Among the myriad of ingredients you will find listed in just about any edible products these days, whether candy, “junk” cakes, drinks, even medicines, you name it, there is often one listed with a mysterious-sounding name: gum arabic. Is it a natural substance, one may wonder, or something that did not exist when your grandparents were young? Is it potentially harmful, many consumers today can dutifully inquire before putting such foods in their, or their children’s, mouths.
Not to fear: gum arabic, is, indeed, a very natural substance, derived as it is from the acacia tree, sometimes known as the thorntree (mainly in Australia). This tree is a native of southern tropical regions, especially Africa. It has been used for many centuries in folk medicine as well as, even now in some regions of the southern hemisphere, for food. The seed pods are highly nutritious and are widely recognized by many cultures as beneficial to health.
In our part of the world, gum arabic is used as a natural binding agent and emulsifier, to keep other ingredients from failing to mix well and stay that way. (Too bad it can’t be used in relationships!) Gum arabic, the sap of some varieties of acacia (Senegal, mainly) is muciligenic –that is, it soothes the mucus membranes of the body, especially the digestive and respiratory systems.
Other uses for gum arabic include relief of coughs, mainly those caused by phlegm. Again, the mucus membranes of the respiratory system are soothed by the effects of this plant’s sap when made into a syrupy solution. The natural flavor is somewhat neutral, being neither overly sweet nor bitter. As such it is not noticeable in any of its commercial uses.
Traditionally, the acacia tree has been accredited with being the source of the wood Moses used in building the ark of the covenant. As a result it has been highly regarded by many cultures of the middle east throughout the ages since. Other legends claim acacia, with its huge thorns, as the plant used by the Roman soldiers to weave the crown of thorns which they placed on Jesus’ head prior to His crucifixion. Whether either of these claims are authentic or not, the tree has certainly been in use a long, long time. Thankfully it is more well-known today for its gum and the healing properties that possesses.