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Dr. Ben Carson’s Dietary Supplement Troubles

This campaign cycle is shaping up to be an interesting one when it comes to dietary supplements, fake diabetes cures, and presidential candidates.

In May 2015, former Governor Mike Huckabee had to take time out of his candidacy to defend his 2014 involvement with a dietary supplement that was a supposed cure for diabetes. During an October 2015 primary debate, it was frontrunning candidate Dr. Ben Carson’s turn on the hot seat, as the neurosurgeon was quizzed about his involvement with a different supplement that also has been falsely touted by its salespeople for curing or improving many serious conditions, including Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Carson was asked by CNN moderator Carl Quintanilla about his 10-year involvement with Mannatech, a nutritional supplement company that once paid $7 million in 2009 to settle a lawsuit by the Texas Attorney General for false claims made about the health benefit of its product, Ambrotose. Carson first denied having any relationship with the company, and then finished his statement by saying he gave speeches for the company and took the product. You can view the exchange here.

While officially Mannatech says it has never made any claims that Ambrotose should be used as a treatment for any disease or condition, its independent sales force has been caught saying that the product cures many of the worst illnesses, including diabetes.

Court documents filed by the Texas Attorney General’s office under Greg Abbott (now the Republican governor of Texas) and a separate class-action lawsuit reveal multiple instances of claims made that Ambrotose could regulate or cure Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. The complaint also said the product was promoted as something that could cure or treat cancer, Down’s Syndrome, and many other serious conditions.

In the class action suit, there were multiple allegations of veteran sales associates training new salespeople to say that the product could cure Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Sometimes, they would include personal anecdotes of how their diabetes was cured or vastly improved. Materials for a 2003 sales seminar included one such example:

Judy Allen- a Mannatech Presidential (editor’s note, a ranking salesperson) – used to take $1400 of medications a month and even had a double kidney transplant, as she was such a brittle Type 1 Diabetic. Her insulin need has gone down 70%, and her transplant meds to suppress her immune system have now been stopped, which is unheard of!

Mannatech settled the class action suit in 2008 by agreeing to pay $11.25 million to investors. In the 2009 settlement with the Texas Attorney General, the company promised to make sure its sales force wouldn’t make false claims about the product. Even so, it’s clear that Ambrotose is still being marketed by many as a treatment to regulate blood sugar levels or cure diabetes. Here’s an example of a 2014 video put out by one of Mannatech’s independent salesmen – it’s an interview with someone claiming to use Ambrotose to take control of his diabetes:

The man in the video, identified only as “Rob”, describes how his diabetes was out of control until a friend gave him Ambrotose to take:

“So I took it, and I went back for my normal blood work three to four months later. My doctor, he goes, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,’” Rob says.

The supposed selling point of Ambrotose is that it helps those who take it maintain adequate levels of so-called glyconutrients, but experts who have studied these nutrients say adding more to your body will only, at most, cause an increase in flatulence. Those experts were interviewed as part of a 20/20 investigation into Mannatech.

It is not surprising that as Carson has climbed in the polls his involvement with Mannatech would be given closer scrutiny. What might be surprising is that he didn’t have a better answer prepared at the debate. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have clear warning this would come up. Earlier in 2015, he and a campaign official were asked by two conservative news outlets, National Review and NewsmaxTV, to defend his involvement with the company.

Even before the October debate was over, fact-checkers were finding ample evidence that Dr. Carson wasn’t being completely forthcoming on his relationship with Mannatech. For example, he took part in a 2013 Mannatech promotional video to talk about Ambrotose. In the video, he gave a careful endorsement-which-is-not-an-endorsement of the product’s effectiveness.

“I can’t say that’s the reason that I feel so healthy, but I can say that it made me feel different, and that’s why I continue to use it 10 years later,” Carson says.

According to PolitiFact, Carson did give four speeches paid for by Mannatech, and they included moments where he touted his personal experience with the product. In total, he has been found to have appeared in two Mannatech videos, as well as a PBS documentary on glyconutrients; his participation in the PBS video was sponsored by independent Mannatech sales people. The evidence was enough for the fact-checking website to decide that while Carson was not a paid employee of Mannatech, his claim that he had no ties to the company was false.

Since the debate, an advisor to Carson has attempted to explain away at least one connection to the company – Carson’s appearance in the 2013 video. The advisor claimed that the candidate had been tricked into giving his endorsement of Ambrotose because he thought the video would help the company’s charitable efforts to distribute the supplement in Africa.

The 2016 presidential election cycle is still in its beginning stages, and it remains to be seen whether Carson will maintain a competitive position as a presidential candidate. If he does, it may very well be that “Mannatech” becomes an election year buzzword that will be much discussed in the coming months.

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Craig Idlebrook is a past editor for Insulin Nation, Type 2 Nation, and Información Sobre Diabetes. He is now the community engagement and content manager for T1D Exchange.

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