Life is Sweet: The Journey of SweetLeaf Stevia


By Gretchen Pahia

For Gilbert residents James and Carol May, life is anything but boring. The two who operate and own SweetLeaf Sweetener and Wisdom Natural Brands are the true example of living life to the fullest. In 1982, Jim was introduced to a special leaf called Stevia by a young man who had been serving in the Peace Corps in Paraguay. Despite initial reservations, according to his wife Carol, Jim gave the leaf a try.

Coral May
Carol May

“He wasn’t all that excited about putting some leaf from the rain forest into his mouth,” Carol said, “but he finally decided to take a risk. What he experienced was a dry leaf that, after sitting there on his tongue, became sweeter and sweeter.” Carol said Jim then gave the Peace Corp worker funds to retrieve more of the Stevia leaf. Jim later traveled to Paraguay himself to collect more data and connect with government officials and scientists, and the rest is history.

The couple actually began their business out of the garage in their Scottsdale home, originally starting Wisdom of the Ancients teas and brewing herbal tea with herbs from the rainforest, including Stevia. Their children helped to put herbs in boxes and take them to local health food stores. After some time, distributors started to pick up their products and sell just about everywhere. Carol says it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

Jim May
Jim May

“We gave up everything we had except our home, one car, and some college savings planned for our five young children. We used every other asset we had to get started. That was awhile back, and it has been an exciting and a rewarding journey ever since.”

When embarking on this business venture, there was a lot to consider. Both were already immersed in other careers, Jim as a hospital administrator and director of the Arizona Kidney Foundation, and Carol as a marriage and family therapist. So this wasn’t just about starting a business, it was about switching gears into new industries.

Jim was actually the first person to bring the Stevia plant to the U.S., and it’s been quite a journey to get it to where it is today as a commonly known sweetener. At first, it was considered a dietary supplement, and when the pair began working with it, you couldn’t describe any of the characteristics for legal reasons.

However, the couple worked with congressional leaders to bring about the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which helps define and regulate dietary supplements.

The benefits of Stevia are vast, especially for people with diabetes, those trying to lose weight, and everyone else who enjoys something sweet. With about 100 different nutrients, Stevia is a healthy choice and is a great substitute for processed sugar. In leaf form it is 30 times sweeter than sugar, and when extracted is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia does not spike blood sugar like refined sugar and other sweeteners, and is completely natural.

With about 100 different nutrients, Stevia is a healthy choice and is a great substitute for processed sugar.Jim May 2

Jim continues to work closely with the people of Paraguay to harvest Stevia. “The President of Paraguay told Jim he had helped the government and farmers of Paraguay in an extraordinary way, because he had believed in this plant when others did not, and had brought a new industry that was life- changing for the people,” relayed Carol.

SweetLeaf has won 24 awards for taste and innovation and was also recently inducted into the Natural Products Expo Hall of Legends. SweetLeaf also has a cookbook where you can discover ways to use Stevia in all your favorite recipes.

For more information, visit

Gretchen Pahia has 15 years experience in both media and public relations and is an award-winning television news producer in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Portland. Gretchen is a native to Arizona, born and raised in Phoenix, and a graduate of Northern Arizona University. She lives in the Phoenix metro area with her husband, their two children and their dog.

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