Sourced from the acacia tree, gum arabic is a complex mixture of saccharides and glycoproteins, used as an emulsifier, texturiser and film-former, in the food and beverage industry to stabilise flavours and essential oils in soft drinks, gums and confectionery formulations.
But with nearly 70 percent of the inventories coming out of war-torn Sudan in Africa, prices have rocketed in recent months, moving from €2 ($2.69) a kilo about a year ago to €5 ($6.71) in today's market.
As the situation continues and coping with depressed stocks and rising costs for the ingredient, food manufacturers are obliged to look for alternatives to gum arabic in a bid to beat off the squeezed margins and keep up the flow of supplies to their customers.
"It seems unlikely that there will be a turning point in the immediate future," hydrocolloid expert Dennis Seisun from IMR International confirmed.
But gum arabic is also one of the classic cyclic hydrocolloids, that has traditionally experienced highs and lows, he told FoodNavigator.com.
Certain speciality starches can replace gum arabic, but only in certain cases, not all. Starch derivatives firm Cerestar Food & Pharma has tweaked an existing tapioca starch product to replace gum arabic in a range of applications, particularly gums (pastilles) and coatings (as a binding agent).
According to the company, a subsidiary of privately-held agro-giant Cargill, a team of scientists at its facilities in Vilvoorde, Belgium started working on alternatives to gum arabic during a previous shortage. They designed the bland tasting brand C*AraSet as 'cost-effective' option, compatible with sugar-free products. In combination with gum arabic (50/50 db), the end products can also be labelled as tooth-friendly, says the firm.
"When used in gums (pastilles) applications, C*AraSet delivers a hard gum texture that lasts long in the mouth, high clarity, high chewability and low stickiness," claims the European firm.
UK ICI-owned starch firm National Starch is targeting the alternative gum arabic market with its Purity Gum range derived from waxy maize.
"This can replace gum arabic in flavour and beverage emulsions where film-forming and emulsifying properties are required," the firm said recently, adding the product does not require a cooking phase.
Gum arabic is grown commercially throughout the Sahel from Senegal to Sudan. The connection between the latter country and Osama bin Laden brought the gum to public consciousness in 2001, as an urban legend arose that bin Laden owned a significant fraction of the gum arabic production in the Sudan, and that therefore one should boycott products using it.
Some months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks the US State Department issued a release stating that while Osama bin Laden had once had considerable holdings in Sudanese gum arabic production, he divested himself of these when he was expelled from Sudan in 1996.