James May

Gilbert resident James May is the recipient of this year's Vision award by the Specialty Food Association.

Gilbert resident James May was recently awarded the Vision award by the Specialty Food Association for his extensive work with stevia and his dedication toward bettering lives.

Stevia is a plant that is commonly found in South America and can be used as a substitute for sugar as a sweetener.

Although May was recognized for his leadership and his work, it didn’t come quite that easy for him.

Originally, May was considered one of the founders of the kidney and dialysis transplant programs in Arizona, and was involved with the program for 15 years.

“I was considered the foremost expert in my field in America,” he said.

May was introduced to the world of stevia by a friend who had returned from being in the peace core in Paraguay and brought back a few stevia leaves.

“In the course of our conversation he began telling me about various healing herbs in the rainforest of Paraguay,” May said.

At first, May was a bit hesitant about stevia, but came to find out that the leaf — when consumed — had a natural-sweet taste to it.

“The longer I had it in my mouth the sweeter it became,” May said. “What happens is your saliva begins to extract the sweet glycoside out of the leaves, and it has a wonderful flavor and sweetness.”

He researched stevia and found out the plant had a tremendous amount of health benefits for the human body such as regulating blood pressure and lowering a person’s blood sugar.

“It just does incredible things to the human body,” May said. “It generates better health and well-being.”

It was during that time that May decided to pursue a career to push stevia to the forefront as a natural sweetener.

The decision didn’t come without a fair share of criticism from the public, which May said he heard people say he had lost his mind and was going to fail.

Despite the tremendous criticism and flack, May felt in his heart of hearts that he had made the right decision and kept to his work with stevia.

He was deemed the “father of stevia” years back because he was the first person to introduce the product in the U.S. back in 1982.

May later became the founder of both Wisdom Natural Brands and SweetLeaf Stevia Sweetener, which is currently sold in more than 30 countries and has won 14 worldwide awards for taste and innovation, according to May.

In addition to receiving the Vision award, May has won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Stevia Foundation, along with being the recipient of the first American Herbal Products Association Visionary Award.

May said he’s honored to be recognized as a visionary for his work with stevia because it showed that despite all the criticism he endured throughout the years — in the end — it was the right decision to make.

“When I got involved with stevia and these other herbs in Paraguay people thought I had lost my mind … It was very difficult times and it lasted several years,” he said. “I’ve gone from all that to becoming a visionary, so it’s deeply meaningful to me.”

• Contact writer: (480) 898-4903 or dochoa@evtrib.com.

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