if the FDA didnt exist we could sell this stuff as a great form of sugar with out calaries. but in this case instead of helping us lead healthier lives the FDA is acting like a bunch of mafia thugs helping the folks that sell sugar shut down the competition


Herb sweetens family business Company's products based on Stevia

Betty Beard The Arizona Republic Jan. 23, 2006 12:00 AM

Mesa resident Jim May's $10 million company got its start when he agreed to taste a suspicious-looking leaf from Paraguay in 1982.

May and his son, former legislator Steve May, say their Gilbert-based Wisdom Natural Brands Co. has 70 percent of the U.S. market for products based on a naturally sweet herb called Stevia.

Products, such as SweetLeaf Stevia Plus and the popular new flavored Stevia Clear liquids, have gone beyond health-food stores into mainstream groceries and are about to be tested in Wal-Mart stores.

Ironically, the products still can't be legally labeled or called what they are best known as: natural sweeteners.

From the first time he tasted a Stevia leaf, Jim May was impressed with its sweetness, which is said to be at least 30 times as sweet as sugar. He first thought he was being offered an illicit drug in 1982 when a man who had just returned from a stint with the Peace Corps in Paraguay showed him a cellophane bag with leaves in it.

He finally tasted a leaf and discovered that the longer it stayed in his mouth, the sweeter it became. May was so impressed with the Stevia herb that he invested his life savings to order more leaves and began selling Stevia-sweetened herb teas out of his garage in Phoenix. Steve May, then 10, became his stockboy.

The business kept growing and moved from the Mays' garage after five years into a Tempe building, a Mesa building and, finally last fall, into a building that the company built in a Gilbert industrial park.

Sales, too, have grown: $10 million a year.

The 21 employees at the Gilbert plant mostly handle sales and packing. Manufacturing is outsourced to other companies, including Herbally Yours Inc.

Wisdom's biggest obstacle is that the federal Food and Drug Administration allows Stevia products to be sold only as dietary or nutritional supplements and not food additives or sweeteners.

One of Wisdom's ads pokes fun at this by saying, "Don't sweeten . . . Supplement it!"

Because the Mays can't label or advertise their products as sweeteners, the company has captured just a fraction of the U.S. market for natural or artificial sweeteners that is dominated by Splenda, Equal and Sweet'N Low.

"You wouldn't even see us as a blip on the radar screen," Jim May said.

The Mays say it would take millions of dollars and several years to finance the tests that FDA requires to prove Stevia's safety as a sweetener. They say that many tests have been done and that Stevia products have been used for centuries in Paraguay and Brazil and are widely used in Japan.

"The FDA approval process is two parts, science and politics. We have the science, but we have not mastered the politics," said Steve May, Wisdom's president.

Kimerly Rawlings, a spokeswoman for the FDA in Rockville, Md., said, "Any company that would like to have Stevia considered a sweetener would have to petition the FDA. They would have to provide necessary documentation to go along with it."

Meanwhile, she said it can just be marketed as a dietary supplement. "Because it's derived from a shrub, it's a natural product," she said.

Nevertheless, Wisdom's sales have been growing about 30 percent a year, mostly through word of mouth.

An ever-growing demand exists, Steve May said, "for all-natural, no-calorie sweeteners. And that is why we're seeing the success of Splenda."

Wisdom produces Stevia products, under its brand name SweetLeaf, in liquid and powder forms.

After three years of research, Steve May created Stevia Clear, a flavored liquid product that comes in six flavors. Soon, the company will introduce six more, including milk chocolate, dark chocolate, root beer and strawberry.

The "dietary supplements" can be used to flavor and sweeten water, milk, unsweetened yogurt and other foods. Just four drops are needed to flavor eight ounces of water. The Mays say their products are ideal for diabetics and dieters.

At the Whole Foods store in Tempe, Wisdom's SweetLeaf-branded products aren't placed with food products because of the FDA restriction. Customers looking for natural sweeteners with no calories, aspartame (Equal) or saccharin (Sweet'N Low) still manage to find them in the "whole body" section, said Steve Taylor, manager.

Terry Hughes, who is in charge of herbs and food supplements at Gentle Strength Cooperative in Tempe, said that the SweetLeaf products are "our Number 1 bestseller" compared with other Stevia products.

He said, "I think it is because they are a local company and they have been in business a long time. They advertised under the name Wisdom of the Ancients."

Steve May said SweetLeaf products also can be found at AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods, Bashas', Fry's Food Stores and Safeway stores. He said Wal-Mart plans to test the products and representatives soon will try to interest Trader Joe's.

Jim May, chief executive officer of Wisdom, is such a fan of Stevia that in 2003 he published the book The Miracle of Stevia, recounting his two decades of history with the herb and his recent research. He said it can be used for hypertension, low immunity, fatigue, burns, cuts and skin conditions.

The son and the father often are asked if Stevia is named for Steve May. The answer is no.

The name Stevia comes from Peter or Pedro James Esteve, a Spanish botany professor who helped introduce the herb to the world. It is known as Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni.

The name actually is pronounced "stay-veea." Because Americans are so used to pronouncing the name Steve, here, the herb's name usually is pronounced "steev-ea."

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