According to the patent application, protection is pending in over 100 countries, including key markets such as Europe, the US, and China.
“The present invention relates to a novel nutraceutical composition or food additive comprising Stevia extract or its constituents, such as steviol and stevioside, as active ingredient(s) to improve cognitive functions, such as learning, memory and alertness, as well as relieving psychosocial pressure,” states the application (WO 2009/071277).
The invention, which covers rebaudioside A, as well as B to F, and other steviol glycosides, indicates that the compounds may enhance cognitive function via their interaction with a specific receptor (NMDA receptor) in the brain that boosts synaptic transmission, or chemical signalling in the brain.
“There is an increasing interest in the development of compounds, as well as nutraceutical compositions, that may be used to improve learning, memory and alertness, in both elderly and young people,” states the application.
“Thus, a compound or nutraceutical composition which enhances NMDA receptor function and enables improvements in learning, memory and alertness would be highly desirable,” it added.
The document provides supporting evidence of the apparent benefits from in vitro and in vivo animal (rodent) studies.
Examples are also provided of how the ingredient could be deployed, including formulation of a soft gel capsule, and a fortified non-baked cereal bar.
DSM would not comment on any aspect of the patent, and it is not known how the ingredient(s) could be affected by the ongoing approval process in Europe for stevia.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has received three petitions for stevia sweeteners, from EUSTAS (the European Stevia Association), Cargill and Morita. Industry is hoping that, pending a positive opinion, extracts with 95 per cent steviol glycosides could be approved in Europe under the new sweeteners directive by autumn 2010 or spring 2011.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it has no objection to rebiana, (Reb A) at 95 percent purity or above, having GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status as a general purpose sweetener for food and drink, not just as a supplement.
Recently, Blue California became only the third company to receive an FDA non-objection letter for its Good & Sweet Reb A brand, following the December 2008 FDA GRAS letters of no objection for Cargill’s Truvia and Merisant’s PureVia.
Thinking about cognitive health
Such is the interest in dietary approaches to improve brain health that the world's largest food company, Nestlé, signalled its intention to get a head start on the competition with the signing of an agreement in November 2006 with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) to investigate the role of nutrition in cognitive function.
Despite the optimism for this area, some Europe-based manufacturers have appeared reluctant to push products that are linked to brain function regarding mental wellbeing or the thought process.
Analyst Mintel said that during 2008 and the first eight months of 2009, no vitamin or supplement products were launched offering functional claims related to the brain and the nervous system. Upon further searches, the analyst said there had been a little activity for products linked by their manufacturers to psychological or behavioural factors.