Biospherics Inc. of Beltsville has patented a new process for making a sugar substitute that could make the sweetener cheaper to produce and raises hopes that it could compete in the potentially huge market for sugar substitutes used in commercial baked goods.
Biospherics' stock soared yesterday after news of the patent appeared in Saturday's New York Times. But company President Gilbert Levin said Biospherics had actually disclosed the news last month, to little fanfare.
"We thought the news was out," he said. "But then Saturday the news was in the New York Times patent column, and the next thing I knew the NASD [National Association of Securities Dealers] was on the phone."
The NASD, which regulates stock trading in the national over-the-counter market, suspended trading of Biospherics' stock briefly yesterday so the company could issue a press release explaining the new patent. The stock closed yesterday at $7.25 a share, up $2.25.
Dr. Levin said the sweetener, called D-Tagatose, was actually patented by Biospherics in 1989. But previously, the process of making it was considered too expensive for the product to compete with other sweeteners, such as NutraSweet.
The sweetener is made principally from whey, a dairy by-product that is a common food additive, and calcium hydroxide, said James R. Beadle, the company's chief chemist.
Dr. Beadle said the company believes the product will stand up to the review of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which must approve food additives as safe before they can be put on the market. The ingredients used to make D-Tagatose are generally accepted as safe, he said.
The new process of making D-Tagatose is much more efficient than the old process, said Dr. Beadle. Where in the old process as little as 20 percent of the ingredients could be turned into D-Tagatose, the new method allows as much as 80 percent of the raw material to be converted into the sweetener.
The efficiency is crucial to the company's belief that the product will become commercially viable, Dr. Levin said.
He said it will be years before the sweetener hits the market. The company has two to three more years of testing and research to do before the product will be submitted to FDA review, and he expects the FDA to take about a year deciding whether to approve the sweetener.
D-Tagatose has been found to be less fattening than sugar because the body uses as much energy to break it down as the sweetener contains, Dr. Levin said.