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Gum arabic
Also called: Gum acacia
Arabic: samgh ¢arabiyy

Gum arabic
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Gum arabic ready to use and reuse.

Gum arabic
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Gum arabic tree nursery in Nigeria. Photo: treesftf

Gum arabic
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Harvesting Gum arabic in the Kordofan region, Sudan. Photo: Gum Arabic Co., Ltd., Sudan.

Natural gum from the acacia tree used widely in several consumer products.
The gum arabic is hardened sap from two types of acacia tree, the Acacia Senegal and the Acacia Seyal, which grow in sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal to Somalia. The largest producer in the world is Sudan, which until the 1990's produced about 80% of the world total, this has now dropped to about 50%.
Gum arabic is used to thicken fizzy drinks and several types of candy like gumdrops and marshmallows. Non-food products include paint, glue, cosmetics, shoe polish. It is used as adhesive on postage stamps and cigarette paper, since it can form an edible glue.
Gum arabic has been in use since at least the 2nd millennium BCE, used as binding medium for ink, watercolour and dyes. In Egypt, it was used in the process of embalming. Later it came into use with medical bandages and compresses. Gum arabic was one of the products motivating European trade with sub-Saharan Africa since at least the 15th century CE, it was especially needed in the emerging industrialized production of fabrics.
Gum arabic is a complex mixture of polysaccharides and glycoproteins. Its special qualities is that it is binding, stabilizing, easily dissolvable in water, but also edible and without taste. Gum arabic can, however, be unpredictable with some forms of use. It has for some uses been replaced with chemical substances.
Although the acacia trees can grow outside sub-Saharan Africa, the quality of its gum has then proven to be inferior. The whole process is very easy, requiring little work and attention from the farmers. The tree needs no fertilizers and no watering, and harvesting is easily done: cutting holes in the bark of the Acacia Senegal, while the acacia Seyal forms natural extrusions in the bark. Sap comes quickly, but there is really just one harvest a year, which usually begins in the middle of July, while November is the prime month for trading the gum.
International market prices has gone up and down a lot in recent years. Price in 2006, was US$2,200 per ton, but had been as high as $5,000 in 2003.
With the the name "arabic" there are no indications of ancient production in Arabic lands, nor any misunderstandings of the origin of the gum; it only reflects the ethnicity of the tradesmen first making it available to the European markets.
Following 9/11 of 2001, the attacks on USA, there came about allegations that Osama bin Laden had substantial ownership of Sudanese Gum arabic production. Sudanese authorities reported that this was true for the 1990's, but since Osama was forced to leave Sudan in 1996, he had also sold his interests in Gum arabic business.

By Tore Kjeilen