Colombians Ask: Who Would Dare Patent Panela?

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, 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.

Mr. González’s 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 — often high levels of them, said Néstor Triana, a chemical engineer with the federation. How much depends less on the temperature at which the juice is cooked and more on “the terrain, the nutrients it contains, and the variety of the sugar cane,” Mr. Triana said.

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. By 2010, research on sugar cane policosanols largely petered out, though supplements remained popular. Only lately have trials resumed; one Korean study recently reported a benefit. Even if policosanols were found to work, delivering them in sugar — which itself can alter lipid profiles unfavorably — might not be the best way to go.

Mr. González, who did not respond to requests through intermediaries for an interview, 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.” Production was imminent, he insisted, but offered no hints as to who was making it or where.

Sweet success

Colombia’s first sugar cane fields were planted nearly 500 years ago on the wide, flat banks of the Cauca River, by the current-day city of Cali. Today the region is still sugar country, where cane grows densely under big skies and a hot sun without too much help. Most of it goes to giant mills where table sugar is centrifuged and crystallized. 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 thick syrup is poured into pans and frantically stirred as it cools into a fudge-like dough that is patted into form by a pesador, someone who intuits that each panela weighs what it is supposed to.

“A good pesador is rare,” said Ricardo Bueno, the head of production at the La Alsacia trapiche in Tuluá, north of Cali. “We haven’t been able to technologize this.”

On a visit last fall, employees in lab coats and hairnets monitored Brix levels — the amount of dissolved solids in a liquid, here a proxy for sweetness — as the juice evaporated in steel tanks, infusing the air with the smell of caramel. The food scientists analyze samples of cane before giving approval to harvest, but they often must make adjustments to the juice, tweaking its pH with calcium hydroxide and monitoring variations in the ratios of sucrose, fructose and glucose, which bear on the panela’s color.

All this is to ensure that the final product, destined for supermarket chains, always looks and tastes the same — and won’t contain splinters or other unwelcome surprises that have been known to appear in more rustic versions of panela.

Large trapiches like La Alsacia send increasing amounts of panela abroad; some 9,000 tons of it were exported in 2019, most to the United States and Europe, according to Fedepanela. The round loaves are sold in Latin supermarkets, while more popular is a cone shape labeled “piloncillo,” which is beloved among Mexican-Americans in California.

Critics of Mr. 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?” Javier Pérez, La Alsacia’s director, said.

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.

“This speaks to one of the weaknesses of patent examination practices,” said Polk Wagner, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Examiners are good at finding references to existing technologies when they are published in the United States, “but less so in foreign countries, in particular where the language is different.”

A sugary tradition

In the mountains of Colombia’s Cordillera Occidental, just west of the Cauca River Valley, the small trapiches begin pressing and boiling cane juice before dawn, usually on a Thursday or Friday.

Production starts when enough cane is piled up and eight or 10 workers can be assembled — every two weeks, for most. In some trapiches, the cane is hand-fed a few sticks at a time into a motorized press, while in others, the mill is powered by river water or by mules harnessed to a wheel.

One worker feeds a voracious oven from piles of cane fiber. Another chops up a special wood pulp that pulls impurities to the surface of the juice. Syrup men skim the boiling juice with giant ladles, tossing steaming liquid from pan to pan until it becomes a thick, snapping caramel. There are no Brix monitors to show when it is ready — someone just dips a stick into it and submerges it in cool water, or uses his wet bare hand. Burns and other accidents are not uncommon.

“Thankfully we’re seeing less of them,” said Álvaro Quintero, 34, a producer in the town of Versalles. His family’s trapiche is named after his grandfather, Don Manuel, and although it is a traditional operation without a food scientist in sight, it has some modern upgrades. The packing area is sanitized, with masks and gloves obligatory, and its steel and copper surfaces scrubbed. The finished panela gets loaded onto a 1967 Jeep to be sold in a neighboring town.

Mr. Quintero, who represents the panela federation in this region, believes Mr. González’s patents threaten small producers as much as the large ones — particularly if a patent is approved in Colombia, where one is currently before the issuing agency.

Just downhill was another trapiche, visible as a skinny smokestack poking out from the cane. Under its aluminum roof was a scene Mr. Quintero hates to see: shirtless men smoking as they worked, chickens pecking around, someone passed out on a pile of cane fiber, wooden pans that can produce splinters. But this was the reality of panela across much of Colombia, he conceded.

It was 8 o’clock in the morning, and panela of an unusual, bright golden color was being stirred in pans when a pesador named Jimmy Buitrago showed up to work, late. He had been weighing panela at Don Manuel since 5 a.m., and before that at two other trapiches. He had not slept a full night in three days.

Mr. Buitrago, a wiry 18-year-old, seemed no worse for the wear as he scooped the warm dough quickly to form perfect half-kilogram patties on a table, then stamped them with the initials of the trapiche’s owner. Between fresh pans of hot syrup he sneaked in bites of breakfast. He had been doing this for four years, he said.

Mr. Buitrago was unaware of Mr. González’s efforts, or even what a patent was. Lucero Copete, who was packing the cooled patties in paper for market, explained it to him. “He wants exclusivity,” she said. Mr. Buitrago was incredulous: “Where’s he at?”

This panela tasted different than the kind at the industrial plants: richer, smoother and off-the-charts sweet. “Well, of course!” said Mr. Quintero, pointing to a pile of ruddy gold stalks waiting to be pressed. “Look at the quality of the cane.”

Panela is fussier and less predictable than table sugar, Mr. Quintero explained, because it contains all the components of the cane juice, not all of which can be adjusted. In small mountain plots like this, individual cane is selected for ripeness. The only additive is a little vegetable oil to keep the caramel from bubbling over.

The policosanol content of this deliriously good panela remained undetermined, and the farthest it would ever get was just a few miles down the road.

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