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Is Gum Arabic Harmful or Helpful? Pros & Cons of This Natural Thickening Agent

by Jillian Levy, CHHC

Published: August 21, 2018

Gum arabic - Dr. Axe

Wondering what the ingredient called “gum arabic” that’s found in foods like cake, candies, ice cream and soft drinks really is? Gum arabic is a type of plant-derived fiber. You can think of it as an edible “glue,” natural thickening agent and binder that helps hold ingredients together.

Gum arabic’s structure allows it to dissolve in cold or warm water (meaning it’s “water-soluble”), making it easy to use in a variety of ways. Because it is a natural, plant-derived product, it’s suitable for vegans/vegetarians (unlike other products with similar qualities, such as gelatin). It is also naturally gluten-free, usually non-GMO and well-tolerated by most people when used in appropriate/small amounts.

Due to its rich fiber content, gum arabic may offer benefits including increasing probiotic bacteria in the gut, promoting satiety following meals, slowing down gastric emptying and regulating hormone secretion, which helps manage appetite and weight.

All of that said, gum arabic (or acacia gum) is typically found in processed, packaged foods — many of which are high in sugar, low in nutrients and filled with other potentially harmful ingredients. While using gum arabic supplements or baking or cooking with small amounts of gum arabic at home may not be harmful, it’s still best to limit how much packaged food that contains lots of additives you eat in general.


What Is Gum Arabic?

Gum arabic, also sometimes called acacia gum or acacia powder, is a fibrous product made from the natural hardened sap of two types of wild Acacia trees. Around the world, gum arabic goes by many names, including acacia gum, arabic gum, acacia powder, Senegal gum, Indian gum and others.

Acacia senegal (L.), a tree in the Leguminosae (Fabaceae) plant family, is most commonly used to make gum arabic products. Vachellia (Acacia) is another species that produces a dried gum from its trunk and branches. These trees grow most abundantly in Sudan, where about 50 percent of the world’s gum arabic is now produced, but are also found in other parts of Africa, such as Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

What’s interesting about acacia trees is that they produce the most gum arabic when they experience “adverse conditions,” such as poor soil, drought or high heat. This actually damages the trees to some degree but causes an increase in the production of arabic gum.

What type of organic molecule is gum arabic? It is made of a mixture of glycoproteins, a class of proteins that have carbohydrate groups attached to the polypeptide chain, and polysaccharides, a carbohydrate whose molecules consist of a number of sugar molecules bonded together. It also includes oligosaccharides, another type of carbohydrate. Additionally, gums collected from acacia trees are a source of natural sugar compounds called arabinose and ribose, which were some of the first concentrated sugars to be derived from plants/trees. The exact chemical composition of gum arabic varies from product to product, depending on its source and the climate/soil conditions in which it was grown.

Today, there are many industrial and food-related uses for gum arabic. For example, gelatin, modified starch, gum arabic and pectin are the main types of gums used in many sugary/confectionery products. Arabic gum is used to help stabilize products including:

  • A wide variety of desserts and baking ingredients
  • Dairy products like ice cream
  • Syrups
  • Hard and soft candies
  • Ink, paint, watercolors, and photography and printing materials
  • Ceramics and clay
  • Stamps and envelopes
  • Shoe polish
  • Cosmetics
  • Firworks
  • Herbal medicines, pills and lozenges
  • Emulsions that are applied to the skin

Is Gum Arabic Harmful or Helpful? Gum Arabic Side Effects and Benefits

Gum Arabic Benefits:

Studies on both animals and humans suggest that benefits associated with gum arabic may include: (1)

  • Providing a source of prebiotics and soluble fiber. (2)
  • Feeding healthy bacteria (probiotics) in the gut.
  • Helping enhance fullness and satiety.
  • Helping with weight loss and potentially prevention of obesity.
  • Treating IBS symptoms and constipation.
  • Helping regulate cholesterol levels.
  • Fighting insulin resistance, including in patients with type 2 diabetes. (3)
  • Reducing dental plaque on the gums and teeth, plus fighting gingivitis.
  • Having anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, thanks to its tannins, flavonoids and resins. (4, 5)
  • Helping reduce skin inflammation and redness.

Gum arabic is considered to be natural, edible and generally safe for human consumption. (6) Research suggests that it’s non-toxic, especially when used in normal/moderate amounts, and tolerated by people with sensitivities to gluten. While gum is known to be indigestible to both humans and animals, it has been considered as a safe dietary fiber by the United States Food and Drug Administration since the 1970s.

