What is gum arabic

We sell a selection of edible gums here at Lindy’s Cakes, all with their own specific uses, which can lead to a little confusion as they all look very similar.

We guess you wouldn’t expect that the a substance used in incense, shoe polish and make-up could also be used to to help add sparkle and shine to your cakes. It’s an all natural product, from the African Sahel, that has been used in cake baking and decorating for a very long time. It is possibly one of the worlds most useful finds and it’s usage dates back to antiquity. The product we’re exited about at the moment is Gum Arabic.

Gum Arabic for sugarcraft use

Gum arabic, also known as gum acacia, chaar gund, char goond, meska or E414, is harvested from two types of wild Acacia trees found in the African Sahel from Senegal/Sudan to Somalia.

The Sahel region

The Acacia Senegal and Acacia Seyal provide the hardened sap used to make this ingenious product. The gum makes up much of Sudan’s livelihood and is used in many everyday items without you knowing, in postage stamps, coca-cola, paints and fireworks.

Acacia Senegal tree used to make Gum Arabic

Here’s how to use this versatile product in your baking and decorating:

Gum Arabic in baking

Add gum Arabic powder to the dry ingredients when baking sponge cakes, add 2 teaspoons of gum arabic to a 6 egg recipe. It will help the cake to rise and will add natural soluble fibre to your cake.

Gum Arabic glue /glaze

Mix Gum Arabic powder with warm water (10ml/2tsp of Gum Arabic with 60ml/2fl oz of water) to create an edible glue for sticking sugar pieces together. It can also be used as varnish for marzipan or sugarpaste. One layer of Gum Arabic will give a slight sheen and subsequent layers will build up to a very high gloss finish, each layer must dry before applying the next layer. Gum arabic glue/glaze can be stored in an airtight jar in a refrigerator for a few months, add a few drops of alcohol to the glaze to help increase its shelf life.

Gum Arabic – edible glitter

Kids love all things that glitter and we know secretly you adults do too which is why it can be used for every occasion and all ages! Gum Arabic is the perfect ingredient to help add just that little extra sparkle, whether your a beginner or a cake baking pro! to find out how.

If you’d like experiment using some Gum Arabic to buy a small pot from our online shop

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Gum arabic, a hardened sap from the acacia tree commonly used in the manufacture of commercial food products, has a long history of use in Middle Eastern cooking. It functions in food as an emulsifier, a stabilizer or a thickener and takes on the properties of a gel or liquid depending on its moisture content. It is also used extensively in the field of molecular gastronomy, the application of scientific principles and methods in cooking.


Acquire gum arabic through a natural food supplier or a company that specializes in food chemicals used in molecular gastronomy. It’s available in a powder, viscous or hardened form, so choose the type designated in your recipe. Make sure you purchase gum arabic classified as food grade, as other types exists for cosmetic and textile applications.

Gather all ingredients, cooking vessels and tools needed for the recipe. It’s imperative to the proper execution of any recipe to have all items on hand and arranged in the order prescribed; this contributes to an organized workspace and saves time.

Weigh and measure each ingredient carefully, and store them in airtight containers until needed. Working with gum arabic, a hydrocolloid, requires precise measuring for the successful execution of a recipe. In molecular gastronomy, applications use a digital gram scale with an accuracy of +/- 0.05 grams, if possible. Too much gum arabic in a recipe produces excess viscosity, and too little results in a watery product.

Execute the recipe’s instructions exactly as prescribed. Incorporating ingredients into a recipe that uses hydrocolloids requires not only precise measurements, but also exact timing. If added out of order, gum arabic will not allow other ingredients to evenly disperse, keeping them suspended in the mixture.

Gum Arabic: Benefits and incredible virtues

Types of Gum Arabic

Hashab Gum Arabic: Used in the treatment of renal failure. It reduces the proportion of creatininecausing kidney failure. It contributes to the treatment of diseases of bone, heart, colon, chest, lung and stomach. It is the best type of gum arabic to treat diseases.

Louban Gum Arabic: Generaly used against diseases of the thorax and lung diseases.

