Prior to 1982, the only yerba mate coming into the United States was for the personal use of South Americans who either brought it with them, had friends or family members send it to them or made elaborate arrangements to buy it from a South American company.
It was a simple case of serendipity that prompted James A. May to create the first U.S. brand of yerba mate — Wisdom of the Ancients. Jim May is the president and CEO of Wisdom Natural Brands. I recently had the opportunity to visit with JimÂ at his office in Arizona and hear his story first hand.
Jim May was one of those people, probably in the majority, who thought the healing power of natural herbs was just a bunch of quackery. He had been an executive in the medical field for more than two decades, thoroughly brainwashed in the belief that if it was not a chemical drug developed by a large pharmaceutical company, it couldn’t possibly be effective.
Jim was an administrator at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona and also served as administrator for the Arizona Kidney Foundation. His specialty was the development of kidney dialysis and transplant treatment centers for End Stage Renal Disease. “ESRD,” as it is referred to, is the complete, or near complete, failure of the kidneys to perform their function of concentrating urine and excreting waste. The most common cause of ESRD in the U.S. is diabetes. The only known treatments have been dialysis or kidney transplantation.
One evening in 1982, an acquaintance invited Jim to meet with a young man who had been serving with the Peace Corps in Paraguay. During a delightful conversation, the young man spoke of many herbal remedies used in Paraguay. He claimed that these herbal remedies could cure a cold or the flu in just one day. Jim’s reaction was: “That’s absurd!”
After no small amount of cajoling and arm twisting, the young man convinced Jim to taste some stevia leaves that he had in a brief case. The leaves had a delicate sweet taste. For Jim, a man who had worked for so many years with people suffering from diabetes, you can imagine his interest in a natural sweetener– and especially when the leaves were supposed to haveÂ medicinalÂ properties too. At the end of the evening, Jim made a substantialÂ investment in a venture to bring the stevia leaves to the United States.
A few days later, Jim was suffering from a bad case of flu. Reluctantly, he tried the herbal cure that he was told about. It worked. Not only did it work for Jim, but it worked for friends who later caught colds and flu. He was now thoroughly convinced in the efficacy of the healing herbs of the rainforest.
Not long after these dramatic experiences with the leaves from Paraguay, Jim May found himself on a plane headed to South America. It was a long flight and the confined space of theÂ plane’s cabin, filled with smokers, caused a flare-up of Jim’s long-endured “hay fever” allergies.
When the plane landed, the young Peace Corps worker met him at the airport and told him of all the appointments he had arranged. Jim balked andÂ said he was too exhausted andÂ miserable andÂ just wantedÂ sleep and fresh air.
The young man took over and prepared another herbal concoction for Jim. This time it was yerba mate leaves poured into a gourd; he sprinkled stevia leaves onÂ top and then added hot water. Thinking it was some type of illicit drug, Jim said “No thanks. I don’t use drugs.” The young man insisted.
Jim finally gave in. The young man showed him how to sip the herbal infusion through a bombilla. The stevia gave the drink a pleasant, sweet taste and Jim continued to sip while the two men talked about their scheduled appointments.
WithinÂ 15minutes, Jim was feeling his exhaustion and fatigue disappear. He felt alert and energized. Within 45 minutes, the hay fever symptoms that had plagued him for more than 35 years also disappeared! He quickly learned that yerba mate had powers of its own.
When the time finallyÂ came to import stevia into the United States, existing regulations made it a seemingly impossibleÂ undertaking. Yerba mate on the other hand, was already included on the Food and Drug Administration’s “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) list. To accommodate the idiosyncrasies of the laws in 1982, Jim’s new company brand,Â Wisdom of the Ancients, was organized to import yerba mate — sweetened by stevia of course.
Wisdom of the Ancients still sells yerba mate — as loose tea, instant tea and in tea bags, even vanilla and chai flavored; but their biggest seller continues to be the one that started it all — Yerba Mate Royale — which is sweetened with stevia. The rest of the story about stevia is told by James A. May in his 2003 book “The Miracle of Stevia.” The book is out of print now, but you might be able to find a used copy on the Internet. He is currently working on a revised edition.
Jim’s belief in the healthfulÂ benefits of rainforest herbs is still palpable after all these years. After more than a quarter of a century,Â he still sips his special blend of Yerba Mate Royale every day andÂ heÂ is confident inÂ a brightÂ futureÂ for yerba mate.
Jim May’sÂ pioneeringÂ efforts and determination have earned him the industry’s respect and a reputation as theÂ “Godfather of Yerba Mate” in the United States.