James May is the Founder and CEO of Wisdom Natural Brands®, maker of SweetLeaf® brand Stevia products and Wisdom of the Ancients® herbal teas. He was the first person to introduce the rainforest herbs stevia and yerba maté to the U.S. in 1982, and is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on these herbs. Mr. May’s company became the first to receive FDA GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status for stevia products in 2008.
In May of 2010, Mr. May was the first to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from Stevia World International at the Stevia World Europe conference in Geneva, Switzerland. In March of 2011 he was presented with the first American Herbal Products Association Visionary Award. As the first person to bring stevia to the US in 1982, James May is globally recognized as The Father of Stevia for his lifetime commitment to researching and promoting the benefits of stevia. In May 2014 the Paraguayan President of CAPASTE (Chamber of Stevia), presented James May with their award of gratitude and recognition for successfully launching stevia as a natural, zero calorie, zero carbohydrate sweetener in the United States. And just recently, James May has been awarded the Specialty Food Association Leadership Award for Vision. This very prestigious industry award is for his leadership, above and beyond, in advancing food standards in society by creating social, economic, and environmental impact, innovation and vision.
BusinessInterviews.com: Can you share the story behind discovering the health benefits of stevia?
James: In the beginning, I learned about the health and healing benefits of stevia directly from the descendants of the ancient Guarani natives who had discovered and used stevia for its sweetening and healing benefits for more than 1500 years. Having tasted stevia leaves brought from Paraguay by a returning Peace Corps worker and reading studies by Japanese scientists, I went to Paraguay to learn more about stevia. I gave stevia leaves to friends and anyone willing to try them. Everyone wanted more leaves. I returned to Paraguay and set up a company to harvest rainforest herbs and prepare them for the U.S. market. Stevia leaves were added to sweeten and enhance the flavor of the healing herbs as well as the leaves for stevia tea and as a liquid concentrate, made by cooking the leaves in pure water. People using the teas would call me, write letters and often come to see me to say thank you.
BusinessInterviews.com: Can you talk about the process of introducing stevia into the mainstream US market and any challenges that you encountered along the way?
James: The FDA was aware that stevia had been determined safe by the Japanese Ministry of Health in 1975 and approved as a sweetener and food additive. By 1982 stevia had a 40% market share as a commercial sweetener.
In those days no one in the U.S. had ever heard of stevia so I was trying to introduce a new product that no consumer was familiar with. In 1985, G.D. Searle, the drug company that originally developed aspartame as a prescription only drug for peptic ulcers and had just gotten it allowed as an artificial sweetener learned that I was marketing Paraguayan stevia. They persuaded FDA to stop the small “Arizona Company” from importing and marketing stevia in the United States. In 1993 I met with several Senators and Congressmen in Washington and by showing them the published scientific studies, convinced them that what FDA was doing was a restraint of trade and had nothing to do with the safety of stevia.
The next year 1994 Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) allowing various herbs to be marketed to consumers. Stevia was added to the list in 1995. However, FDA issued a written notice that when marketing stevia as a Dietary Supplement the word sweet could not be used to describe stevia, nor could the public be informed that stevia would enhance the flavor of food or beverage. If this information appeared on the label or in any advertisement FDA would consider the product “adulterated” and remove it from store shelves. That is when I came up with the name SweetLeaf as a brand name for our stevia products. It was not describing the taste of stevia it was merely a brand name, thus totally within the restrictions.
The final great obstacle was in 2007 when Cargill announced that they would have a single stevia glycoside declared GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) and that they would be the first to achieve the designation.
I knew that I had to act fast and with boldness. I contracted with an independent firm of former FDA GRAS scientists to perform the required studies and determine if SweetLeaf® stevia, a blend of the most desirable glycosides is GRAS. After nearly a year of research they determined that SweetLeaf is GRAS. I then contracted with a second independent firm of Scientists to perform the same research. They agreed, and in June of 2008 I went to New York City and made the announcement through numerous TV and radio media that SweetLeaf stevia was now a legal sweetener and would be marketed as a table-top sweetener and as an ingredient for all food and beverages.
Now, numerous companies have achieved GRAS status for their stevia and the competition is fierce. However, SweetLeaf Stevia® is the brand of stevia consistently winning numerous international taste and innovation awards.
BusinessInterviews.com: How has the company evolved since first launching back in 1982?
James: In 1982 I started the company as a sole proprietorship working out of my home office with the garage as my warehouse. I incorporated in 1984.
BusinessInterviews.com: How important is social media to your overall marketing strategy?
James: Very important. We know that consumers today get their information many ways including internet access through their desktops, laptops, and smart phones. Social Media is critical and gives us the opportunity to talk to our customers daily and to keep them informed on the wonderful benefits of stevia.
BusinessInterviews.com: How has the increased export of stevia helped improve the economy of Paraguay?
James: SweetLeaf Stevia® Sweetener is proud to announce that the Paraguayan Chamber of Stevia, CAPASTE, recently honored company Founder and CEO James May with an award of gratitude and recognition for successfully launching stevia as a natural, zero calorie, zero carbohydrate sweetener in the United States. Stevia has contributed to the growth in the global sweetener market as the demand for sugar alternatives grow. Latin American economies have benefited from May’s contributions to the nearly billion dollar industry.
BusinessInterviews.com: What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for 2015?
James: We are constantly developing new products and 2015 will be no exception. We are thrilled about our ingredients, and soon to be announced new, innovative products. Just recently we launched our all –new Cooking With Stevia Cookbook. 119 delicious recipes that are all delicious and easy to prepare. Be sure to follow us on our Facebook page watching for the latest and all-new products to be launched in 2015!
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