claim involving distribution of photos of a child suffering from Tay-Sachs Disease.

With the disclaimers out of the way Larry launches into his Mannatech spiel.

"In our diet today we're missing eight essential glyconutrients that come from ripened fruit and vegetables and the principal reason for that is green harvesting - everything is picked before it's ripe."

Larry explains these nutrients "get into the cabbage or the fruit or the lettuce in the last two days of ripening" which, because of early harvesting and things like soil depletion, and the use of sprays and insecticides, means they don't get into the food we eat.

Fortunately, help is at hand. "The Mannatech scientists have been able to put, and keep in a stable condition, the eight essential natural biological sugars that we should be getting into a product called Ambrotose.

"And what it has been found to do is assist the immune system. And it also assists the cells to communicate between each other ... "

And so it goes. All Mannatech associates the Herald spoke to had the same script with a few variations.

Jan, for example, talked a lot about the toxins of the planet, how autoimmune diseases are a result of cells not communicating properly and how "the language of cells is basically eight biologically active sugars or monosaccharides or glyconutrients - they're all the same thing".

The clever aspect of this talk is that some of it is true. Glycoscience or glycobiology is a legitimate scientific endeavour showing considerable promise in the development of cancer-fighting drugs and for the treatment of inherited disorders such as Gaucher's disease.

The prefix glyco refers to sweetness or sugar, and the research focuses on the role carbohydrates (simple and complex sugars) play in the body.

It is also true that eight types of sugars reside on the outside of cells as glycoforms and are intimately involved in cell-to-cell communication events.

George Slim, a former glycobiologist, who is director of Biotechnology Policy for the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology explains that all proteins on the outside of cells have some sort of sugar attached to them.

"Those can be varied very rapidly to provide a huge number of cell-to-cell communication events - even information as simple as blood groups are all based on glycoprotein sugars and glycolipids [fats bound with sugars]."

Slim says it is true too that mannose - one of the eight glyconutrients pushed in Mannatech's sugar pills - is important "in cell-cell signalling and the immune response".

The big gap between the real and pseudo science is the inference made about Mannatech's products - whether regularly taking an expensive supplement will make any difference in cell-to-cell communication and overall health. Slim says the science says no.

"Your body has a whole series of metabolic pathways which will quickly flip one sugar into another. So you eat a spoonful of sugar and by the time it is in your stomach it is already turned into a whole series of sugars just by the action of acid."

Once sugar is absorbed and taken into cells, it can be changed into mannose or any of the other glyconutrients.

Laurence Melton, professor of Food Science at the University of Auckland, agrees. "You store carbohydrates in your body as glycogen which is a polymer of glucose. So if you insisted on eating fructose [fruit sugar] in large amounts then what you don't use in energy would get converted to glycogen anyway - the glucose polymer."

Melton questions where the evidence is that we aren't getting enough of these obscure sugars in our diets or that we once used to. He disputes too that the nutritional value of food is being depleted.

"That's nonsense. There is every reason to believe the quality of food is improving, not declining."

Slim is dismayed at the way the science is being trivialised.

"Mannatech has taken some perfectly credible and very exciting science and substituted this big link - that taking these pills nutritionally makes a difference to the way sugars operate in the body. That link hasn't been substantiated."

He says anybody on a normal diet and without an enzyme deficiency is perfectly capable of making any of the sugars they require. "I think it's nonsense to suggest that taking mannose or any of these other sugars in your diet is going to have any effect whatsoever."

Financially, people would be better off spending their money on any other source of sugar and might just as well drink Coke.

Most of Mannatech's products contain Ambrotose, a proprietary blend of Manapol, which is an inner-leaf gel substance derived from the aloe vera plant.

The product also contains arabinogalactan (larix decidua gum), gum ghatti and gum tragacanth. Mannatech says as well as containing glucose and galacatose, which are abundant in our diet, Ambrotose also has the sugars mannose, N-acetylneuraminic acid, fucose, N-acetylgalactosamine, N-acetylglucosamine, and xylose, found on the outside of cells.

The retail price of a 75g tub of Ambrotose powder is $177.40, which reduces to $161.44 if one buys it as a "member" and $153 for associates.

"The only way is to trial it," says Jan, when I tell her I have a skin allergy. "I can't tell you if it is going to work or not. What I do know, though, is when you give the body what it needs, it manages itself well."

She suggests the minimum trial period should be four months and that a tub should last just under two months when taking half a teaspoon twice a day. She suggests I might also like to sell the product.

"Mannatech has a great structure. They set up a system where you can get your product free if you have so many people in two 'legs' buying products - basically you get money back." Jan says this is what is meant by "free wellness for life".

Larry tells me New Zealand has nine people who have attained "presidential" level, making it a leading country for selling Mannatech products. Presidential sellers have thousands of associates below them (from each of whom they take a cut of sales) in a downline network.

New Zealand, says Larry, has about 2.3 presidentials for every million people compared with 1.8 in Australia, 1.4 in the United States and about 0.6 in Britain and Japan.

I don't ask whether this means we are more gullible than everyone else.

Most associates also recount experience of the product's effectiveness. Larry says he noticed a change in his mental alertness within days.

"You know, opening my eyes and pretty much getting out of bed which was something I hadn't probably experienced since I was about 14."

Chris said his wife had a torn tendon in her foot and was facing a bone graft operation on her heel. After about three months of using the product she didn't need the operation.

Mannatech's general manager in Australia is able to talk to the press. A wary George Howden says he has used food supplements for more than 30 years.

"I believe in them, I believe they guarantee my body has what my body needs to do its job."

I ask him for the evidence that our diets are lacking in the glyconutrient sugars Mannatech says they are; and for scientific studies that show that by taking Mannatech products there are measurable health benefits. Incredibly, he says he is not qualified to give that information.

"But you're the general manger," I say.

"I run a warehousing, distribution and telephone-ordering process - the last thing I'm going to do is give information that I'm not sure of to a reporter."

The next day Sorensen Group forwards an email from Mannatech medical director Dr Stephen Boyd, who says the general dietary recommendation is that we eat five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables every day, yet almost nobody does.

"Supplementation is aimed at re-dressing the imbalance and restoring the balance between what we're actually getting from [food and] what we actually need."

He also sends two studies supported by the Arkansas Children's Nutrition Centre to show that "glyconutrient supplementation supports optimal health and well-being and helps maintain the proper or normal operation of the body's physiological functions".

One is an experiment to show how Ambrotose may improve language processing. It concludes that although the reaction times were better in those taking Ambrotose, the differences were not statistically significant.

The second was an experiment about the effects of Ambrotose on electroencephalographic (EEG) activity. Those taking the supplement showed a small increase in some brainwaves related to arousal or alertness. A sugar intake will do that - hardly evidence of improving overall health.

I suggest to Howden that using Mannatech products involves a leap of faith - that people try them and believe they work. He disagrees, and becomes agitated to learn I don't take supplements.

"You had better do some more reading. Because unless you're growing your own vegetables you should be [taking supplements]. I can tell you you should be, your doctor will tell you that, your own medical association will tell you that."

I tell him I'm reasonably health-conscious about what I eat and that my doctor has never told me to take supplements. A true believer, he says: "Do a little more research, mate, you'll live longer, like me."

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