On Sunday, January 11, 2015, the Specialty Food Association’s Winter Fancy Food Show awards ceremony was held in San Francisco, with James A. May, Founder/CEO of Wisdom Natural Brands®, parent company of SweetLeaf®, as a recipient of the Leadership Vision Award.
Standing among a group of groundbreaking leaders in the industry and a panel of well-regarded judges made up of Donna Daniels, Social Venture Network; David Gagnon, Organic Trade Association; John Raiche, UNFI; Errol Schweizer, Whole Foods Market; and Rory Treats, City Harvest, May delivered his acceptance speech telling his inspiring story of how he brought stevia to the USA.
Like a true visionary, May’s journey to international recognition and prestige started with the earnest intention to make the world a better place. “Stevia is literally changing the world. Not only is it making the world a sweeter place, but stevia improves health and well-being,” May said during his speech.
May was the first to bring stevia leaves to the United States in 1982 after tasting their intense sweetness when a Peace Corps volunteer offered him a sample. May went on to learn about the 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 1,500 years. From what he discovered in Paraguay, his journey to bring the attributes of stevia to households everywhere began.
In 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, the 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 foods or beverages. If this information appeared on the label or in any advertisement, the FDA would consider the product “adulterated” and remove it from store shelves.
“That is when I came up with the name SweetLeaf. It wasn’t describing the products; it was a name brand, thus, totally within the restrictions.” May said, further evoking his innovative vision for SweetLeaf Stevia®.
One of the biggest accomplishments May spoke about was when, in 2008, SweetLeaf Stevia was the first to receive GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status from the FDA. This meant that May’s drive to show the public that stevia was the better-for-everyone choice in sweetening had broken through a huge barrier.
Following his vision to touch the world with the benefits of stevia, SweetLeaf has to date received 14 international awards for taste and innovation. With a variety of liquid stevia and powder products sold to manufacturers and consumers in more than 30 countries, SweetLeaf is quickly becoming a household name as the top alternative for sugar. As a visionary in his field, May has overcome the challenges before him with a genuine sense of purpose.
“I have always been motivated by a greater good. As a child, I was taught by my parents to be good and to do good at all times and in all ways! I came to know that stevia is a wonderful, healthier way to add sweet taste to food and beverages without any of the harmful effects of artificial ingredients or sugar,” May said. “It was just the right thing to do. My company and I are sincerely interested in doing good for our fellow man.”
Gilbert, Arizona-based Wisdom Natural Brands® is the parent company of two highly respected and award-winning consumer brands: SweetLeaf Stevia® Sweetener and Wisdom of the Ancients® herbal teas.