Composition of Gum Arabic

Gum arabic is a natural form of fiber, mineral salts and carbohydrates. 89% of arabic gum is made up of quality fibers, the rest is potassium, magnesium, calcium and a group of carbohydrates such as ribose and alarabinos. It is soluble in water and insoluble in alcohol.

Gum Arabic: Medicinal Properties, Virtues and Benefits

Gum arabic offers many benefits (scientifically proven) which vary according to their types and uses. Scientific studies have shown that gum arabic is the most effective treatment for renal failure in herbs for its excellent and effective results in reducing the level of creatinine in patients with renal failure.

• The gum arabic is used in the treatment of renal failure. It has a large and effective ability to renew renal cells and improve its function. It also contributes to the treatment of diseases related to disorders. These diseases include high blood pressure, cholesterol, kidney infections and diabetes. Arabic gum controls the sugar in the blood and reduces the absorption of sugar in the body and thus helps in the treatment.

• It is one of the most important treatments for osteoporosis in elderly and children and in postmenopausal women.

• Gum Arabic helps reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease.

• Gum Arabic is used in the incense industry because it contains fastening properties.

• It is used by women just after childbirth because of its healing properties against wounds. The gum helps in the growth of beneficial bacteria that help in rapid healing.

• Help in the treatment of chest and lung diseases, such as colds and coughs.

• Helps against high levels of urine acidity.

• Helps to strengthen the immune system, so it is advisable to be used by patients with cancer and AIDS.

• Gum arabic contributes to the prevention of cancer diseases, in particular from cancers of the intestines and cancers of the colon and other forms of tumors.

• Helps prevent and treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

• Gum Arabic treats digestive problems such as constipation and diarrhea, as it contains fiber, sugars and soluble carbohydrates. Gum arabic contributes to the digestion process and helps in the growth of bacterial levels beneficial to the stomach and intestines. It helps to get rid of the pathogen and in the construction of the mucosa of the intestinal wall.

• Gum Arabic is considered as an effective remedy against obesity. It gives a feeling of fullness. It contributes to the secretion of enzymes responsible of digestion of fatty substances in the intestines. Thus, it helps to get rid of excess weight.

• Gum Arabic is used in the treatment of joints and bones, as it contains a significant proportion of calcium.

• Contributes to the promotion of oral health by preventing the growth of bacteria and limestone in teeth.

How to use Gum Arabic?

Gum Arabic is widely used as a cure for many diseases. The mode of use varies according to the nature and stage of the disease. Generally, gum arabic is easy to use since it does not require association with other components.

How to use Gum Arabic with certain diseases?

Gum Arabic is used to prevent diseases. Add 25 grams of gum to a glass of warm water and drink it twice a day, morning and evening.

Gum Arabic is used to protect the hair against precipitation and dandruff and weak roots. A little of the gum arabic is mixed with water and applied to the hair, left as a mask for about two hours, then rinse with water. A difference can be noticed from the first use.

The use of gum arabic in the confectionery industry (rather than using starch or gelatin) makes the ingredients solid and consistent.

Can be used as a face mask by adding a little starch with gum arabic and a little warm water. Apply the mixture obtained on the skin and leave until it dries and then wash it with water.

Gum Arabic is used to prevent natural disorders of the digestive system. It can suppress spasms in the intestines and the colon: a little gum arabic can be added to a glass of boiling water.

Taking gum every day helps to control blood sugar, it helps to regulate cholesterol levels and reduce high blood pressure hypertension.

Gum arabic for the treatment of renal insufficiency

Renal failure is one of the most prominent diseases treated by gum arabic. Renal failure is a chronic disease difficult to treat with classic drugs. Recent studies and experiments have proven that the treatment of kidney failure with gum arabic is possible because its use in treatment of patients with kidney failure was successful and promising. A German study of 20 cases used 50 grams of gum arabic daily (25g in the morning and 25g in the evening) with a diet based on reducing the intake of protein in food. The treatment lasted 4 months. The amount of beneficial bacteria increased greatly in the digestive system. The level of creatinine and nitrogen ratio decreased in the colon compared with the analysis before and after the use of gum arabic. Gum arabic contributed to the improvement of some cases of kidney failure and in the full healing of other cases. It is considered as the most powerful treatment of renal failure currently.

