The rose gold of Africa

Alland & Robert is an international leader in gum acacia, an all-natural additive or ingredient with applications in the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Dr Kevin Robinson travelled with the company to Senegal to learn more about how the raw material is produced, harvested and used

Acacia gum or gum Arabic has long been used in traditional medicine and in everyday applications.

The Egyptians used the material as a glue when embalming mummies and as a pain reliever. Arabic physicians treated a wide variety of ailments with the gum, resulting in its popular name.

Today, it is widely used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries as a substance that relieves irritation, in the food industry to give body and texture to processed foodstuffs, as well as in as well as in technical applications (such as paper-making and paints) to stabilise emulsions.

Gum Arabic is classified as a multifunctional food additive (E414). It is used as a glazing agent for sweets and pharmaceutical products, an emulsifier (in oils and lotions), a stabiliser (in drinks such as wine, mascara, eye liner and other products), a carrier (flavourings) and as dietary fibre (diet products).

And, thanks to ongoing research, the number of possible applications is set to rise. For example, acacia gum could be used as a texturing agent, providing an alternative to the animal-based ingredients used in certain products.

In chemical terms, Acacia gum is a brittle, odourless and generally tasteless material that contains a number of neutral sugars, acids, calcium and other electrolytes.

The main component of the gum is arabin, the calcium salt of the polysaccharide Arabic acid. The structure of the gum is complex and has not yet been fully elucidated. Yet, a comprehensive analysis, including NMR spectra for 35 samples of gum Arabic, has been published to serve as the basis for international standardisation of acacia gum.1

The gum is built upon a backbone of D-galactose units with side-chains of D-glucuronic acid with L-rhamnose or L-arabinose terminal units. The molecular weight of the gum is large, with estimates in the range of 200,000–600,000 Daltons.

It is very soluble in water, but does not dissolve in alcohol. Gum Arabic is guaranteed to be 100% plant-based, GMO, pesticide and gluten free, odourless, colourless and very low in calories: needless to say, it has a very rosy future!

Uses and pharmacology

Acacia gum has no significant systemic effects when ingested. And although related gums have been shown to be hypocholesterolaemic when ingested, there is no evidence for this effect with acacia. However, some animal studies suggest that the ingestion of acacia gum may increase serum cholesterol levels in rats.

Whole gum mixtures of acacia have been shown to inhibit the growth of periodontic bacteria, including Porphyromonas gingivalis and Prevotella intermedia in vitro when added to culture medium in concentrations ranging from 0.5–1%, although this has not been corroborated with animal data.

At a concentration of 0.5%, acacia whole gum mixture also inhibited bacterial protease enzymes, suggesting that it may be useful in limiting the development of periodontal disease. In addition, chewing an acacia-based gum for 7 days has been shown to reduce mean gingival and plaque scores compared with a sugar-free gum; the total differences in these scores was significant between groups, suggesting that acacia gum primarily inhibits the early deposition of plaque.2

In other uses, Acacia gum is a demulcent and soothes irritated mucous membranes. Consequently, it is widely used in topical preparations to promote wound healing and as a component of cough and some gastrointestinal preparations.

Natural and reliable

Acacia gum is an unmodified vegetable fibre, a dried exudate of the sap derived directly from acacia trees. It can flow either naturally or as a result of an incision made in the trunk or branches of the tree.

Not only is the product itself 100% natural, harvesting methods are 100% natural too. Unlike the majority of products used in the food industry, gum Arabic is not harvested from industrialised plantations, but solely from trees growing in the wild, the majority of which are located in the southern Sahel, in Africa.

Acacia gum production plays a key role in protecting the environment because it is guaranteed to be free from pesticides and GMOs. It is a natural way of protecting countries in the southern Sahel from desertification, making it both economically and environmentally beneficial, and reinforcing its natural qualities. A proportion of the acacia gym that reaches the market is certified organic.

Alland & Robert, a small French company with a long history of guaranteeing the long-term, safe supply of gum Arabic, it is expected to become a major market player in the future.

The company has adopted strict norms and practices to guarantee hygiene and quality throughout the production process. Producing a natural product is very important to Alland & Robert, which works to preserve the qualities of the product by conducting strict supplier audits at all stages of the production process, and ensuring that the working conditions of the gum tappers, harvesters and processors are appropriate.

This same level of control is also operated in the company's gum acacia processing factories. The product remains perfectly natural, right through to the point of sale, as its composition is not modified at any stage of the process. From harvesting through to sale, nothing is added.

NBR spoke to Myriam Brunel, Alland & Robert’s Quality Assurance Director, to find out more. “Traceability is key,” she says: “I come to the factories every year to audit all our gum acacia suppliers, looking at hygiene issues to ensure that the gum we receive has a low bioburden and minimal microbial contamination, that it has been dried to an acceptable level and is free from debris and dirt. We also examine the plant facilities to ensure that the employees have access to fresh water to wash their hands, that the toilets — if available — are clean, and that any machinery is in full working order.”

Myriam explains that in Chad and Senegal, for example, the production process is not 100% manual and the suppliers have installed automated conveying and sorting systems. In Sudan, the entire process is manual. She continues: “There are generally quite a lot of people working in the sorting rooms and I take care of their health and well-being. An absolutely critical issue is ensuring the appropriate age of all the workers. We won’t tolerate child labour!”

“In Senegal, the regulations regarding age and working conditions are exactly the same as those in France, so I know that there is no problem there. In Sudan, however, conditions can be different and I make sure to read the register and, even then, if I see a lady who appears to be very young, I ask for their date of birth,” she says.

Traceability testing is quite thorough, she adds: “We look at a certain batch number and location number, and I ask the supplier to provide evidence of every step in the procedure, from the harvest date, collection sack and plantation name to the sorting plant. At the facility itself, I check to make sure the building is well maintained, clean and that any pest control measures are in place and effective.”

Myriam goes as far as checking ventilation grids and access points to ensure that unwanted birds and the local fauna are kept out and the raw materials remain uncontaminated. “Controlling the quality of our products and our manufacturing process is not enough,” she adds: “we must anticipate and prevent issues, and that also involves training and education.”

“The audit is an essential tool that ensures that our requirements are met. It’s are also a time to explain to our suppliers what our goals are, and help them build their own quality management system, in line with our requirements and values. We wish to sustain our business and, for that, we care about the future of the gum harvest and the people who depend on it. It is our policy to share knowledge with our suppliers and help them sustain their own business. Quality assurance is the framework for organising, structuring and monitoring the improvement of this exchange with our suppliers,” she concludes.

All over the world, regulatory bodies such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have certified gum Arabic to be safe. It is recognised as having no negative impact on health and no maximum daily intake has been set. Alland & Robert do everything possible to preserve the stability and natural properties of gum acacia by operating to strict standards and ensuring the entire production process, from the tree to the end product, is traceable.

References

1. D.M. Anderson, et al., “Gum Arabic (Acacia senegal): Unambiguous Identification by 13C-NMR Spectroscopy as an Adjunct to the Revised JECFA Specification, and the Application of 13C-NMR Spectra for Regulatory/Legislative Purposes,” Food Addit. Contam. 8, 405–421 (1991).

2. M.I. Gazi, “The Finding of Antiplaque Features in Acacia arabica Type of Chewing Gum,” J. Clin. Periodontol. 18, 75–77 (1991).

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