PureCircle won one round of the fight over its patent for Rebaudioside M stevia bioconversion. The stevia producer said in a release the Patent Trial and Appeal Board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied Sweetgen's challenge last week.
The patent concerns PureCircle's proprietary process to convert Reb D to Reb M by using an enzyme. According to Baking Business, this permits a more cost-effective use of Reb M when reducing sugar in applications such as beverages, dairy products and other food items. Reb M is a glycoside found inside the stevia leaf, which produces a sugar-like sweetness with no calories.
This means PureCircle's patent infringement case filed against SweeGen in September 2018 in a California federal court can go ahead. The company said in the release SweeGen had tried to avoid the lawsuit by asking for a review before the patent board. SweeGen responded with its own release rejecting what it called PureCircle's "distorted claims" and said it "has no doubt that the upcoming patent litigation with its competitor PureCircle will vindicate its rights in the Reb M marketplace."
Patents for processing Reb M are important since the steviol glycoside lacks the bitterness of the more common Reb A, but it only comprises 1% of the stevia leaf. Reb M is also difficult to isolate, although PureCircle said last year it had produced a stevia variety called StarLeaf containing 20% more Reb M than conventional stevia.
Reb M also has a sweeter and more sugar-like taste than other stevia components, so companies are looking for ways to produce more of it. SweeGen has developed non-GMO Reb M and Reb D under its Bestevia brand, which the company claims can support sugar reduction of 50% across all food and beverage applications.
Leading stevia ingredient companies such as PureCircle and SweeGen stand to gain customers — and therefore market share — by providing more of the sought-after Reb M, so they've been been vying to dominate the space.
PureCircle, which said it has 197 patents granted and about 350 pending, went to court a little more than a year ago claiming SweeGen had infringed on its patent for making Reb M. The company alleged SweeGen was producing its Bestevia Reb M ingredent by converting Reb D to Reb M by using the same enzyme in PureCircle's patent.
SweeGen subsequently filed a petition asking for an "inter parties review" in front of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Patent Trial and Appeal Board, which was denied last week. The company asserted it is the "primary producer" of Reb M originating from the stevia leaf and disclosed its process in a recently published international patent application.
While their legal fight plays out, both companies have been busy. SweeGen has been working on approval in Europe for use of its Reb M sweetener and just announced the European Food Safety Authority's food additive and flavoring panel found no safety concerns with the ingredient. SweeGen said European product developers "can now start formulating sugar-reduced, low-calorie and non-GMO products in anticipation of final approval in 2020."
PureCircle, meanwhile, recently introduced an ice cream line in the U.S. and was granted a Chinese patent for its Reb M proprietary production process. The company is also dealing with some internal business-related matters. It postponed releasing annual results for the year ending June 30 and suspended shares due to an inventory audit investigation that could impact it by $30 million.
Stevia use is becoming more popular in the food and beverage industry, so there is plenty at stake. In 2018, the number of new global product launches containing the ingredient jumped by 31%, or about triple the growth rate in 2017. Advantages include having no calories and being naturally 30 to 40 times sweeter than sugar, so food and beverage makers can use less of it than other natural sweeteners.
Japanese snack maker Calbee Foods uses stevia in its potato chips, and Coca-Cola introduced stevia-sweetened soda in New Zealand last year. Danone's Light & Fit yogurt brand contains both stevia and sugar, and Nestlé just launched a stevia-sweetened version of its Milo chocolate malt beverage in Australia.