Gum Arabic is used with a protein-reducing diet to promote the release of toxins and accumulated waste in the colon through feces. Gum ingredients are fermented by colon bacteria, which use these substances as a source of energy and growth, helping them to absorb and dispose of nitrogen.

Undesirable effects of Gum Arabic

Scientific studies have shown that Gum Arabic has no side effects, it is safe to use against various diseases.


Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Mar 22, 2019.

Clinical Overview


Acacia gum has been used in pharmaceuticals as a demulcent. It is used topically for healing wounds and inhibits the growth of periodontic bacteria and the early deposition of plaque.

A probiotic effect (bifidogenic) of gum acacia has been reported along with increased satiety and decreased body weight in a limited number of clinical trials; however, no effect on lipid or glucose profiles has been demonstrated.

Clinical trials are generally lacking. One trial used gum arabic (as A. senegal) 30 g daily for 6 weeks as a dietary supplement to reduce weight.


Contraindications have not yet been identified.


Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking.

None well documented.

Allergic reactions have been reported. Adverse effects reported in clinical trials include unfavorable sensation in the mouth, early morning nausea, mild diarrhea, and bloating.

Acacia is essentially nontoxic when ingested and is generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

Scientific Family

  • Fabaceae (pea)
  • Leguminosae (bean)


The acacia tree (A. senegal; syn. with Acacia verek Guill et Perr.) is a thorny, scraggly tree that grows approximately 4.5 m tall. It is most abundant in regions of Africa, especially in the Republic of Sudan. A distinguishing feature of the species is the presence of triple spines at the branchlet base. During times of drought, the bark of the tree splits, exuding a sap that dries in small droplets or tears. Historically, these hardened sap tears served as the major source of acacia gum, but modern commercial acacia gum is derived by tapping trees periodically and collecting the resin semimechanically.Khan 2009, USDA 2015 Trees of the genera Albizia and Combretum are often confused with acacia, but gums from these species should not be used as substitutes for acacia gum.Anderson 1990


Acacia gum has long been used in traditional medicine and everyday applications. The Egyptians used the material as glue and as a base for pain relievers. Arabic physicians treated a wide variety of ailments with the gum, resulting in the alternative name “gum arabic.”Digest 1986 Today, it is used widely in the pharmaceutical industry as a demulcent and in the food industry to give body and texture to processed food products. It also is used to stabilize emulsions. The fibers of the bark are used to make cordage.Duke 2002 The gum also has been administered intravenously (IV) to counteract low blood pressure following surgery and to treat edema associated with nephrosis, but because IV administration was found to cause renal and liver damage, as well as allergic reactions, it was abandoned.Morton 1977


Acacia gum is a brittle, odorless, and generally tasteless material that contains a number of neutral sugars, acids, calcium, and other electrolytes.Khan 2009 The main component of the gum is arabin, the calcium salt of the polysaccharide arabic acid.Evans 1989 The gum is built upon a backbone of D-galactose units, with side chains of D-glucuronic acid having L-rhamnose or L-arabinose terminal units. The molecular weight of the gum is in the range of 200,000 to 600,000 daltons. It is soluble in water, but insoluble in alcohol.Khan 2009 Acacia gum contains a peroxidase enzyme, which is typically destroyed by brief exposure to heat. If not inactivated, this enzyme forms colored complexes with certain amines and phenols and catalyzes the oxidation of many pharmaceutical products, including alkaloids and some vitamins.Khan 2009

The quality and grade of acacia gum is variable depending on growing conditions and collection method.Evans 1989 A comprehensive analysis, including nuclear magnetic resonance spectra for 35 samples of gum arabic, has been published to serve as the basis for international standardization of acacia gum.Anderson 1991

Uses and Pharmacology


In mice infected with malaria, gum arabic decreased parasitemia and increased survival by an unknown mechanism.Ballal 2011, Kurup 1992, Nasir 2013 In vitro studies suggest high concentrations are required for effect.Ballal 2011, Kurup 1992 Conversely, acacia gum reduces the antibacterial effectiveness of the preservative methyl-p-hydroxybenzoate against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, presumably by offering physical barrier protection to the microbial cells from the action of the preservative.Ballal 2011, Kurup 1992


