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Specialty Food Magazine is the leading publication for retailers, manufacturers and foodservice professionals in the specialty food trade. It provides news, trends and business-building insights that help readers keep their businesses competitive.

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Page 34 of 139

James May, Wisdom Natural Brands J ames May was a longtime healthcare executive and founder of a kid- ney dialysis and transplant program in Arizona when, in 1982, he first heard about a plant called stevia. It took 13 years to openly import it into the U.S., but today, stevia has gained a national foothold. Inspiration In the early 1980s, a friend of a friend, just returned from the Peace Corps in Paraguay, brought May stevia leaves to taste, extolling their power to cure colds and flu. "I'd been working with doctors and hospitals and thought herbs were quackery," May recalls. He held his skepticism and, touching the plant to his lips, detected its sweetness. Intrigued, he dug into researching its properties and was impressed. He learned that Japan, a forerunner in importing stevia, had 40 percent of the market share in the U.S. for commercial sweeteners. For 1,500 years, stevia has been used for medicinal pur- poses and as a sweetener by Paraguay's native Guarani people, May explains. He began to see its potential. "I wrote that young man a check with my life's savings," he says. "Can you imagine how my wife felt when I said the next morning, 'I gave all of our savings away'?" Impact May himself traveled to Paraguay in 1983, then under martial law, and launched a business selling stevia leaves in skin care products and in herbal teas, trademarking the sweetener as Honey Leaf. Called the father of stevia, he was the first to commercially market it in the U.S. At May's urging, his medical friends gave stevia to their kidney patients and noticed improvement, he says. Drug companies fought it, sensing competition, May says. The CDC and the FDA tried to shut him down. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, May battled them in court and in Congress, claiming restraint of trade. "The ban had nothing to do with safety," he explains. "It became my mission to win." He had convinced Paraguayan farmers to grow more, and he was determined to keep paying them for their crops. In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, allowing May to import the product unencumbered. Since then, the zero-calorie, zero-carb, non-GMO sweetener and supplement has been on a speedy trajectory. May's inf luence has been felt in Paraguay too. Many poor farm- ers have begun growing the crop instead of supplying the illegal drug trade at the government's urging. In 2012, the president of Paraguay honored May with a special award for his contribution in changing the country's economy. Today, stevia is available globally, in fresh, dried, crumbled, and liquid forms. May's Wisdom Natural Brands, based in Gilbert, Ariz., markets it under the name SweetLeaf, which recently won its 14th international taste award. The Future Wisdom Natural Brands continues to add new stevia-based prod- ucts, including organic powdered packets and shaker jars, as well as fruit-flavored water enhancers. May still loves working 12-hour days as CEO; his wife, Carol—who forgave him long ago for giving away their savings—is the company's president. "Stevia will continue to increase every year until eventually we'll have a substantial part of the marketplace for sweeteners," May predicts. "I don't think there's any end in sight." Called the father of stevia, May was the frst to commercially market it in the U.S. His infuence has been felt in Paraguay's economy, where many poor farmers have begun growing the crop instead of supplying the illegal drug trade. 2015 LEADERSHIP AWARD: VISION Julie Besonen is food editor for Paper magazine and a restaurant columnist for nycgo.com. 32 ❘ SPECIALTY FOOD MAGAZINE specialtyfood.com

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