"I was on tour with U2 in 1997, and I woke up one morning and I had lost my eyesight by like 50 percent," remembers Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk. "I just felt horrible -- like I had a hangover, but I hadn't been drinking."
When he finished the tour, Wilk went to the doctor and was diagnosed with late-onset Type 1 diabetes at the age of thirty. "That completely changed my life around," he says. "I started going to natural-food stores and looking for a juice beverage that wasn't loaded with carbs and sugar. But I couldn't find anything under 30 to 35 grams of sugar -- about the same of a can of Coke. I could find plenty of stuff with low carbs and sugar, but they were all sweetened with these chemical sweetners, like aspartame, which just isn't good for you."
And then he discovered Stevia, and his search for a healthy beverage got turned on its head.
"My wife was working at a natural-food store and turned me onto Stevia," he says. "I started using it and cooking with it, and I thought it would work good with lemonade. My friends loved it, non-diabetics just loved the drink, and they were always asking me to make it. And I got to thinking, people really need to know about Stevia, and maybe I should start a beverage company. Which was very naïve."
But he did it anyway, and Olade was born. "I really want to educate people and let them know that there was this type of sweetener out there that wasn't a chemical sweetener," explains Wilk. "Stevia wasn't approved by the FDA, we had to be labeled as a dietary supplement at first, which is a real uphill battle. It's hard enough to market a drink as it is, and to be put in the dietary supplement section...."
In 2008 the FDA finally approved Stevia. "We were a real drink," Wilk says. "And the funny thing is, is that Stevia's been around for 2000 years. It's a natural herb from South America, from Paraguay. The FDA was a little late on approving it, but lo and behold, it was approved, and we wound up adding five flavors." (The popular lemonade drink Wilk made was the inaugural flavor, of course.)
"It's such a different thing for me to be doing," he adds. "My life revolved around creating music, and this is such a different thing for me, but I love it because I like being able to connect with people and educate them on Stevia and on Olade, and a lot of diabetics don't even know about Stevia yet because it's such a newly approved thing. So I've been going around the country doing demos in stores and talking with people and, one-by-one, educating people what exactly the product is and what Stevia is, and that's brought me up to where I am today."
What's the reaction been like so far? "People are really surprised by the drink's carbohydrate content and the calorie content and the sugar content. They're so low, you won't find anything else like it on the market that's all natural, organic and uses no chemical sweeteners. So people who are really seeking it out are thrilled to find this because they finally have something they can drink."
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Wilk says he's "staying loyal to the lemonade," but he's also added lemon ginger, cranberry, pomegranate, tropical and strawberry flavors. "We're coming out with a sport drink," he reveals "We added electrolytes to all these drinks, so it's almost like a Gatorade that's good for you, but we're also making a specific sports drink. It absolutely helps me, and I do use it when I'm drumming.
"We're a nation addicted to sugar," Wilk continues, "and we're really beginning to see the effects of it, with Type 2 diabetes and obesity in epidemic proportions at this time, it's the perfect time to have a drink like this for kids and people who have been addicted to sugar for so long. Stevia has a different taste, and some people at first have to acquire a taste for it, others love it right off the bat."
Wilk admits that this is a new side of him for some people, "But I think it absolutely fits in with sort of where I come from and my background. I feel like this is extremely cutting-edge right now, and it's us going up against the sugar industry, which is just a massive industry. So I do feel like the music that we make is very cutting-edge, and I'm sticking with the passion of bringing cutting-edge things to people that are good for them, and opening people's eyes, and that's what my band was all about. It fits in on that level, but there's a lot of people who have no idea I was a diabetic and the reasons why I started this company -- and there's definitely a new side to me."
Wilk will be in and around Denver all weekend and into early next week to sign bottles of Olade: Find him at Whole Foods Tamarac, 7400 East Hampden Avenue; from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. tomorrow, March 27; at Whole Foods South Glenn, 6853 South York Avenue, from 4 to 7 p.m. tomorrow, March 27; at Whole Foods Colorado Boulevard, 870 South Colorado Boulevard, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 28; at Whole Foods Cherry Creek, 2375 East 1st Avenue, on Sunday, March 28 from 4 to 7 p.m.; at Whole Foods Denver West, 14357 West Colfax Avenue, from 3 to 7 p.m. on Monday, March 29; and at Whole Foods Boulder, 2905 Pearl Street in Boulder, from 3 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30. Wilk donates 7 to 10 percent of all proceeds to organizations seeking a cure for diabetes -- in fact, he's been working with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation since he was diagnosed in 1997; he gave all his profits from that tour with U2 to the foundation.