Mannatech, a Dallas-area company that sells sugar pills touted to cure cancer, Down syndrome and a panoply of other conditions, is under investigation by the Texas Attorney General's Office for possible deceptive trade practices.
"Mannatech has made unproven health claims about its products, such as the ability to cure cancer and numerous other ailments," the AG's office wrote in an Oct. 24 response to a public information request. "The claims are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, making the claims potentially in violation of both state and federal law."
The company did not respond to e-mail messages or phone calls for comment Friday. The public information request was made by someone who short-sells Mannatech stock. Short-selling is the practice of borrowing stock and selling it, expecting its price to go down so the short seller can by it back at a lower price and pocket the difference.
Brisk sales of Mannatech's top product, Ambrotose, propelled the publicly traded company to Forbes' list of the top 10 best small companies in the country this year. Mannatech is a direct sales company, such as Amway or Herbalife, with a worldwide network of 350,000 distributors and nearly $400 million in sales last year.
Mannatech describes Ambrotose as a "glyconutrient" that "supports effective cell-to-cell communication." The company says the pills replace eight specific sugars needed for health but missing in modern diets. Medical experts say there is little research to support the claims. Critics of the company say sales associates go too far in the claims they make about Ambrotose's benefits.
"It's a sugar pill, plain and simple. We talk about sugar pills as a metaphor, but this, literally, is a sugar pill," said Corpus Christi pediatrician Len Leshin. "It doesn't help, it couldn't possibly help. It's a waste of money."
Leshin, who has a son with Down syndrome and sees patients with Down syndrome, said Ambrotose salespeople circulate brochures claiming the drug can improve the health and change facial features of children with the chromosomal anomaly.
"There's no medical evidence this would help Down syndrome at all," Leshin said. When he stated as much on his Web site, he said, he received angry e-mail messages from Ambrotose sellers.
Last month, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that three Nobel Prize-winning scientists have complained to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer that Ambrotose Web sites are improperly linking their research to Mannatech's dietary supplements.
The company was sued in California in 2004 for fraud and invasion of privacy by the mother of a child who died of Tay-Sachs disease and whose photograph was used to promote Mannatech products. The child died in 1997 after using the products, but Mannatech distributors kept using the photo until 2004 despite the mother's requests to halt the marketing campaign.
The firm is described variously as a "global wellness solutions company" or "maker of dietary supplements." Forbes' Web site classifies it under "Food: Specialty/Candy."