Wellness ingredient company Sweegen has secured a win in its legal battle over the right to manufacture stevia Reb M. The ruling from the US District Court for the Central District of California draws to an end this phase of litigation, which was brought by PureCircle in 2018 when it accused Sweegen of infringing two patents covering the manufacture of stevia Reb M via an enzymatic process.
According to court documents, the contested Reb M manufacturing process covered by the asserted patents ‘makes Reb M by using UGT enzymes to add sugar units to a steviol glycoside with less than six sugar units until it has six, thereby converting it to Reb M’.
The legal tide turned on Ingredion-owned PureCircle when Sweegen obtained a summary judgment that both of PureCircle's asserted patents are invalid. Since it is impossible to infringe an invalid patent, the court's invalidation of the asserted patents ends the infringement case against Sweegen, the company explained.
“The judgement is a very good win for Sweegen. It clears the way for a major expansion of our business,” Sweegen’s CEO Steven Chen told FoodNavigator. “The court’s decision is a decisive repositioning opportunity for Sweegen. We know that customer interest in this product is very high, and we anticipate significant growth now that PureCircle’s patent lawsuit has been defeated.”
Opening the door for more low-sugar innovation?
Reb M is one of many steviol glycosides found in the leaves of the Stevia plant. It offers a sweet taste close to that of sugar and is free of the aftertaste associated with Reb-A, a stevia-based sweetener commonly used in F&B formulation. The problem with Reb M is that it exists in relatively small amounts in the stevia plant – meaning standard plant extraction is too expensive and maximum global output of Reb M is limited.
Currently, Sweegen uses an enzymatic bioconversion process to increase Reb M's production prior to isolation and purification of the sweet molecules, which are ‘substantially the same as those found in nature’. “Sweegen’s Reb M patents remain valid just as they were prior to the litigation. The California District Court Case concerned PureCircle’s patents, and not Sweegen’s patented rights covering Reb M. We continue to use our own proprietary technology to offer unique value and excitement in this space,” Chen stressed.
Reb M, available under Sweegen’s Signature Sweetness Solutions portfolio, expands opportunities for food and beverage brands to innovate in the reduced sugar and zero sugar arena, Chen suggested. The company’s Signature Bestevia Reb M ingredient was approved for use in food and beverages in Europe last year and Sweegen claims it is the first company to receive the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) panel’s safety approval for any steviol glycoside produced by alternative technologies.
“With access to Sweegen’s highly sought-after non-GMO Reb M and robust portfolio of Signature stevia sweeteners, brands can take their new zero to low-calorie product innovations to another level and expand their sugar reduction toolkits for exploring consumer-winning better-for-you foods and beverages,” the CEO enthused.
"Today's judgment vindicates Sweegen and affirms the company's position as an industry leader in innovative sweetener solutions.”
… Or does it? Ingredion preparing appeal
But while Sweegen celebrated its success in what Chen described as a ‘spurious’ case, Ingredion confirmed that PureCircle will appeal the ruling.
“We are disappointed with the court’s ruling and we intend to file an appeal to continue to vigorously defend our intellectual property,” commented Nate Yates - Global Platform Leader, Sugar Reduction & Specialty Sweeteners at Ingredion.
FoodNavigator understands that the timeline of the appeals process will be dictated by the pace of the courts.