Used extensively in the food industry, gum arabic's emulsifiying and film-forming properties, low viscosity, high solubility and stability in acidic media renders it useful in many applications.
Obtained from the various species of Acacia trees - that originates in Africa - gum arabic is one of the oldest natural gums. In 1998 95 per cent of world exports came from three countries : Sudan (56 per cent), Chad (29 per cent) and Nigeria (10 per cent).
According to GreenPlanet, Chad's share in the market jumped from 25 per cent in 10 years, showing that new competitors can successfully enter the market or expand market share.
But the 2002/03 gum acacia crop has been lower than normal in all the producing countries, especially in Nigeria, because the low prices at the time of harvest did not make it financially attractive for the farmers to pick the full crop.
According to leading gum arabic supplier the Agriproducts group, gum prices increased rapidly by 25 per cent to 30 per cent between March and May this year, quickly exhausting stocks in Nigeria, and then in Chad.
'After many years of exceptionally low and unsustainable prices for the farmers, these increases will help to generate a more sustainable and healthy supply chain for the future,' said the group.
The reduced volume of the harvested crop has caused the early depletion of all the African gum stocks, except Sudanese Acacia senegal, which is subject to escalating price levels being offered by the Gum Arabic Company (GAC).
Agriproducts predicts that the supply situation will not improve until after the first picking of the new 2003/04 crop in November/December.
'The current heavy rains bode well for the forthcoming crop, but have made transport logistics very difficult, with many of the dirt roads having been washed away. It remains to be seen if they are repaired in time to start moving the new crop at the end of the year,' said Agriproducts.
On Tuesday US hydrocolloid supplier TIC Gums, announced that it would be raising its prices for gum arabic products 'due to the falling value of the US dollar versus the euro combined with smaller than expected raw material harvests.'
Gum arabic (E414 in the EU) is widely used in the food industry, in particular the confectionery industry where it is used to delay or prevent sugar crystallisation and to emulsify fat. Wherever film-forming and emulsifiying properties are needed -without affecting taste or viscosity - gum arabic can often be found. The emulsification properties of gum arabic are also used in various flavour emulsions.
Fluctuations in overseas raw material and increased use of modified starches mean that its use in the food industry has slipped slightly in recent years. But consumer concern over genetic engineered corn is reversing this trend. Gum arabic is not chemically modified and qualifies for 'natura' labelling or 'no artificial additives' claims.