Jim May Fights Global Giants to Sell His Sweet Leaf

Jim May Fights Global Giants to Sell His Sweet Leaf

Jim May, standing at the left, has spent nearly 30 years building a company around the sweet leaves of the stevia plant grown in Paraguay. Now, with the U.S. market open, he’s looking to Europe.
Image: Courtesy of SweetLeaf

Jim May’s business, Wisdom Natural Brands, started international, with the odds against it and some of the most powerful companies in the world already standing in the way. In some ways, he’s still fighting David-and-Goliath battles.

But on the long road from 1982 until now, May has persisted to build a recognizable brand, and he’s getting ready to expand that brand onto the global stage. He’s hoping after nearly 30 years for the sweet taste of more success, even though he’s still competing in a market crowded with some of the world’s biggest companies.

In 1982, May started a business based on a grass, stevia, long used by native tribes in Paraguay as a sweetener. At first, he thought he’d be able to get the natural substance approved as a sweetener in the American market; after all, stevia had been used in Japan as a sweetener for years. It didn’t turn out that way. There were already artificial sweeteners on the market here, and the bureaucratic wheels turned slowly.

It took more than 20 years and several studies to finally get that approval for stevia as a sweetener in 2007.

While he was jumping through those bureaucratic hoops, he gave his product a name that implied the sweetness factor, SweetLeaf, and had it categorized as a supplement, meaning less regulation. At first, he sold his SweetLeaf as an herbal tea.

Since 2007, though, the FDA has allowed stevia to be considered a sweetener, and May has ramped up his product line to include table sweetener packets, and in liquid form, similar to better-known brands of artificial sweeteners. He still sells the tea products, as well as extracts that can create a root-beer flavor, vanilla, and others and is working with food processors to sell them stevia as a sweetener on an industrial scale.

He’s expanding his production facility in Chile to deal with what he expects will be increased demand. And he’s working as a salesman to insure that demand develops by pushing for approval of stevia as a sweetener in Europe and developing distribution channels for when that time comes.

Last month, just back from a trip to London to pitch stevia, he was getting ready for another hop across the pond to attend a conference to tout the benefits of his product in Malta. In the next couple months, it will be back to London to meet with distributors.

Along the way, he has picked up something of the air of an evangelist for the grass, as much as a businessman trying to sell a product.

“I’m going to try and sell them on stevia and how wonderful it is for the human body,” May said. He claims that the grass can not only sweeten foods, but has no calories—and it’s natural, rather than chemically created, as with other sweeteners. He also says stevia extracts can help calm an upset stomach, has zero calories, and a zero glycemic index. “What we have done is developed a sweetener that is actually good for your health and vitality.”

But at this point, he’s still a small fish in a very, very big pond.

With roughly $16 million in revenue this year from sales mainly in the United States and Canada, May is hoping to double sales next year as he expands his company’s capacity, and the market expands to the roughly 300 million people living in the European Union. He’s hoping for that approval between the second quarter and the fourth quarter of next year. And he’s doubling the capacity of his Chile facility.

He’s up against companies with revenues in the billions, while he counts his in the millions. Now that stevia extracts have been approved as food additives, he’s competing with giants like Cargill and Coca-Cola. Those two giants have rolled out their own stevia-based sweetener, Truvia. Pepsi has introduced another, Pure Via. Sweeteners made from stevia are expected to be a $700 million market within five years.

But the way May sees it, he has an advantage over those giants. They’re just selling a product.

“I see stevia as an absolute blessing to the world,” May said. “I’m on a mission.”

by Kent Bernhard, Jr.

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