Colombians Ask: Who Would Dare Patent Panela?

Jennie Erin Smith (The New York Times) writes, “Makers of Latin America’s favorite traditional sweetener say a sugar engineer wants exclusive control of their centuries-old product.” See full article and photographs by Federico Rios Escobar at The New York Times.

This past April, Jorge González Ulloa, a shareholder at one of Colombia’s largest sugar companies, was awarded U.S. Patent No. 10,632,167, which described a method for making an unrefined sugar containing high levels of policosanols, alcohols found in sugar cane wax that are purported to lower cholesterol.

The method, Mr. González’s patent claimed, would result in “a cholesterol-lowering consumable product at such a low cost that it could be made readily available to all individuals, particularly the millions of people that currently do not have the financial means to afford existing pharmaceutical drugs.” Raw sugar, Mr. González was proposing, would become the Lipitor of the poor.

Mr. González has now applied for similar patents in Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Cuba, China, Australia and the European Union, and has trademarked a name for his product, calling it Policane.

But to Colombians, the process for making Policane rings suspiciously familiar. It is indistinguishable from that for panela, a sweetener made here since the arrival of the Conquistadors. Unlike what Americans know as brown sugar, which is refined sugar with molasses mixed in, panela is traditionally made by boiling fresh cane juice in metal pots set over an oven fueled by the dried fiber of pressed cane. The result is a solid sugar with a subtle molasses-caramel flavor and slight mineral aftertaste. Its color ranges from a blond to a deep coffee brown.

Equivalents of panela can be found across Latin America and Asia under different names. But Colombians consume more of it than anyone: a full pound per person per week, according to Fedepanela, Colombia’s national federation of panela producers. At just pennies a cup, “agua panela” — panela dissolved in hot water — is an essential source of calories for working people, especially in the countryside. Farm hands drink it morning and night. Babies are fed it mixed with milk, and the sick receive it with lime and ginger.

Lately, the coronavirus pandemic has caused consumption to increase, because of its perceived healthful properties — panela, as its producers are quick to point out, contains trace minerals and vitamins, which refined sugar lacks. So distinct are the two products in the minds of Colombians that they are sold in different aisles of the supermarket. And so important is panela to Colombia’s rural economy that its nearly 20,000 producers, called trapiches, are protected by law from the incursions of sugar companies, which are not allowed to manufacture it.

To patent a humble staple like panela struck Colombians as absurd, like patenting café con leche. News of the “panela patent” caused such an uproar in recent months that Riopaila Castilla, a sugar company based in Cali that until recently listed Mr. González on its board of directors, issued statements distancing itself from his efforts. Fedepanela has responded with an aggressive legal pushback, hoping to stop Mr. González’s patents from being approved in Colombia and abroad, and to revoke any issued in the United States.

Panela producers have done much to cast their product as healthier than white sugar, perhaps setting the stage for someone like Mr. González to rebrand it as a “nutraceutical.” But to them, policosanols are a ruse — the goal is to patent all panela. [. . .]

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