James May, the Father of Stevia;· recently died from heart complications. (Photo Special to Gilbert Sun News)
BY BETH DUCKETT
James May was a successful executive in the health care field before he discovered the product that would change the course of his life indefinitely.
In 1981, while attending a gathering at a friend’s house, the late Gilbert entrepreneur met a Peace Corps worker who presented him with an exotic bag of leaves from Paraguay.
The young volunteer “invited Jim to put a leaf on his tongue,” said James’ wife, Carol May.
“So, with a lot of people watching, Jim did so,” she said. “And the taste just got sweeter and sweeter.” May, a native Arizonan, realized he had something unique on his hands. He journeyed to Paraguay, meeting with government officials and academic researchers to learn more about the mysterious plant, Stevia rebaudiana, that had delighted his taste buds that day.
James May Sr., known globally as “the Father of Stevia,” recently died from heart complications at age 80.
For 35 years, May, a Mesa resident, dedicated his life to stevia, pronounced STEH-vee-ah, the popular sweetener derived from the perennial plant that is native to parts of South America.
A devoted entrepreneur, May helped lift the FDA’s ban on the substance before growing his family’s successful stevia business in Gilbert.
He also is credited as the first person to bring stevia to the United States in 1982. “It had been an answer to prayer that Jim wanted in an opportunity to really help people with their health. He had what he describes as a vision,” Carol said. “He didn’t realize how much time it would take to bring to fruition.”
May was a medical-health care executive and an internationally known specialist of End Stage Renal Disease before halting his career to advocate for stevia.
In 1982, May began working out of the garage and family room in Scottsdale. His family, with five kids at the time, survived without income for four years.
Stevia was not yet legal in the U.S. May championed the substance before a congressional delegation and, in 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which included the declaration of stevia as a dietary supplement. Regulations still limited the sweetener’s growth, however.
“One of those regulations was a dietary supplement cannot be used to sweeten or enhance the flavor of any other product,” Carol said. “We had to say things like ‘don’t sweeten your coffee, supplement it.”
May developed a premium trademarked brand of stevia, known as Sweet Leaf. The parent company, Wisdom Natural Brands, has expanded over the years, both in its offering of stevia-based products and its physical location, with corporate headquarters near McQueen and Guadalupe roads in Gilbert.
In addition to the granulated sweetener, the international company sells, among other products, liquid stevia drops in flavors and tabs for hot beverages. Sweet Leaf has won at least 29 awards, an industry record. May’s wife and his children have been involved in the family owned company, which continues with Carol as president and May’s son, Michael P. May, as chief operations officer.
“It’s a fruition of Jim’s vision and the legacy he has left us, one of focus, integrity, and premium processes and ingredients and ways to work with people,” Carol said. “We’ve been considered the premium product of our industry, both in terms of the consumer products we sell, and also for the ingredients we use.”
In 2008, May’s company reached another milestone as the first stevia product — even besting large corporations — to earn the FDA’s designation of GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe.”
Sai Prakash Chaturvedula, a scientist, met Jim and Carol May in 2013 during a Calorie Control Council meeting in Atlanta. After speaking about stevia, Chaturvedula came to understand May’s passion and “devotion to do good to the society in minimizing or eliminating the side effects of consumption of sugar.”
Chaturvedula, who has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, joined Wisdom Natural Brands in 2014 as its senior vice president and chief scientific officer.
While some competitors use stevia compounds isolated from various technologies, such as fermentation, Jim’s goal was to “use exclusively a stevia extract isolated from the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana in Sweet Leaf’s formulations, though it may not cost effective,” Chaturvedula said. “Jim’s outlook and philosophy in this industry has inspired me a lot to follow certain ethics and principles while delivering right products for the betterment of human society.”
In 2012, Paraguay’s president honored May for his contributions to the stevia industry, its impact on the country’s economy and local farming families. “People around the world have respected Jim and invited him to speak about stevia,” Carol said. “But the people of South America feel a connection that is extraordinary. It is a spiritual connection. They honor him; he has been known as the father of stevia for decades. They gave him that that title.”