Five-hundred years ago, the Guarani Indians of Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia started using the plant Ka’a He’ê — translated to English as “sweet herb” — for consumption and medical treatments.
Today, under the modern name “Stevia,” and thanks in no small part to the efforts of James May and his Gilbert-based company, Wisdom Natural Brands, it is consumption, as a zero-calorie sweetener in particular, that’s currently helping the product see significant worldwide growth.
May first came in contact with Stevia in the early 1980s. He saw the potential of both creating a business and promoting the consumer benefits of the product — used today as a natural alternative to sugar and other sweeteners. He traveled to Paraguay, home to an abundance of the “sweet herb” plants, to pursue his goal.
Thirty-one years later, after many successes — and certinaly a few setbacks, too — May, labeled by some as the “Father of Stevia,” is credited by industry leaders with helping stevia cultivation and distribution become a near $1 billion global industry.
The story of May’s Gilbert-based company, Wisdom Natural Brands, and its connection to Stevia begins long before he was introduced to the plant in 1982.
The Guarani Indians of South America had presented the plant to the conquistadors when who came to their area in the 1500s. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, scientists began studying and determining ways to use the sweet qualities of Stevia as a possible sugar substitute, and by the time World War II ended, many countries — including the United States and United Kingdom were researching stevia as a possible substitute sweetener.
Japan was also researching the plant, seeing the potential of starting a Stevia industry of its own; by the time May had found out about the plant in 1982, it’s reported that a significant number of products in Japan already had Stevia in them.
Before Stevia entered May’s life he was involved in the field of renal disease, or kidney failure. Long a healthcare executive, May said he’s worked with both the artificial and transplant organ programs at Phoenix’s Good Samaritan Hospital, and has been on the board of directors of the Arizona Kidney Foundation and End Stage Renal Disease as well.
May’s Stevia experience began when, while at a get-together with friends, he met a Peace Corps volunteer who started telling him about the health benefits of Stevia. At first May didn’t believe the story, but the volunteer took out a sample of the plant and gave it to May to taste it. May was surprised at its sweet taste. The volunteer proceeded to tell him about the history and science of Stevia and May became immediately intrigued by it.
May said he saw so much potential in the plant that he decided to use his life savings to travel to Paraguay and start a business.
At the beginning of his new career, May already had a wife and five children; his wife, Carol, remembers the family had to sell almost everything they had during the first years.
“We started selling from our garage and the children even helped by putting labels on the boxes,” said Carol May, a former marriage and family therapist, and now the president of SweetLeaf working alongside her husband.
Bringing back a business
Upon May’s first trek to Paraguay, the issues with turning the sweet herb plant into what is now known as Stevia soon became apparent.
He said he met the ministers of commerce and agriculture before being introduced local farmers and businesses. Unfortunately because there was not much interest in Stevia, many of the farmers had stopped growing the plant and it took much convincing to get them to start cultivating it again.
May said some had even started growing other plants — in some cases marijuana and coca for the drug trade. But by offering them a steady, honest way to continue working, it didn’t take long for many of the farmers to join May’s business venture, he said.
As May worked to get the business off the ground the first few years — he first started selling Yerba Mate Tea with Stevia — he ran into trouble in 1985, he said, when a publication wrote a short story about his business. As May puts it, companies that supported aspartame — a popular artifical sweetener — took notice of the article and used it to try to get him to stop selling Stevia as an alternative sweetener on its own.
Ultimately, May said the Food and Drug Administration told him he couldn’t bring Stevia to the U.S. as a separate sweetener — only if it was part of his herbal teas.
May continued to fight the ruling, eventually tapping U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl for help in 1993. He argued his business was the victim of restrictive trade. According to May, the senators got letters back from the FDA telling them, in essence, that Congress had no business in FDA decisions.
Even still, whether it had any influence or not, it wasn’t long before congress passed the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education act; the act allows dietary products and their ingredients to be put under different sets of rules than those of “regular” food and pharmaceutical drugs, and in May’s case allowed for Stevia to be used as a dietary supplement, though still not a sweetener.
May said he had to get creative and figure out a way to get people to see that the product was sweet, without explicitely saying it to them. That, he says, is how the name SweetLeaf was created, with the brand serving as the ultimate descriptor.
A sweet commodity
In 2007, May focused his efforts on continuing to get ahead of the bigger companies which were trying to get into the Stevia business, May said he hired two organizations — GRAS Associates and the Life Sciences Research Office — to conduct studies to see if his product was safe enough to be marketed as a sweetner. GRAS Associates is a organization that helps companies meet, or prove that it meets, the “Generally Recognized as Safe” standard — hence the company’s name — as set by the FDA. The Life Sciences Research Office, May explained, is a non-profit organization that brings together groups of scientists to evaluate scientific data.
The studies were finished a year later, and May said SweetLeaf was granted GRAS certification, allowing it to be sold as a sweetner. Life Sciences also found that the product was safe and agreed with GRAS’ findings, leading to the FDA sending May a “no questions” letter; the letter isn’t a complete FDA affirmation of SweetLeaf, but it still allows May’s company to continue selling the product.
‘Father of Stevia’
May stands by his SweetLeaf product — and the ability of his business to be one of the pioneers of the trade.
“When he started, you could see he had a passion and vision for Stevia. I am very proud of him of his work and how he has been helpful for people’s health and farmers,” Carol said.
Throughout the years, May has been honored internationally with numerous awards for his work with Stevia. In addition to being presented the Lifetime Achievement Award by Stevia World International and the Visionary Award by the American Herbal Products Association, May has been honored by the President of Paraguay for his contributions to the country.
May himself is proud that the company was able to bring more awareness to the Stevia product.
“I am honored to been known as the father of Stevia,” May said.
Tribune Video: Jim May explains SweetLeaf, Stevia
Abel, a senior studying journalism at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.