Not only will using gum arabic help your baked goods, such as cakes to rise, but it will also add natural soluble fiber to recipes. Gum arabic is a natural prebiotic and source of soluble dietary fiber (a complex polysaccharide), which means that humans cannot digest its carbohydrates. This actually has benefits when it comes to gut health, digestion and even cardiovascular health due to how soluble fiber helps bind to cholesterol.

Once you eat acacia gum, it ferments in the colon with help from bacteria/microorganisms. This helps to essentially “feed” good probiotic bacteria in the gut that have many important roles in the body. One study found that four-week supplementation with 10 grams a day of gum arabic led to significant increases in Bifidobacteria, Lactobacteria and Bacteriodes bacteria, indicating a prebiotic effect. (7)

Since it’s a concentrated source of dietary fiber, acacia gum can help make people feel full, helping curb cravings and overeating, and possibly helping with weight loss and reduced cholesterol levels. Results from one study showed that two different blends of gum arabic were able to decrease participants’ caloric intake significantly three hours after taking gum arabic. At doses of 40 grams, it yielded a significant reduction in energy intake of 100–200 kcal, while doses of 10 or 20 grams led to a reduction in energy intake around 100 kcal. (8)

A 2012 study published in Nutrition Journal was conducted to determine effects of regular gum arabic (GA) ingestion on body mass index and body fat percentage among healthy adult females. This two-arm, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial included 120 healthy females who were divided into two groups: a test group of 60 volunteers receiving GA (30 gm/day) for six weeks and a placebo group of 60 volunteers receiving pectin (1 gm/day) for the same period of time. Results from the study suggest that “GA ingestion causes significant reduction in BMI and body fat percentage among healthy adult females” and that this effect could potentially be used in the treatment of obesity. (9)

There has been some debate in the food industry as to just how many calories small amounts of gum arabic may contain, and as of now gum arabic is considered to have about one to two calories per gram. Because it is not digestible, it essentially has no caloric value when consumed in normal amounts. This means you don’t have to worry about gum arabic contributing sugar, carbs or “empty calories” to your diet. Because most recipes call for one to 10 grams per entire recipe, you can expect to only consume several calories from gum arabic per serving.

 

Gum arabic - Dr. Axe

 

Why Gum Arabic May Be Harmful:

Gum arabic may cause digestive issues for some people, particularly when used in large amounts. Potential gum arabic side effects can include flatulence/gas, bloating, unfavorable viscous sensation in the mouth, early morning nausea, mild diarrhea and other types of indigestion. To limit side effects, keep your intake well below the max daily dose of about 30 grams per day, which is easy to do considering most recipes call for just one to 10 grams.

According to a 2017 report released by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), in regard to gum arabic being safe, “No adverse effects were reported in subchronic and carcinogenicity studies at the highest dose tested and there is no concern with respect to the genotoxicity.” (10) While some individuals experience flatulence from eating gum arabic, the EFSA panel considers this undesirable but not an adverse effect. The EFSA panel concluded that “there is no need for a numerical accepted daily intake (ADI) for acacia gum (E 414), and there is no safety concern for the general population at the refined exposure assessment of acacia gum (E 414) as a food additive.”

If you’re dealing with any serious digestive issues and following the GAPS diet or specific carbohydrate diet (SCD), then know that most fiber gums (including acacia, guar gum, etc.) are “prohibited” because they may make inflammation in the gut worse. Otherwise, as long as you are not sensitive to these gums and don’t notice any symptoms flaring up when eating them, they shouldn’t raise much concern.


Gum Arabic Uses

What is gum arabic used for? The most common use of gum arabic powder is in the production of soft drinks and in cooking and baking, specifically to stabilize the texture of products, increase the viscosity of liquids and help baked goods (such as cakes) rise. Other uses include adding shine/sheen or a glossy look to certain foods, coating foods and inhibiting crystallization of sugar. When it comes to making soda/soft drinks, acacia gum is used to make syrups and bind sweeteners with other flavors.

Why types of foods use stabilizing ingredients like gum arabic? You can find gum arabic (acadia) most commonly in desserts or sweets, such as fruit syrups, marshmallows, confectionary sugar, icings, chewing gum, chocolate candies like M&Ms, soft drinks, edible decorative ingredients for baking like glitter or sprinkles, and chewy soft candies.

As you can see, many foods that contain gum arabic are not the healthiest choices. Packaged baked goods, candy, etc., are often loaded with added sugar, refined oils, and artificial colors and ingredients. So while acacia gum itself may not be problematic in small amounts, you should still limit the amount of sweets and processed foods you eat that contain it.

