James May, hailed as the “father of stevia,” died after heart complications on February 28, 2017. May left a long and successful career as a health care executive and an internationally known specialist of end-stage renal disease after a friend introduced him to the sweet plant stevia (Stevia rebaudiana, Asteraceae). Recognizing the potential for an alternative, natural sweetener in the US market, May founded Gilbert, Arizona-based Wisdom Natural Brands in 1985 and began the long legal journey to convince the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of stevia’s safety as a food.
Native to Paraguay and Brazil, stevia had been used by the Guaraní people of the region for more than 1,500 years as a sweetener. The plant became popular in Japan as it replaced synthetic sweeteners in food products and sodas in the 1970s. However, when May began importing the plant to the United States, it was relatively unknown outside of natural food retail channels. After the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the FDA revised its 1991 full import ban of stevia and recognized the plant and its extracts as dietary ingredients, but May’s battle continued: Wisdom Natural Brands received a warning letter in 2004 from the FDA due to the presence of whole-leaf stevia in its products, which the FDA considered “an unsafe food additive.”1 (Unlike foods and dietary ingredients, food additives require FDA pre-market approval that involves the FDA’s review of relevant literature to determine the proposed additive’s safety.)
Under May’s leadership, Wisdom Natural Brands pioneered the formulation of stevia-based sweeteners through its development of a water-membrane filtration and extraction system. The company’s SweetLeaf extract was the first to gain Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status in March 2008, followed shortly thereafter by products from industrial giants such as Cargill in collaboration with the Coca-Cola Co. later that year. However, the GRAS designation only applies to “highly purified” rebaudioside A, one of the primary components responsible for stevia’s sweet taste, and does not apply to whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts.2
In his business pursuits, May worked closely with the farmers and growers of his stevia in the plant’s native Paraguay. He contributed to research for the ideal growing methods to enhance the plant’s flavor, increase yields, and produce a better crop for the market. May’s efforts earned him personal recognition from Frederico Franco, the president of Paraguay, in 2012. Today, the stevia market is worth almost a billion dollars annually.
May received the American Herbal Products Association’s (AHPA’s) very first Visionary Award in 2011, an award created in his honor. Further industry recognition came from the Specialty Food Association, which awarded May the 2015 Visionary Leadership Award, and from New Hope Natural Media at its Natural Products Expo West, which inducted May and his wife Carol into its Hall of Legends in 2016.
AHPA President Michael McGuffin expressed his appreciation for May’s work in the natural products industry and mourned his passing, writing, “Throughout his life, Jim demonstrated unwavering, persistent dedication to advancing all-natural stevia, working for more than 25 years to achieve regulatory approval. He has been widely lauded for his leadership in spawning a new industry.”3
“Jim May was one of those rare people who has helped to define the natural foods and herb industries,” said American Botanical Council (ABC) Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal. “Jim was a highly-committed ‘true believer,’ a person who was devoted to the value proposition that there was a rightful place in the market for a safe, natural, relatively low-cost, non-caloric plant that could be used as a food and as a sweetener. Despite considerable opposition from a then-obstructive FDA, Jim kept his focus and his attention on pushing for acceptance of stevia. Millions of Americans, and other consumers around the world, owe him a deep debt of gratitude, as do we at ABC for his long-time support of ABC’s nonprofit educational mission.”
May’s friends and colleagues remember him as a business leader, a stalwart member of his community, and a dedicated husband and father. He is survived by his wife Carol; children Stephen, Michael, Shannon, and Erin; seven grandchildren; and his sister Ramona Sterling. He was preceded in death by his children James and David. Wisdom Natural Brands states that it will continue as a family business, with Carol May as president and Michael May as chief operating officer.
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition – Fiscal Year 2004. US Food and Drug Administration website. 2004. Available at: www.fda.gov/downloads/iceci/enforcementactions/enforcementstory/enforcementstoryarchive/ucm091467.pdf. Accessed April 5, 2017.
- What refined stevia preparations have been evaluated by FDA to be used as a sweetener? US Food and Drug Administration website. January 5, 2017. Available here: https://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm214865.htm. Accessed April 5, 2017.
- AHPA president Michael McGuffin on the passing of James A. May [press release]. Silver Spring, MD: American Herbal Products Association; March 7, 2017.