Acacia gum is used in topical preparations to promote wound healing.Bhatnagar 2013


Animal data

Gum acacia added to porridge reduced postprandial blood glucose increases in mice.Hu 2014 In diabetic mice, gum acacia decreased food and fluid intake, but did not modify body weight.Nasir 2013

Clinical data

Increased satiety was observed in a clinical study evaluating different doses of gum acacia. Reductions of the order of 100 to 200 kcal were reported with doses ranging from gum acacia 5 to 40 g.Calame 2011 A clinical trial of healthy females (N = 120) reported decreased body mass index and body fat following consumption of gum arabic (A. senegal) 30 g daily for 6 weeks.Babiker 2012 No effects on insulin or glucose blood concentrations were found in a study using gum acacia and pectin in patients (N = 21) with metabolic syndrome.Pouteau 2010

GI effects

In rodent models of chronic diarrhea, gum acacia preserved glucose and electrolyte levels and hydration.Khan 2009 A study in rats demonstrated a protective effect of gum acacia against meloxicam-induced GI insult. No pharmacological interaction with meloxicam with consequent effect on absorption of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug was found.Abd El-Mawla 2011

A probiotic effect (bifidogenic) of gum acacia has been reported.Hu 2014, Slavin 2013 Increased satiety was observed in a clinical study evaluating different doses of gum acacia. Reductions of the order of 100 to 200 kcal were reported with doses ranging from gum acacia 5 to 40 g.Calame 2011

A clinical study (N = 189) found no change in fecal incontinence frequency with gum acacia (reported as arabica) versus psyllium.Bliss 2014, Bliss 2011 The same researchers found increased fermentation with the gum in another clinical study.Bliss 2013


Binding of gum acacia to fatty acids has been demonstrated in vitro, potentially decreasing dietary lipid absorption.Fang 2010 Studies in rodents have produced equivocal results.Khan 2009

When administered for periods of 4 to 12 weeks to hypercholesterolemic patients or those with metabolic syndrome, acacia gum had no effect on the plasma profile.Haskell 1992, Jensen 1993, Pouteau 2010

Periodontal disease

Whole gum mixtures of acacia inhibit the growth of periodontic bacteria, including Porphyromonas gingivalis and Prevotella intermedia, when added to culture medium at concentrations of 0.5% to 1%.Clark 1993 The erosive effects of citric acid on enamel were muted in vitro when mixed with gum acacia.Beyer 2010

At a concentration of 0.5%, acacia whole gum mixture inhibited bacterial protease enzymes, suggesting acacia may be useful in limiting the development of periodontal disease. In addition, chewing an acacia-based gum for 7 days reduced mean gingival and plaque scores compared with use of a sugar-free gum. Total differences in these scores were significant between groups (P < 0.05), suggesting that acacia gum primarily inhibits the early deposition of plaque.Gazi 1991, Lindquist 2011 In a small (N = 11) clinical study, gum acacia increased oral pH after a rinse with simulated gastric acid, protecting against enamel erosion.Gazi 1991, Lindquist 2011

Renal effects

A series of reports were published on the use of gum acacia in rats with induced renal failure. Effects included antihypertensive reactions, reduced anemia and proteinuria, and improved oxidative stress.Ali 2011, Ali 2014, Ali 2013, Ali 2014 Enhanced creatinine clearance was demonstrated in healthy mice given gum acacia 10% in drinking water.Nasir 2013 An antioxidant effect may contribute toward observed efficacy.Gado 2013

Increased excretion of nitrogen and urea was observed in patients with chronic renal failure who were given gum acacia.Khan 2009


Clinical trials are generally lacking. One trial used gum arabic (as A. senegal) 30 g daily for 6 weeks as a dietary supplement to reduce weight.Babiker 2012

Pregnancy / Lactation

Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking.


