Jim May is about to begin the sweetest deal of his entrepreneurial life. The 72-year-old Valley businessman is keen on a sweet herb called stevia and will soon distribute the sweetener to more than 14,000 health food stores and thousands of supermarkets across the nation.
He plans to hold a news conference Thursday in New York City to announce the deal.
May, founder of Wisdom Natural Brands in Gilbert, is beating some of the world’s biggest corporations to the punch, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and several leading drug companies that are expected to market the sweetener later this year.
“I feel like David beating Goliath,” May said.
Stevia, a plant used by Guarani Indians in South America centuries ago to make tea and medicines, is one of the most popular sweeteners in Japan and is part of a growing market in China.
But it was banned for use specifically as a sweetener in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration in 1991. In 1995, the FDA changed its decision and said it could be imported but labeled only as a “dietary supplement,” not a “sweetener.”
However, May challenged the FDA decision and won the right to distribute stevia as a sweetener.
His product, called SweetLeaf Sweetener, unlike most food supplements, contains no calories or carbohydrates and does not raise blood sugar levels, making it safer, for example, for diabetes patients.
Sweeteners on today’s market, including Equal and Splenda, are made from chemicals, May said.
May learned about stevia from a friend and physician who had served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay.
“My friend and I were sitting at his home in Mesa and he asked me to taste a dried leaf and, frankly, I was apprehensive,” May recalled. “I said, ‘No, thanks.’ But he convinced me, and I finally relented. It was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted.”
At that moment, May said he was convinced the herb could be used to produce a sweetener and could become a profitable venture. He gave his friend virtually all of his savings and asked him to return to Paraguay and begin shipping the leaves to him.
“My wife, Carol, nearly fainted when she learned I had risked all of our life’s savings, but I had this gut feeling,” May said.
His company was started in their garage at their home in Phoenix. Through the years his company expanded and in 2005 moved to a 30,000-square-foot office and warehouse in Gilbert.
The company, which distributes a variety of health foods, has 30 employees. It owns a manufacturing and distribution plant in Chicago and has annual revenue of more than $12 million, May said.
The SweetLeaf Sweetener, also called SweetLeaf SteviaPlus, will be sold in boxes containing either 50 or 100 packets of stevia. Each packet replaces 2 teaspoons of sugar.
May said the market for stevia not only will result in economic gains for his firm, but also will have another effect.
Stevia “is the perfect crop for Third World countries,” said May. “It can only be grown in hot, humid climates where a lot of marijuana and cocaine plants are now being raised for the illegal drug markets. These countries now will have a choice to grow a plant that is healthy — and profitable.”