Vol. 3 - Issue 1 - Februrary 5th 2003
Photographed by William M.Ciesla,
Forest Health Management International.
These Gum Arabic trees are part of a forest in Oxbow Lake,
adjacent to the Blue Nile in Sudan at flood stage.
Tree planting is an immensely important aspect of GreenPlanet’s whole environmental Mission, and with the new plan in place, we are planting three trees per member per month. The forestry programme at the edge of the Sahara in Nigeria is premised on the hardy Gum Arabic tree variety – not only is GreenPlanet helping to hold back desertification in this region, but we are planting a valuable cash crop which will benefit Performance Bonus in the future. The product of the tree is extremely valuable, and with limited suppliers at the present time, it is in the world’s interests for the product to be manufactured in a stable country like Nigeria.
It is therefore timely and appropriate to provide some information on the trees which form such a significant role in our GreenPlanet business.
How is Gum Arabic Obtained?
Gum Arabic is a naturally occurring product which is prepared from an exudate of the stems and branches of sub-Saharan (Sahel zone) Acacia senegal and Acacia seyal (Leguminosae) trees. The tree produces large nodules during a process called gummosis to seal wounds in the bark and this is the product which farmers harvest.
What is the product of Gum Arabic tree variety?
The term 'Gum Senegal' is not, strictly speaking, synonymous with Gum Acacia, though it is commonly so used. Gum Acacia is the name originally pertaining to Sudan, Kordofan or Egyptian (hashabi) Gum, which possesses properties rendering it superior and always preferred to any other known to commerce.
It is a key ingredient in a variety of soft drinks, baking and confectionery items, dietary fibre products, lithography, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and other industrial applications. In many of these products, there is no suitable alternative ingredient to the use of Gum Arabic. Although quantities of grade one quality Gum Arabic are found in countries such as Chad and Nigeria, Sudan’s Gum Arabic harvest accounts for more than 70% of the world’s supply of this product on an annual basis (and almost 90% of the world’s reliable supply).
This extraordinary gift from nature exceeds all synthetic imitators in the quality of emulsions it forms. Gum Arabic, or acacia gum, is the resin exuded by Acacia Senegal trees. The taping and harvesting of the trees in the semi-arid regions of the Sudan are colourful but physically demanding activities that are vital to the economy of the country. Several million people must be mobilized to make the industry function effectively.
Gum Arabic is a superior emulsion former that has no substitute among synthetic additives. It provides excellent shelf life stability to oil-in-water emulsions and does not mask flavours with a filmy texture or off-flavour on the tongue. As a product of nature, Gum Arabic is a 95% soluble fibre calculated on a dry basis. Its calorific value is arguably less than half that of starches and maltodextrins.
Gum Arabic production begins with the African farmer, who tends and protects his very valuable trees throughout the year. At exactly the right time of year, determined by his knowledge, local conditions and expertise acquired over many years (usually around Mid October), the farmers “tap” their trees and the gum exudes where the bark has been cut. Six weeks later the first gum collection is made. Up to three further collections are made at three-week intervals. The farmer then transports the gum to sell it in one of the gum auction markets.
Local Merchants buy the gum at agreed floor price or higher. The gum is then delivered to cleaning sheds, where the gum is selected and graded into three distinct grades.
Gum Arabic is only produced by trees that are in an unhealthy condition. Gum yields are improved by natural factors that lessen the vitality of the trees - hot weather, poor soil, lack of moisture, etc. It is important to remember that a damaged tree will give a larger yield of gum. Thus, the natives will cut and strip the bark from a tree and return later to remove the tears of gum that are formed in wounds or scars.
Gum droplets are about 0.75 to 3 inches in diameter, and they gradually dry and harden on exposure to the atmosphere. A young tree will yield 400g - 7000g annually.
The dry season lasts from October to June and the gum is collected every 10 days. During the rainy season no gum is formed since the trees are in full bloom.
Once a tree is three years old, it is generally in a position to be harvested for gum – and in some cases, the first crop can be secured in the second year.
Based on the 1991 Sudanese figures, the price of Gum Arabic cab vary from $850 to $2,800 per tonne of hand picked acacia Senegal gum currently, a kilogramme of Gum Arabic goes for $3 on the European market. The Sudan is the largest producer of Gum Arabic and was until a few years ago, the world's largest exporter before the US slapped an embargo on them. Uganda is trying for the first time to cash in on the trade, and Nigeria has recognised the benefits of being involved in production.
History of the product’s use
The oldest and best-known of all natural gums is Gum Arabic, known as Gum Acacia, Turkey Gum, Indian Gum and by many other descriptive and colourful local names.
The uses of Gum Arabic date back about 5000 years to the time of the ancient Egyptians. Among its many applications, Gum Arabic was used as a binder in cosmetics and inks, and as an agent in the mummification process. Egyptian fleets shipped Gum Arabic as an article of commerce. Ancient inscriptions frequently refer to "KAMI", a form of Gum Arabic used as a pigment binder and adhesive in painting. It was eventually introduced to Europe through various Arabican ports acquiring the name "Gum Arabic" after its place of origin. During the Middle Ages, Gum Arabic trade was carried on through ports controlled by the Turkish Empire, thus giving rise to the name "Turkey Gum". An export trade was also developed for a time around Bombay - thus, "East Indian" or "Indian Gum".