Dave Holt believes chewing-tobacco users should kick the harmful habit, and that his alfalfa-based alternative can help.

“If people are concerned with their health, they really need to try this,” says Holt, a retired Whitehall, MT, rancher and ag teacher.

Holt Tobaccoless Chew is a mixture of ground alfalfa leaves, honey, peppermint oil, cayenne pepper, ascorbic acid and water. It tastes better and is more nutritious than other tobacco-free snuffs, easing the transition to tobacco-free living, Holt claims.

Sales of the product, in small, round tins, have grown by leaps and bounds since it was introduced three years ago. He and his family make up to 1,000 cans of it per week and plan to build a manufacturing plant in the near future.

The alfalfa comes from a Livingston, MT, farm where the crop is grown without treated seed, herbicides or insecticides. It’s 21%- to 23%-protein hay from the second or third cutting of certified weed-free fields.

“We can’t have any kind of a weed in it; even dandelions kill our taste,” says Holt.

He runs the hay through a homemade tumbler to separate leaves and stems, but it’s slow and only collects about half of the leaf material. He hopes to replace it with a machine being designed by engineers at a company that makes seed- and grain-cleaning equipment. It will pick up windrowed hay, shake out and bag the leaves and put the stems back onto the field where they can be baled for livestock feed.

A 45-year tobacco user, Holt kept chewing after his dentist told him he had developed lesions in his mouth. But he knew he had to quit when he was diagnosed with a cancerous lymph gland under his jaw in 2009. While undergoing chemotherapy, he began thinking about making a tobacco substitute.

“I didn’t want anyone else to suffer through what I did,” he recalls.

First he tried tobacco-free snuffs already on the market, but didn’t like their flavor.

“They were terrible,” he says. “Everybody tried to duplicate tobacco. That wasn’t my theory; I wanted nutrition.”

He tried chewing oats, barley and even coffee grounds. But he found that alfalfa tastes better and used it as the foundation for his recipe. Scientists at several universities helped him develop the final product. He’s especially grateful to University of Nebraska food scientists, who recommended that he add honey and ascorbic acid, which act as preservatives.

“Alfalfa is hard to stabilize because, if you put it in your pocket at body temperature, you’re making silage,” he says.

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Holt claims the peppermint oil that gives the chew much of its flavor is almost as nutritious as alfalfa, and the cayenne pepper supplies the initial burn craved by tobacco users. He suggests mixing half a pinch of his product with half a pinch of the real thing for the first few weeks to break the nicotine addiction. Then the herbal snuff primarily becomes an oral pacifier held between the cheek and gum.

But Holt Tobaccoless Chew may be more than the name implies. Half a teaspoon each of the chew and honey in hot water makes a tasty tea that settles stomachs and opens clogged sinuses, according to Holt.

“It’s the most soothing thing you can drink that I know of.”

It also can be eaten as a nutritious snack food, he says. “Wrestling coaches are buying it for their kids so they can maintain weight and not lose their strength.”

The product sells for roughly $5 a tin, about the same price as conventional snuff. It’s sold online and in about 70 stores, mostly in Montana, but Holt says distributors want to market it nationwide.For more information, visit worldsgreatestchew.com or call 406-287-3005.

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