VALLE DEL CAUCA, COLOMBIA – 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, his 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, González was proposing, would become the Lipitor of the poor.
González has now applied for patents in Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Cuba, China, Australia and the European Union, and has trademarked the product as Policane.
But to Colombians, the process 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, 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.
Equivalents of panela can be found across Latin America and Asia. But Colombians consume more of it than anyone: a pound per person per week, according to Fedepanela, Colombia's federation of panela producers. At just pennies a cup, "agua panela" — panela in hot water — is an essential source of calories for working people. Farm hands drink it morning and night. Babies are fed it mixed with milk, and the sick receive it with lime and ginger.
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.
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 that Riopaila Castilla, a sugar company that until recently listed González on its board of directors, issued statements distancing itself from his efforts. Fedepanela has responded with a legal pushback, hoping to stop González's patents from being approved in Colombia and abroad, and to revoke any issued in the U.S.
Panela producers have done much to cast their product as healthier than white sugar, perhaps setting the stage for someone like González to rebrand it as a "nutraceutical." But to them, policosanols are a ruse — the goal is to patent all panela.
González has shunned the news media after claiming to a Cali newspaper last summer that he had invented "the healthiest sweetener in the world, and the cheapest."
His patent describes a lower-than-standard temperature for heating cane juice, to protect the integrity of the policosanols. But studies of conventionally produced panela have shown that it, too, contains policosanols, said Néstor Triana, a chemical engineer with the federation.
As it happens, the scientific evidence for policosanols is poor to mixed. Studies from Cuba in the 1990s and early 2000s reported drops in LDL, or bad, cholesterol, while nutrition researchers elsewhere failed to replicate those findings.
Colombia's sugar cane fields were planted nearly 500 years ago. The region is still sugar country. Most of it goes to giant mills where table sugar is processed. The rest is for panela.
Here many trapiches are industrialized, although the process is effectively the same as it was in the 16th century. Cane is cut by hand with machetes, and pressed into a muddy green juice that is filtered and boiled, with the fiber used for fuel. The syrup is poured into pans and frantically stirred as it cools into a dough that is patted into form by a pesador, someone who intuits that each panela weighs what it is supposed to.
Panela is fussier and less predictable than table sugar, said producer Álvaro Quintero, 34, because it contains all the components of the cane juice, not all of which can be adjusted. In small plots like this, individual cane is selected for ripeness. The only additive is a little vegetable oil to keep the caramel from bubbling over.
Large trapiches like La Alsacia send increasing amounts of panela abroad; some 9,000 tons of it were exported in 2019, most to the U.S. and Europe, according to Fedepanela.
Critics of González suspect that his patents are aimed, at least in part, at capturing these growing markets. Outside Colombia, no law would deter a sugar company from producing Policane. "What will happen if our Cuban friends in Florida decide to make it?" said Javier Pérez, La Alsacia's director.
The Fedepanela lawyers would like to know how an ancestral process so richly documented in Colombia could have escaped the attention of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Not only do colonial-era records describe it in minute detail but technical universities all over the country also produce literature on panela.