What is Gum Arabic? (with photos)

Gum arabic powder.

Gum Arabic is a natural gum made from the hardened sap of trees native to the Middle East and parts of Western Asia. Food manufacturers often use it as a stabilizer in foods and beverages that are designed to have a long shelf life, and the soft drink industry is one of the biggest consumers in the world. Gum also has uses outside the kitchen, particularly as an additive in art products and cosmetics, and has traditionally also been an important part of ink-on-paper printing. Basically, any task that requires binding different substances or keeping ingredients in a stable suspension can benefit from the addition of gum arabic.

where does it come from

A soft drink that contains gum arabic.

Although known as “gum,” this substance is little more than hardened tree sap that has been filtered and processed to remove dust and other particles. It’s sticky, gooey and good at holding things together though, that’s where the gum association comes from.

Two different types of trees produce sap that can be turned into gum arabic, namely Acacia Senegal and Acacia Seyal. Both are native to the Arabian Peninsula, which many scholars believe is why the gum is known as “Arabic”. Most modern production takes place in Africa, and commercial chewing gum farms are most popular in Sudan, Somalia and Senegal. The gum is known locally in these locations as chaar gund, char goond, meska or acacia gum, although it almost always appears on ingredient labels and product information sheets by the more standardized name “gum arabic”.

The trees that produce gum arabic are native to the Middle East.

Gum forms naturally when sap comes in contact with air, as happens when desert heat cracks tree trunks or when birds or other insects poke holes in tree bark. Most commercial production involves more streamlined drilling and extraction efforts, and the sub-Saharan region has earned the nickname “the gum belt” for its harvesting activities. Harvesters, known in most places as “sap hunters,” stimulate the flow of sap by carefully removing pieces of bark once a year so as not to injure the tree or jeopardize production. They are then able to extract the sap for approximately five weeks a year, and can usually spend ten years per tree before the quality starts to decline.

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Hunters scrape the hardened sap from the exposed trunk and then prepare it for sale, cleaning it and combining it with other collections. The hardened sap is almost completely soluble in water and many farmers sell it as a syrup to food and cosmetics manufacturers. It can also be ground into a powder, sold as oil, or refined into rough chunks or pellets.

Popularity as a food additive

The gum is rich in glycoproteins and polysaccharides, which gives it its characteristic sticky, glue-like consistency; they also make it a good stabilizer for food and drinks. Like gelatin and carrageenan, gum arabic can be used to bind food substances together or to help different ingredients acquire a uniform, uniform texture.

It is often used in soda syrups due to the ease with which it dissolves and remains stable in water, although it is also popular in a number of foods. Gum can help chocolate candies maintain a soft consistency and resist melting, for example, and adds a desirable chewy texture to gummy bears, marshmallows and a variety of other small confections. Bakers often put it on the frosting for a smooth finish, and it’s often used in ice cream, especially low-fat ones; Gum’s binding properties can help it stick together and run off more easily. It does not normally affect the taste of a food or drink, but it can make a variety of products more attractive from a commercial point of view.

medicinal properties

Acacia sap is rich in dietary fiber and people sometimes consume it alone as a laxative or to improve digestive health. Some health food stores or pharmacies sell it as a supplement for this purpose, usually in capsule form. Medical professionals may also recommend taking it in small doses to lower cholesterol, and some people believe it can also help with weight loss, although there are few studies that support this.

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In communities where it grows, people often use the hardened sap as a kind of cure for a variety of different ailments. People use it to help with stomach and intestinal problems, sore throats, eye problems, bleeding, and the common cold, to name just a few. In such cases, natural medicine specialists or local healers often make the sap into tea or reduce it to a thick syrup that is eaten by spoonfuls.

Nutritional and health concerns

Most government regulatory agencies around the world consider gum arabic to be generally safe for human consumption. Some people question its addition to processed foods, but unlike many other additives, it is not an artificially created compound and is not usually heavily refined before use. It doesn’t really have any significant nutritive value; it is basically calorie-neutral, and contains few if any vitamins or minerals. In most cases it is used in such small quantities that it doesn’t have much of an impact on the people who consume it. Of course, as with most things, consuming excessive quantities can be harmful, and often leads to intestinal trouble or stomach problems. In small amounts, though, the gum is generally recognized as harmless.

Other Uses

Manufacturers use the gum in a number of ways not related to human consumption, too. Traditional lithography and printing in many ways depends on the gum, particularly when it comes to inks and paper glue. Modern bookbinding and ink-jet printing doesn’t always make use of the gum in the same ways, but a lot of this depends on the individual bindery. Some photographers will also use the gum in their developing solutions to help fix images on photo paper, and powdered forms are popular with artists and textile makers for getting colored paints and pigments to set.

Liquid sap is sometimes also used to control viscosity in the pharmaceutical sector, and drug manufacturers will use it to get certain medicines to reach the right suspension and density. It can also be used in cosmetics, particularly liquid makeup products, and can help control the diffusion of scent in incense cones and oil candles. Shoe polish, postage stamps, and pyrotechnic operations are just a few of the other places the gum can be found in daily life.

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Sourcing Controversy

Getting the gum from the local communities where it grows into the hands of the industry conglomerates who want to use it in these products isn’t always easy, though. The gum is a very important export for the countries that grow it, but claims of government corruption in many of these places has given rise to some scandals and suspected pricing problems. The sap is also a frequent target for smugglers who shuttle it across borders, often in hopes of selling it for a better price abroad.

Some human rights activists have also questioned the ethics of working conditions on certain tree plantations, as well. These disputes tend to be about the fairness of worker wages, the safety of sap trapping operations, and the age of the people working.

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