Industry lauds accomplishments of late stevia pioneer James May

Jim May talking to NutraIngredients-USA & FoodNavigator-USA in 2010

Herbal industry experts were quick to laud the accomplishments of stevia pioneer Jim May, founder of Wisdom Natural Brands, who died this week at the age of 80.

"AHPA and its members are extremely grateful to Jim for his leadership and his many significant contributions to our herbal community, and we are saddened by his passing. Jim was a friend, and he will be greatly missed." said Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association. "Throughout his life, Jim demonstrated unwavering, persistent dedication to advancing all-natural stevia, working for more than 25 years to achieve regulatory approval.

“He was the most ardent, longtime and passionate advocate for stevia both on the industrial and trade level but also on the regulatory front, said Mark Blumenthal, found and executive director of the American Botanical Council.

May, known as the ‘Father of Stevia,’ was the first to bring the plant to the US market in 1982.  He faced an uphill battle with the Food and Drug Administration, which took a dim view of the plant.

“Back in the day stevia was misclassified by FDA as a food additive so that its safety had to be proved before it could go to market,” Blumenthal said. “He pushed and pushed since the early 1980s to get the government to recognize the safety of stevia and to classify it properly. FDA came out with some arguments based on some tenuous science to support their position that stevia was unsafe for human use.

Driver for DSHEA

May’s advocacy on the subject of stevia was one of the drivers for the creation of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, according to AHPA. Stevia had been banned prior to that law’s passage over safety concerns, and was able to enter the market as a dietary ingredient for supplements thereafter.  Now a number of stevia formulations, including Wisdom’s Sweet Leaf brand, have GRAS status.

May has been recognized several times for his accomplishments. In 2011 AHPA  gave May its Visionary Award, which was created especially to honor him. It recognized May for his lifetime of work bringing stevia to the United States and advancing it as a sweetener.  May has also received two Lifetime Achievement awards from international stevia associations and was given personal recognition by the president of Paraguay, where much of the stevia crop was grown in the early days.  Additionally,  May was presented the Visionary Leadership Award by the Specialty Food Association in 2015. The association's award honors members who have gone above and beyond in advancing food standards in society-and society itself-by creating social, economic, and environmental impact through innovation and vision.

McGuffin lauded May for his “ tireless work to promote stevia as an agricultural crop in developing countries for family farmers and as a natural sweetener that could help fight childhood obesity and diabetes.

Blumenthal said that even with all of the accolades, those panegyrics pale in comparison to the size of the market May helped create.

“He probably had not gotten adequate credit for the creation of a market for what now has become a major commodity,he said.

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