Sweet Talk


James May introduced stevia and yerba maté to the U.S. in 1982 and founded Wisdom Natural Brands, the parent company of SweetLeaf stevia and Wisdom of the Ancients tea.

James May, the man who brought stevia to the U.S., wanted to offer consumers a healthy alternative to sugar. But before he got there, he faced more than the usual set of bureaucratic roadblocks.

Legend has it that many, many years ago, a shaman of the Guaraní people in Paraguay was the expert for healing natives. He often used stevia in his mixtures. On his deathbed years later, the shaman told the Guaranís that he was taking with him his knowledge of stevia. But, he said, a man from a foreign country will some day arrive and teach the people about the leaf’s healing nature.

In 2009, at the Stevia Symposium in Paraguay, a man shared this legend with James May. The man told May, who introduced stevia and yerba maté to the U.S. in 1982, that he has at last fulfilled the legend. And after decades of braving barricades on his way to proliferating stevia and sharing his passion with the world, May himself believes in the legend.

“I was really impressed by powers beyond this world that I needed to do this,” he said.d

Thirty-two years after its U.S. debut, stevia is now widely accepted as a sweetener that fits in the sugar-substitute conversation. But May’s story offers ingredient suppliers an intimate look into not just the birth of stevia, but also the way an ingredient is found, refined, marketed and spread. It tells of how a plant from a distant country can make its way into public consciousness. It argues that one man and a little curiosity can be enough.

If you ask Paddy Spence, a daily stevia consumer and the CEO of Zevia, a zero-calorie carbonated soft drink company that uses stevia instead of sugar, he’ll tell you that May is the father of the modern stevia industry.

“Jim is one of the true pioneers of not just beverages, but of natural foods in general,” Spence said.

While not a dominant force in the sweetener industry for mainstream products, stevia has nonetheless elevated beyond the natural channel into a sweetener used in many conventional offerings. It has traits that bode well in the natural channel, yet can also be applied to mainstream staples such as teas and colas. It’s free of calories and carbohydrates and has a zero glycemic index. May said that there are more than 1,500 scientific studies on the healing properties of stevia. He said that it can balance blood pressure and blood sugar, nourish the pancreas, kill free radicals that lead to various diseases and eliminate oral bacteria that leads to tooth decay and gum disease.

Stevia has become an object of fascination for food and beverage scientists interested in cracking the code. It’s a race toward a marketable, scalable form of stevia that recalls the gold rush of 1849. Except this time, there’s less gold and still plenty of digging.

“I think we’re going to see stevia cultivation continue to spread worldwide,” Spence said.

For such ubiquity to ever become fathomable, May first had to spend a significant chunk of his life challenging the tangles of free enterprise in the U.S., the market’s lack of stevia awareness and his own endurance. It was difficult, he said, but it’s been a life of honor. It’s been a life that helps others. And in a market with growing competition from the likes of Cargill and Stevia First Corp., among others, it’s been a test of the first-mover advantage, as well.

Finding Stevia, Yerba Maté

May first learned of stevia in 1982 when a young man from the Peace Corps had returned from Paraguay with a bunch of leaves in a cellophane bag. May tasted one of the leaves and thought it was sweet. He thought it was delicious.

“The longer I held it in my mouth, the sweeter it got,” he said.

After years of working in the medical industry, May thought of stevia as something different and exotic. He did some research. He found that Japan’s government approved stevia in 1975 and that by 1982, it held 40 percent of the market share for commercial sweeteners in that country. May said that he gave his life savings to the Peace Corps worker to return to Paraguay and send back more stevia. When May received the stevia, he used it for a variety of purposes. He did some flavor testing. He gave samples to anyone willing to try, so long as they shared their opinions. This was primitive market research.

May knew he had to visit Paraguay himself. Before he left, he promised his wife that he’d lay tile in the bathroom floor.

“You know how that goes,” he said.

But the night before his flight, he hadn’t yet laid the tile, so he stayed up into the twilight finishing the job, then showered and left at 4 a.m., figuring he’d be able to sleep on the plane. However, May was intensely allergic to tobacco. And back in the 80s, especially on a flight to Paraguay, tobacco smoke was more pervasive than the deplorable crooning of Rick Astley. May couldn’t sleep on the flight. When he arrived in Paraguay, he didn’t want to meet with the farmers, press, business people, politicians. He just wanted to rest.

