In the Stone Age, gum arabic was used as a food in the Sahara and as an adhesive in Africa. Cleopatra reportedly had it in her lipstick, and she ordered foods prepared with it. Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci added the ingredient to their paints when they created their masterpieces.
Today, food and beverage companies are increasingly turning to this timeless amber-colored additive — which also goes by acacia gum or gum acacia — for a host of purposes, including as an emulsifier in plant-based beverages, to create a hard shell around a candy or adding volume by mimicking the texture of sugar in a product when the sweetener is removed. Persistence Market Research estimated that by the end of 2025, more than 165 thousand tons of gum arabic will be consumed in the world valued at $476.1 million.
Despite its historical uses, its use in food and beverages has exploded in recent years because it hits on many of the hot-button trends impacting the space: It's all natural, sustainable and helps a product become clean label. Because of where it's harvested in Africa, it also enables farmers there to have another source of income. Gum arabic is easy to work with for food developers because it's resistant to shifts in pH, can be used in a lot of different formulations and withstands changes in temperatures like during pasteurization.
"It's really a workhorse," said Derek Holthaus, senior principle scientist at Ingredion, told Food Dive. "It does just about everything other than add viscosity. I honestly believe it can be used in almost any food formulation."
Holthaus says its primary uses include as an emulsifier in sodas and nonalcoholic beverages; a texture and hard coating agent in candies and gum; and to preserve liquid and powdered flavors. It has scores of other uses, too, including as a natural glue in nutritional bars, a fiber in prebiotics, wine to enhance mouthfeel and bakery products to increase shelf life.
A routine scan of food and beverage labels shows gum arabic is products such as M&M’s and some PepsiCo Gatorade flavors. "Without binding ingredients like gum acacia, the outer shells our consumers love in M&M'S, Starburst jelly beans and pellet chewing gum wouldn't stick," Jason Egan, senior product development scientist at Mars Wrigley, said in an email.
Gum arabic is found in Africa predominately in the countries of Chad, Senegal, Ethiopia and Sudan. The gum is extracted from the acacia tree by scorning some of the bark, which allows the substance to ooze out to protect the tree.
"It's really a workhorse. It does just about everything other than add viscosity. I honestly believe it can be used in almost any food formulation."
Senior principle scientist, Ingredion
Two weeks later, farmers in the area collect the exudates that have hardened on the outside of the tree. It's then sent off to companies like Ingredion and Alland & Robert in France where things like extraneous bark are removed before it's turned into a powder.
Much of the fastest growth in demand for gum arabic is in areas such as clean labels, plant-based beverages or in sugar reduction. Many emerging companies in these spaces, Holthaus said, may not be aware of the attributes until they read the label of other more well-known, established products. Ingredion views gum arabic as one of its many core ingredients, and it's "top of mind when we visit customers," he said.
"A lot of our customers come to us because they saw it on a label of a similar product and they say 'Hey,' and then they start researching it and think maybe I need to start using that ingredient," Holthaus said.
At Alland & Robert, gum arabic is their business, with the ingredient responsible for 95% of its sales, according Violaine Fauvarque, the company's marketing manager. The company's revenue reached $50 million in 2019, and has tripled during the last decade. Further growth is forecast as more applications are found and current uses increase their adoption.
"We really see an explosion of demand in food and beverages, and in other industries," Fauvarque told Food Dive. "It's not only because the applications are really wide, but also because we're working on developing new usage like plant-based meats."
Fauvarque said her company works with some of the biggest food and beverages companies worldwide, and it invests about $1.1 million each year in research and development to learn more about acacia gum and find new applications.
Alland & Robert has a partnership with researchers at the University of Montpellier in France to discover new uses for gum arabic, as well as to better understand the chemical structure of the ingredients. The insight enables the company to work with its customers and amass insight that gum arabic will perform a certain function requested by the customer because of its prior research.
"A lot of our customers, they know they have to use acacia gum, and it works, but they don't really know how. And it's like this magical ingredient," Fauvarque said. "We've made a lot of progress in terms of awareness about the products, ... but most likely there's progress to be made.”