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PureCircle set for sweet deal with major sugar company

Producer of Reb A, an all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener, to tie up with global giant within weeks

PureCircle, a company that makes Reb A, a natural, zero-calorie sweetener, is poised to make a big leap forward when it ties up with a big sugar company later this month to produce the first "lite" sugar.

The product will be a combination of Reb A and ordinary sugar, and its unique selling point is that it will be 100 per cent natural, while offering just half the calories of sugar alone.

Reb A is derived from the stevia plant, which can be grown only in certain climates near the equator, and PureCircle is its main producer.

Magomet Malsagov, the firm's Russian chief executive, has raised more than $150m from private investors and $50m from its Aim flotation in 2007.

Investors include the Far Eastern Swire Group and Olam International, an agricultural and ingredients giant, which owns 20 per cent. Clients include Cargill, Merisant and PepsiCo.

President Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, is reportedly a big fan of stevia products in the White House, spearheading the campaign against childhood obesity, and declaring war on high-fructose sweeteners such as corn syrup.

PureCircle's shares have shot up from 153p in March last year to 238p on Friday, valuing the group at £369m. The company made $11.4m pre-tax profit in 2009 on $60m turnover, and wants to move up from AIM to the main market at the end of this year, or the beginning of 2011.

Mr Malsagov, who hopes to tie up the deal with one of the world's biggest sugar companies – as yet unnamed – in the next few weeks, said most of the money has been used to create supply contracts with more than 2,000 small farmers in remote places from Paraguay to China to Kenya.

"Stevia is the best-paying legal cash crop," he said. He promotes growing it along with crops such as corn and rice. The company has also built an extraction plant in China and a refinery in Malaysia, where Mr Malsagov settled after leaving Russia.

The company raised another $67m from an international placing in November. Mr Malsagov said: "We intend to spend most of that money on sales and marketing. We do not have a patent on the stevia molecule because it is natural. But we do have many patents on the process we use to make our product. An important part of the process is removing the bitter taste found in the raw leaves."

Stevia was banned in the US in 1991 and in Europe in 1999 over concerns that it might cause cancer. However, a report by the World Health Organisation in 2006 said that these restrictions were obsolete. Mr Malsagov expects approval from the EU and the UK before the end of this year.