“I was really sick and totally exhausted,” he said.

A friend who met him there said that he’d be fine. Drink some yerba maté with stevia and you’ll be OK, he said. May had never heard of the stuff, but he drank it anyway. 15 to 20 minutes later, the fog of his unrested brain had cleared. He felt energized. 45 minutes later, his allergies were gone. After going to Paraguay to learn more about stevia, he found yerba maté, a naturally-caffeinated herbal tea, which he would also introduce to the U.S.

Guayaki, the most popular ready-to-drink brand, says that yerba maté has the “strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate.” May flipped this discovery into his own venture: Wisdom of the Ancients, a loose leaf tea company that offers a few different varieties of yerba maté.

But despite its equally foreign nature, marketing yerba maté never gave May the same challenges as stevia. With the sweetener, he was taking on an American economic heavyweight. He was taking on sugar.

Political Sidestepping 

JamesMayIt might seem like an incongruous image, but apparently Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, once read Vegetarian Times. He wasn’t contemplating “known knowns” or “unknown unknowns” at the time, but rather ways to promote aspartame, a product owned by G.D. Searle & Co., where he was the President and CEO. After reading a Vegetarian Times Magazine about May and stevia in 1985, Rumsfeld didn’t want stevia in the U.S., and Rumsfeld told the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to stop the import of stevia into the country, according to May.

The FDA followed with its own brand of restrictions. At the time, stevia was marketable only as a skin care product. May obliged and changed the label.

Shortly after, May went to Washington and met with Jon Kyl, former Senator and minority whip from Arizona, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and several other members of Congress. He showed them piles of research on stevia. He told them that the FDA was engaging in restraint of trade that had nothing to do with stevia. The politicians agreed. They wrote letters to the FDA asking for a reversal of opinion. They got letters back. All had the same message: do not tell the FDA what to do.

In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act slightly loosened the reins. When May applied for stevia to be regarded as a dietary supplement, the FDA said that he couldn’t inform consumers that it tastes sweet or that it will enhance the flavor of any food or beverage. If he didn’t follow these guidelines, the FDA said that it had the right to remove all of his stevia products from the stores.

“Talk about corrupt,” May said. “How do you inform consumers?”

This was when May came up with SweetLeaf as a brand name. An FDA agent later praised the decision: it got the message across and nobody could do anything about it.

“They all knew it was just a political game that Rumsfeld had got them involved in,” May said.

May has continued to take steps toward legitimizing this once foreign ingredient. In 2007, after years of marketing stevia as a dietary supplement, he sought GRAS (generally recognized as safe) certification for his products. He hired two independent firms of scientists — GRAS Associates and Life Sciences Research Organization — who took a year and made their conclusion. On March 5, 2008, SweetLeaf became the first stevia-based sweetener to be given GRAS status.

Where Stevia Goes, May Goes 

He’s been to London, Paris and Geneva. He’s been to Malta, Frankfurt and Cancun. Anytime a new country introduces stevia, May gets a speech request.

“My mission has been to teach people not only about the sweetening effects of stevia,” he said, “but about it’s healing benefits.”

Yet for all of his global travels, the visits to Paraguay, where his herbal journey began, have stuck out in his mind. At the 7th Annual Stevia Symposium in 2012, he was somewhat surprised to find police and armed soldiers everywhere he looked. As one of the event’s speakers, May sat down in one of the front rows. He then heard that the president of Paraguay was there to present a special award. Soon after, security forces lifted May out of his chair and carried him to the stage. He was introduced to the president, who came to the symposium to thank May for his contributions to Paraguay’s economy. They gave him a plaque. In words swelled with emotion, May called it “a real honor.”

The memory helps May remember his stevia roots. He remembers that before anyone knew or wanted the plant, when it was blocked by the FDA and other political motives, he told farmers in Paraguay to keep growing stevia. He promised that the efforts of the Guaraní people would be worthwhile.

“They’re really a friendly, good people,” he said, “and I’m just delighted that I’ve been able to do something to help them.”