Gum arabic is a complex mixture of saccharides and glycoproteins, which gives it its most useful property: it is perfectly edible. While historically used for printing, paint production, glue, and industrial applications, it continues to be used as an ingredient in foodstuffs.
Gum arabic's (also known as Meska) mixture of saccharides and glycoproteins means that it is a glue, binder, and preparation agent which still remains edible by humans. Other substances have replaced it in situations where toxicity is not an issue, as the proportions of the various chemicals in gum arabic vary widely and make it unpredictable. Still, it remains an important ingredient in soft drink syrups, "hard" gummy candies like gumdrops, marshmallows, M & M's chocolate candies, and most notably, chewing gums. For artists it is the traditional binder used in watercolor paint, and is used in photography for gum printing. Pharmaceuticals and cosmetics also use the gum, and it is used as a binder in pyrotechnic compositions. It is an important ingredient in shoe polish. It is also used often as a lickable adhesive on postage stamps and cigarette papers. Printers employ it to stop oxidation of aluminium printing plates in the interval between processing of the plate and its use on a printing press.
Gum arabic is used as a binder for watercolor painting because it dissolves easily in water. Pigment of any color is suspended within the gum arabic in varying amounts, resulting in watercolor paint. Water acts as a vehicle or a diluent to thin the watercolor paint and helps to transfer the paint to a surface such as paper. When all moisture evaporates, the gum arabic binds the pigment to the paper surface.
While Gum Arabic has been harvested in Arabia, Egypt, and West Asia since antiquity, Sub-Saharan Gum Arabic has a long history as a prized export. The Gum exported came from the band of Acacia trees which once covered much of the Sahel region: the southern littoral of the Sahara Desert running from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Today the main populations of gum producing Acadia species are harvested in Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan, Eritrea, Etiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. The Acacia senegal variety is tapped (by cutting holes in the bark) for a product called Kordofan or Senegal gum. Seyal gum, from the Acacia seyal variety (more prevalent in East Africa) is collected through naturally occurring extrusions in the bark. Traditionally harvested by semi-nomadic desert pastorlists in the course of their transhumance cycle, Gum Arabic remains a main export of several African nations, including Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Sudan. The hardened extrusions are collected in the middle of the rainy season (harvesting usually begins in July), and exported at the start of the dry season (November). The primary export agent for these nations continues to be a French company, (Colloïdes Naturels International ) founded during the colonial period to process the Gum, which maintains large processing facilities in Nigeria and Rouen, France. Total world Gum Arabic exports are today (2008) estimated at 60,000 tonnes, having recovered from 1987-1989 and 2003-2005 crises caused by the destruction of trees by Desert locust. Sudan, Chad, and Nigeria -- which in 2007 produced 95 percent of world exports -- have been in discussions to create a producer's cartel.
For much of the 19th century, Gum Arabic was the major export from French and British trading colonies in modern Senegal and Mauritania. France in particular first came into conflict with inland African states over the supply of the commodity, providing an early spur for the conquest of French West Africa. As the Atlantic Slave Trade weakened in the early 19th century, The Emirate of Trarza and its neighbors in what is today southern Mauritania collected taxes on trade, especially Gum Arabic, which the French were purchasing in every increasing quantities for its use in industrial fabric production. West Africa had become the sole supplier of world Gum Arabic by the 18th century, and its export at the French colony of Saint-Louis doubled in the decade of 1830 alone. Taxes, and a threat to bypass Saint-Louis by sending gum to the British traders at Portendick, eventually brought the Emirate of Trarza into direct conflict with the French. In the 1820s, the French launched the Franco-Trarzan War of 1825. The new emir, Muhammad al Habib, had signed an agreement with the Waalo Kingdom, directly to the south of the river. In return for an end to raids in Waalo territory, the Emir took the heiress of Waalo as a bride. The prospect that Trarza might inherit control of both banks of the Senegal struck at the security of French traders, and the French responded by sending a large expeditionary force that crushed Muhammad's army. The war incited the French to expand to the north of the Senegal River for the fist time, heralding French direct involvement in the interior of West Africa. Gum Arabic continued to be exported in large quantities from the Sahel areas of French West Africa (modern Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger) and French Equatorial Africa (modern Chad) until these nations gained their independence in 1959-61.
The connection between Sudan and Osama bin Laden brought the otherwise innocuous gum to public consciousness in 2001, as an urban legend arose that bin Laden owned a significant fraction of the gum arabic production in Sudan and that therefore one should boycott products using it. As a result, some food producers, such as Snapple, renamed the ingredient to "gum acacia" on their labels.
This story took on somewhat significant proportions, mostly thanks to an article in The Daily Telegraph a few days after the September 11 attacks, which echoed this claim. Eventually, the 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.
In a press conference held at the Washington Press Club on 30 May, 2007, John Ukec Lueth Ukec, Sudan's ambassador to the United States, threatened to stop exportation of gum arabic from his country if sanctions were imposed. The sanctions proposed by the United States were a political response from the United States to the alleged connection between the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed militia group. Ukec made his speech surrounded by Coca-Cola products, although other sodas use gum arabic as an emulsifier as well.
John Ukec Lueth Ukec was quoted at the Washington press conference, "I want you to know that the gum arabic which runs all the soft drinks all over the world, including the United States, mainly 80 percent is imported from my country," which he said after raising a bottle of Coca-Cola. According to the Washington Post, a reporter then asked if Sudan was threatening to "stop the export of gum arabic and bring down the Western world." To which Ukec replied, "I can stop that gum arabic and all of us will have lost this," and gestured to the Coke bottle.