 

Gum arabic uses - Dr. Axe

 


Gum Arabic in Ayurveda and Traditional Medicine

Gum arabic has many uses in traditional systems of medicine, including helping treat ailments like constipation and dysentery,  diarrhea, diabetics, prolonged bleeding, scurvy, tuberculosis, ulcers, and smallpox. (11 ) In Ayurveda, acacia is said to be cooling, pungent, dry, heavy to digest and helpful for balancing Kapha dosha. (12) Acacia gum is considered a natural antiseptic and expectorant.

The root and leaves of the plant are crushed and sometimes applied to the skin to treat inflammation, infection, wounds, parasites and other diseases. Small amounts of the root can also be sucked on or applied to the mouth to help treat bleeding, gum diseases and pain from loose teeth. (13) Other traditional uses of acacia include gargling it for sore throats, washing the skin with it for eczema and wounds, using it in eyewashes for conjunctivitis, and adding it to enemas for hemorrhoids.


Gum Arabic vs. Gelatin

Gelatin is different from most other gelling agents because it isn’t a complex sugar, but rather an animal-derived protein made from animal collagen. Gelatin is usually sourced from various parts of animals (including bones and connective tissue), especially cattle and pigs.

  • As its name implies, gelatin is great at forming gel-like textures and is highly versatile in baking, cooking and candy-making. You’ll find gelatin in a wide variety of sweets — especially jellies, jams, marshmallows, wine gums, gummy bears and fruit chews — and also in powdered form that can be added to things like smoothies or stews. Hydrolyzed gelatin powder can be mixed into any type of liquid, including soups, broths, etc.
  • Gelatin is often combined with other “hydrocolloids” like pectin, agar, starches and gum arabic. Together these form ideal textures for many gummy or candy products. You’ll find a combination of gelatin and gum arabic in many fruit pastilles and sucking candies.
  • Overall, most would agree that gelatin has more health benefits than gum arabic. Gelatin is found in animal parts that provide us with important amino acids, the “building blocks” of proteins. Its unique amino acid profile is the reason for many of its benefits — such as helping form strong cartilage or connective tissue, preventing intestinal damage, improving the lining of the digestive tract, helping stall chronic inflammatory responses that lead to joint pain and progressive diseases, and providing glycine, which seems to improve sleep quality, boost mental clarity and promote calmness.

Gum Arabic vs. Xanthan Gum vs. Guar Gum

  • Acacia gum and other gums/fibers like xanthan gum, locust bean gum and guar gum are common ingredients in foods like candies, baked goods and confections.
  • These ingredients are used in food manufacturing, baking and cooking to create gels and manipulate how spongy, brittle or soft a product is. These “gelling agents” dictate the texture and chewiness that a product will wind up having since they help absorb water and bind ingredients together. It’s common for gums to be found in sweet products and desserts, which usually come out best when some type of pectin, gelatin and starch are combined.
  • Xanthan gum is a complex exopolysaccharide, a polymer composed of sugar residues that is secreted by plant-pathogenic bacterium. It is produced when glucose, sucrose or lactose is fermented by the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris; then it is made into a solid by isopropyl alcohol, dried and ground into fine powder, which is added to liquid to form gum. It is considered safe to consume up to 15 grams of xanthan gum per day, which can be found in foods like breads, packaged baked goods, salad dressings, soups, condiments and more.
  • Xanthan gum may have some unique benefits, including helping people who have difficulty emptying food into the esophagus because of abnormalities in muscle or nerves and potentially reducing tumor growth. It can also serve as a natural alternative to gluten as a binding agent in baking.
  • Guar gum is a vegetable-derived gum extracted from the endosperm of the seeds of the legume Cyamopsis tetragonoloba. These crops are native to India and Pakistan. Guar gum and locust bean gum are chemically very similar; both are helpful for creating thick gels.
  • Guar gum is sometimes used as a vegetarian-friendly alternative to gelatin, just like acacia gum. You’ll find guar gum in foods like cottage cheeses, curds, yogurt, sauces, soups and frozen desserts. It’s considered non-toxic and safe when consumed in small amounts but may contribute to digestive issues when taken in high doses.

Gum Arabic Powder Supplements and Dosage

Gum arabic is sometimes used in dried, powdered supplement form to help treat conditions like high cholesterol, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation and to potentially help promote weight loss. One reason why many people are drawn to gum arabic is because it’s a convenient way to consume prebiotics and promote “good” bacteria growth in the intestine. Acacia can also be applied to the skin or inside the mouth to help treat plaque and gum inflammation (gingivitis) and to fight inflammation or redness.