None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

Allergic reactions have been reported.Khan 2009 Adverse effects reported in clinical trials include unfavorable sensation in the mouth, early morning nausea, mild diarrhea, and bloating.Babiker 2012, Pouteau 2010 IV administration has been reported to cause renal and liver damage.Morton 1977


Acacia is essentially nontoxic when ingested, and is considered GRAS.Khan 2009, Acacia 2014

Abd El-Mawla AM, Osman HE. Effects of gum acacia aqueous extract on the histology of the intestine and enzymes of both the intestine and the pancreas of albino rats treated with meloxicam. Pharmacognosy Res. 2011;3(2):114-121.21772755Acacia (gum arabic). Food for Human Consumption. Fed Regist. 2014;21(3):2014. 21CFR184.1330. Acacia senegal (L) Willd. USDA, NRCS. 2015. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, March 2015). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA. Accessed March 6, 2015.Ali BH, Al-Husseni I, Beegam S, et al. Effect of gum arabic on oxidative stress and inflammation in adenine-induced chronic renal failure in rats. PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e55242.23383316Ali BH, Al Za’abi M, Ramkumar A, Yasin J, Nemmar A. Anemia in adenine-induced chronic renal failure and the influence of treatment with gum acacia thereon. Physiol Res. 2014;63(3):351-358.24564605Ali BH, Inuwa I, Al Za’abi M, et al. Renal and myocardial histopathology and morphometry in rats with adenine-induced chronic renal failure: Influence of gum acacia. Cell Physiol Biochem. 2014;34(3):818-828.25171124Ali BH, Ziada A, Al Husseni I, Beegam S, Al-Ruqaishi B, Nemmar A. Effect of acacia gum on blood pressure in rats with adenine-induced chronic renal failure. Phytomedicine. 2011;18(13):1176-1180.21741228Anderson DM, Millar JR, Weiping W. 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. 1991;8(4):405-421.1806390Anderson DM, Morrison NA. Identification of Albizia gum exudates which are not permitted food additives. Food Addit Contam. 1990;7(2):175-180.2354736Babiker R, Merghani TH, Elmusharaf K, Badi RM, Lang F, Saeed AM. Effects of gum Arabic ingestion on body mass index and body fat percentage in healthy adult females: two-arm randomized, placebo controlled, double-blind trial. Nutr J. 2012;11:111.23241359Ballal A, Bobbala D, Qadri SM, et al. Anti-malarial effect of gum arabic. Malar J. 2011;10:139.21599958Beyer M, Reichert J, Heurich E, Jandt KD, Sigusch BW. Pectin, alginate and gum arabic polymers reduce citric acid erosion effects on human enamel. Dent Mater. 2010;26(9):831-839.20569976Bhatnagar M, Parwani L, Sharma V, Ganguli J, Bhatnagar A. Hemostatic, antibacterial biopolymers from Acacia arabica (Lam.) willd. and Moringa oleifera (Lam.) as potential wound dressing materials. Indian J Exp Biol. 2013;51(10):804-810.24266104Bliss DZ, Savik K, Jung HJ, Whitebird R, Lowry A. Symptoms associated with dietary fiber supplementation over time in individuals with fecal incontinence. Nurs Res. 2011;60(3 suppl):S58-S67.21543963Bliss DZ, Weimer PJ, Jung HJ, Savik K. In vitro degradation and fermentation of three dietary fiber sources by human colonic bacteria. J Agric Food Chem. 2013;61(19):4614-4621.23556460Bliss DZ, Savik K, Jung HJ, Whitebird R, Lowry A, Sheng X. Dietary fiber supplementation for fecal incontinence: A randomized clinical trial. Res Nurs Health. 2014;37(5):367-378.25155992Calame W, Thomassen F, Hull S, Viebke C, Siemensma AD. Evaluation of satiety enhancement, including compensation, by blends of gum arabic. A methodological approach. Appetite. 2011;57(2):358-364.21683750Clark DT, Gazi MI, Cox SW, Eley BM, Tinsley GF. The effects of Acacia arabica gum on the in vitro growth and protease activities of periodontopathic bacteria. J Clin Periodontol. 1993;20(4):238-243.8473532Duke J, Bogenschutz-Godwin M, duCellier J, Duke P. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2002.Evans WC. Trease And Evans’ Pharmacognosy. 13th ed. London, England: Bailliere Tindall; 1989.Fang Y, Al-Assaf S, Phillips GO, Nishinari K, Williams PA. Interaction of gum arabic with fatty acid studied using electron paramagnetic resonance. Biomacromolecules. 2010;11(5):1398-1405.20373756Gado AM, Aldahmash BA. Antioxidant effect of arabic gum against mercuric chloride-induced nephrotoxicity. Drug Des Devel Ther. 2013;7:1245-1252.24174869Gazi MI. The finding of antiplaque features in Acacia arabica type of chewing gum. J Clin Periodontol. 1991;18(1):75-77.2045522Haskell WL, spiller GA, Jensen CD, Ellis BK, Gates JE. Role of water-soluble dietary fiber in the management of elevated plasma cholesterol in healthy subjects. Am J Cardiol. 1992;69(5):433-439.1310566Hu JL, Nie SP, Li N, et al. Effect of gum arabic on glucose levels and microbial short-chain fatty acid production in white rice porridge model and mixed grain porridge model. J Agric Food Chem. 2014;62(27):6408-6416.24941348Jensen CD, Spiller GA, Gates JE, Miller AF, Whittam JH. The effect of acacia gum and a water-soluble dietary fiber mixture on blood lipids in humans. J Am Coll Nutr. 1993;12(2):147-154.8385164Khan IA, Abourashed E. Leung’s Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley; 2009.Kurup TR, Wan LS, Chan LW. Interaction of preservatives with macromolecules: Part I—Natural hydrocolloids. Pharm Acta Helv. 1992;67(11):301-307.1470635Lindquist B, Lingstrom P, Fandriks L, Birkhed D. Influence of five neutralizing products on intra-oral pH after rinsing with simulated gastric acid. Eur J Oral Sci. 2011;119(4):301-304.21726291 Magic and Medicine of Plants. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association Inc; 1986.Morton JF. Major Medicinal Plants. Springfield, Il: C.C. Thomas Publisher; 1977.Nasir O. Renal and extrarenal effects of gum arabic (Acacia senegal) — what can be learned from animal experiments? Kidney Blood Press Res. 2013;37(4-5):269-279.24022265Pouteau E, Ferchaud-Roucher V, Zair Y, et al. Acetogenic fibers reduce fasting glucose turnover but not peripheral insulin resistance in metabolic syndrome patients. Clin Nutr. 2010;29(6):801-807.20584565Slavin J. Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients. 2013;5(4):1417-1435.23609775


