Transforming acacia gum from invisible ingredient to sustainable superfood

"Right now it’s a golden situation where hydrocolloids don’t have any image, negative or positive.”

Acacia gum seems to have it all – manufacturers say it’s clean-label, organic, sustainably sourced and provides income in developing countries. So why is industry not doing more to promote this?

According to hydrocolloid expert and founder of IMR International, Dennis Seisun, acacia gum’s relatively lesser-known status is a problem for many hydrocolloids such as acacia gum, agar, carrageenan and alginates – but as these ingredients tick the clean-label, sustainable and natural boxes, industry should be addressing this.

A golden situation

“There are two schools of thought – one is ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ and the other, which I support, is to be proactive and develop the image yourself rather than letting someone else less qualified do it. Right now it’s a golden situation where hydrocolloids don’t have any image, negative or positive,” he said.

For instance, one big concept worth promoting was the employment factor. “Hydrocolloids, such as guar gum in India or acacia gum in Africa, employ tens of thousands of people in developing countries who live on subsistence - they have a big social impact.”

Seisun said he was surprised that more hydrocolloid companies hadn’t embraced the opportunity to get a Fairtrade label - the only one he was aware of was Peruvian tara gum by Exandal Corp – but that acacia gum could benefit from Fairtrade credentials.

But since acacia gum, also known as gum arabica, is mostly used as an ingredient and is almost unknown to consumers, is there any customer demand for a Fairtrade label?

Violaine Fauvarque, marketing manager at Alland & Robert which produces 25% of the global acacia gum market to big name customers such as Mondelez, Mars and Wrigley’s, said they were currently investigating demand and benchmarking the different accreditations. “We need to know which certification is appropriate. So far we have one customer who said it could be interesting to have Fairtrade credentials.

"We feel demand is growing but for now it’s just the beginning. [But] I think [Fairtrade] will be the next step.”

The company is currently focussing on the fact that the ingredient fits with the current trend for clean-label, has a long history of safe use and, as a soluble dietary fibre, has interesting prebiotic potential.

 CEO Frédéric Alland said:  "As far as safety goes, it’s a prehistoric ingredient [used in ancient Egypt] – you can’t do better than that. Compared with synthetic products, the image that we have is incontestable."

Sustainable sourcing... in a warzone

Harvesting the gum involves removing a strip of bark to expose the tree to the arid climate, causing it to exude gum to protect it against further moisture loss. Farmers rotate the part of bark they remove so that

the tree has time to regenerate – it’s a sustainable way to source the ingredient, Alland told us this week from its Normandy manufacturing facility.

Only wild trees are used for harvesting acacia gum - a sort of natural selection of acacia seeds ensures that only the hardiest trees grow in the wild and means past attempts to establish commercial plantations have not yielded great results, he said. 

The trees also provide a natural barrier against desertification - but what are the protective barriers against political instability?

Acacia gum is sourced from the Sahel belt in Africa, comprising some of the most volatile countries in the world. Most food ingredient suppliers don’t have to think about Boko Haram in Nigeria, Janjaweed militia in Sudan and Al Qaida in Mali and Mauritania – so how much of a problem is this for sourcing?

Surprisingly little, according to Seisun. “It’s been talked about as a potential problem for decades but [industry] has always managed to find a way,” he said.  American gum manufacturers even managed to secure a special exemption from a 1997 US embargo on Sudanese exports.

Meanwhile, Alland puts the relatively smooth sourcing down to maintaining good relations with suppliers, which means travelling to the region frequently – he personally does so several times a year – to maintain a solid network of suppliers as well as constantly developing new ones.

Alland says that with 130 years’ experience in buying acacia in these regions, the company knows how to business in the region. “[Over there] everything is done on somebody’s word. When you say that you’re going to buy 10,000 tonnes, that’s it. A contract can be ripped up but somebody’s word is golden.”

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