There is currently no “upper limit” of gum arabic for human consumption that has been set. Studies suggest that humans should not exceed 10 milligrams of gum arabic per kilogram of body weight each day. The report published in the EFSA Journal mentioned above found that even “oral daily intake of a large amount of acacia gum up to 30,000 mg acacia gum/person per day (approximately equivalent 430 mg acacia gum/kg of body weight per day) for up to 18 days was well tolerated in adults.”

When using gum arabic supplements, it’s recommended that you take about 15 grams per day. (14) Higher doses may cause side effects, so start with a low dose and monitor your reaction.


Where to Buy Gum Arabic + Gum Arabic Recipes

Where can you buy gum arabic? Gum arabic can usually be found at big stores like Walmart or bought online, such as on Amazon. Check the ingredient label on any product that you buy so you know for sure that the gum was made from actual acacia trees. According to the EFSA, the term “gum arabic” does not indicate a particular botanical source, so some products may claim to be gum arabic but actually contain fibers from another plant.

Gum arabic is cold water-soluble, so you won’t need to heat it for it to do its job. Warm or room temperature water is usually enough to dissolve the powder. The amount of dissolved soluble sugars (like gum arabic) that you choose to use in recipes will determine how hard or soft the final product is. For example, when you use more acacia gum you will wind up with a more solid texture than when you use less. (15)

Here are some of the ways you can use gum arabic powder at home:

  • To help cakes rise and form a spongy texture, use about five grams of gum arabic powder for every three eggs you use in your recipe. In other words, if you’re making a small cake that only calls for one egg, use about 1.5 grams of acacia gum/powder. Five grams of gum arabic is typically about a teaspoon’s worth, but check directions/recommendations for the exact product you’re using. (16)
  • If you want to create a shiny glaze on baked good, mix about 10 ml/2 tsp of gum arabic with 60 ml/2 fl oz. of water. This recipe can also be used as varnish for marzipan or for creating a shiny sugar paste.

Store unopened gum arabic in a dry, cool place away from direct sunlight. You can keep unopened gum arabic for up two years. Once you open the powder, store it in the refrigerator for up to six months. It’s best to keep gum arabic in an airtight jar in a refrigerator. If you add a few drops of alcohol to any mixture you make with gum arabic, this will also increase its shelf life.


History

Gum arabic is believed to have been harvested in Arabia, Sudan and West Asia for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. It occurs as a sticky liquid that oozes from the stems and branches of acacia trees (Acacia senegal and A. seyal), which grow across the Sahelian belt of Africa, especially Sudan. Today the term “gum arabic” does not indicate a particular botanical source or tree, but traditionally made gum arabic is sourced from Acacia senegal and A. seyal trees.

While the gum arabic industry in Sudan has experienced a decline in recent decades, mostly due to Sudan being “politically unstable” at times, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people are still dependent on gum arabic for their livelihoods. The Darfur region of Sudan remains the world’s largest single producer of gum arabic, where production is heavily controlled by the Sudanese government.

In Sudan, gums that are harvested from acacia trees are known as Indian gum arabic, or talha. Other nations included in the “gum belt” of sub-Saharan Africa are Chad, Eritrea, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.


Final Thoughts

  • Gum arabic is a natural fibrous product that is used as a thickening agent, emulsifier and flavor stabilizer in various foods and industrial products. It’s widely used in the pharmaceutical, food, textile, pottery and cosmetics industries.
  • Two types of acacia trees (Acacia senegal and A. seyal), which are grown in the Sahelian belt of Africa, especially Sudan, are the principle sources of gum arabic.
  • Gum arabic is indigestible by humans, meaning it isn’t broken down in the intestines but instead ferments in the colon. This leads to a range of possible health benefits, including acting as a prebiotic, feeding “good” probiotic bacteria, enhancing gut health, helping with fullness and appetite control and potentially aiding in regulation of body fat, insulin and cholesterol.
  • You can take gum arabic in powdered supplement form, or use small amounts when cooking or baking. It will help cakes rise and form a spongy texture, and also give confectionary/baked goods a shiny finish.
  • While high doses of gum arabic (above 10–30 grams daily) don’t seem to be pose any major health risks, consuming large amounts may lead to gas, diarrhea, indigestion and bloating.

Read Next: Locust Bean Gum: The Pros & Cons of This Common Thickening Agent


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