This information relates to an herbal, vitamin, mineral or other dietary supplement. This product has not been reviewed by the FDA to determine whether it is safe or effective and is not subject to the quality standards and safety information collection standards that are applicable to most prescription drugs. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to take this product. This information does not endorse this product as safe, effective, or approved for treating any patient or health condition. This is only a brief summary of general information about this product. It does NOT include all information about the possible uses, directions, warnings, precautions, interactions, adverse effects, or risks that may apply to this product. This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your health care provider. You should talk with your health care provider for complete information about the risks and benefits of using this product.

This product may adversely interact with certain health and medical conditions, other prescription and over-the-counter drugs, foods, or other dietary supplements. This product may be unsafe when used before surgery or other medical procedures. It is important to fully inform your doctor about the herbal, vitamins, mineral or any other supplements you are taking before any kind of surgery or medical procedure. With the exception of certain products that are generally recognized as safe in normal quantities, including use of folic acid and prenatal vitamins during pregnancy, this product has not been sufficiently studied to determine whether it is safe to use during pregnancy or nursing or by persons younger than 2 years of age.

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Acacia gum: History of the future

On behalf of the 90th birthday of Professor Glyn O. Phillips, it is a great honor for authors of this publication to make a review on Acacia gum, one of the favorite polysaccharides extensively studied by Glyn and his collaborators all around the world during these last five decades. After remembering a synthetic historical perspective, the present critical review summarizes the main updated data of this complex polysaccharide from the chemical composition to the functional properties with a particular attention toward structure and bulk and interfacial properties. Biological properties of Acacia gums were not considered. Some of the main challenges in a near future for a better understanding of the functional properties of this polysaccharide concerns the detailed study of the gum maturation mechanism upon exudation, the structure and conformation of different molecular fractions, the role of minor components (minerals, polyphenols, lipids) on the structure and functionality of gums, the physicochemical properties of purified molecular fractions and the ways to modified them upon enzymatic modifications. In our opinion, the main challenges for a better understanding of the interfacial function of this polysaccharide (adhesion and stabilization at liquid and solid interfaces) will be to probe the interfacial induced conformational changes. This area of research seems to have been quite neglected during these last past years and fundamental questions arising from the adhesive and stabilizing properties of Acacia gum are still without answer today.

