Whilst gum Arabic, or acacia gum (listed as E 414 in Europe), has been an essential ingredient to processed foods for decades, public knowledge of its existence remains scarce.
French gum manufacturer Alland & Robert is attempting to bring the product to the forefront of the food industry’s health and sustainability agenda.
Frederic Alland, CEO of the company, said: “Look what happened with palm oil, there was no attempt to give transparency or traceability, and it has been a disaster.”
Like palm oil, gum arabic has been used as a food ingredient for millennia. Employed as an emulsifier, stabiliser, a source of fibre and a medium for aromas in foods, it is also used in paints, pharmaceuticals and cigarettes.
It also boasts the majority of clean label benefits - calorie-free, halal, kosher, pesticide- and allergen-free.
With such a pristine record on paper, why have food manufacturers across the board failed to bring this clean-label marketing dream to the fore?
Arguably the majority of attention gum acacia has received in recent decades has resulted from the Darfur genocide in Sudan, where around half the world’s gum is produced, and from Osama Bin Laden’s stake in the industry (which ended with expulsion from the country in 1996).
Gum Arabic quickly went from innocuous to infamous – particularly in 2007, when the Sudanese ambassador to the United States, John Ukec Lueth Ukec. threatened to cut supplies of acacia gum if sanctions (over the government’s ties to Islamist militias) were imposed the country.
“I can stop gum Arabic and all of us will have lost this” said Ukec, whilst holding up a bottle of Coca-Cola.
Gum acacia is an essential food industry ingredient used as an emulsifier and stabiliser.
In tribute to the importance of the product, the US government granted an exception to acacia imports in its sanctions on Sudan, admitting too much damage could be done to the food industry.
Coca-Cola has never publically admitted using the product however, and it is not listed in the ingredients (despite EU labelling laws) nor in its 2016 sustainability report.
Whether this is to maintain maximum secrecy for its recipe, or to shed connection with Sudan (where it openly owns a bottle factory) is unclear.
However, the importance of acacia gum to both consumers and the industry became clear through the Sudanese controversies; as one Fox News reporter put it, “I’m against genocide and everything, and it’s horrible what is happening in Darfur, but you’re not making my coke flat.”
Now that sanctions on Sudan have finally been lifted, there may be more room for the gum industry to claim greater status as an ethical and sustainable food source.
Grown exclusively in 19 countries spanning the African Sahel, or the ‘gum belt’, around 10 million people make a living from acacia trees.
99% of acacia trees grow wildly, but in Senegal, where a minority of global gum is grown, producers are developing industrial plantations.
Water held in the roots can sustain the eco-system during droughts and prevent further desertification of the land. Ibrahim Ka, general manager of Senegal’s Asiyla Gum Company, said: “Because of the tree’s long roots, their presence in the environment helps contribute to the wildlife.”
A report by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) highlighted the importance of Gum Arabic in preventing wide spread starvation and reducing crop destruction, which is expected to increase significantly by 2050.
With all the clean label credentials available, Alland explained that the gum industry is looking into ways of spreading both the recognition and uses of gum. "What actually is the substance we call gum? We still do not know enough about it at all, and this is why we are putting more than €1 million per year into research for new applications and knowledge" he said.
This article has been amended to state acacia gum is used as an emulsifier and stabiliser. A previous version said it was used to bind sugar and maintain fizziness in soft drinks.