In addition, the amino-acid sequence contained in this complex polysaccharide are totally unknown today and future developments based on enzyme/chemical modifications and liquid chromatography coupled to on line mass spectrometry could unravel the sequence and decipher between the existence of one or more amino-acid sequences in Acacia senegal gum.

We sincerely hope Glyn, one of the “father of Arabic gum”, will find some positive echo in this review.


The acacia trees of the Darfur region of Sudan are harvested for resins variously known as gum arabic, Indian gum arabic, or talha. Although acacia trees are found throughout the ‘gum belt’ of sub-Saharan Africa, Chad, Eritrea, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan, the plant is most abundant in Sudan.

The acacia is a plant in the family Mimosacaea, related to the mimosas of the southern United States and a close cousin of the legumes. It would not be inaccurate to think of the acacia as a tree-sized, woody, spiny bean.

The plant only produces acacia gum under adverse conditions, such as poor soil, drought, or heat, and damaged trees produce more gum. For these reasons, the most abundant harvest of acacia gum is produced in Sudan.

In the Southwestern United States a potentially toxic plant (a species of Acacia) known locally as una de gato (cat’s claw) is frequently confused with the medicinal plant una de gato from the Peruvian Amazon (Uncaria tomentosa). It is not the rainforest herb, and it is not a source of acacia gum, although it is sometimes sold in hierberas as either or both.

Parts Used

The gum.

Typical Preparations

Acacia gum is used in a variety of products ranging from ink to ice cream. In herbal medicine, the gum is used to bind pills and lozenges and to stabilize emulsions. It is also used to produce a medium for applying essential oils, balsams, resins, camphor, and musk. Acacia gum forms strings when combined with cherry extract.

Gum is one of those things we tend to take for granted. Whether we chew it or not, most of us deal with it on a daily basis. It’s the stuff kids smack and pop in public, or the secret weapon against garlic breath we keep stashed in our purses. It’s the goo that makes us grimace on sidewalks.

But have you ever thought about where it comes from?

Mayan archaeologist Jennifer P. Mathews has thought about it so much that she’s written an entire book on the subject: “Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley,” published last month.

As Mathews explains, chewing gum has been around on this continent for hundreds of years in the form of chicle, a resin extracted from the sapodilla tree in southern Mexico and Central America. The resin is the tree’s equivalent of a natural Band-aid, meant to form a protective layer over cuts in the bark. (Same principle as rubber—both are latexes.)

The Mayans and the Aztecs figured out a long time ago that by slicing the bark strategically, they could collect this resin and create a chewable substance from it. The Mayans cooked and dried it into “cha,” which Mathews says “quenched thirst and staved off hunger,” and the Aztecs recognized chicle’s function as a breath-freshener.

Interestingly, however, the Aztecs seemed to view public gum chewing as socially unacceptable for adults, especially men. Mathews quotes the observations of 16th-century Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún:

“All the women who unmarried chew chicle in public. One’s wife also chews chicle, but not in public…with it they dispel the bad odor of their mouths, or the bad smell of their teeth. Thus they chew chicle in order not to be detested.”

Sahagún goes on to reveal that adult women who dared to chew chicle in public were viewed as harlots, while men who did so were “effeminates.” (I’m sure major-league baseball players would love to hear that!)

Of course, as Mathews notes, the Mayans and Aztecs weren’t the earliest cultures in the world to chew gum. Pliny the Elder wrote about a plant-derived substance called mastich chewed (or masticated, as it were) by the ancient Greeks, and archaeological evidence suggests that chewing birch-bark tar was popular with Scandinavian young people thousands of years ago. Northern Native American cultures chewed spruce tree resin, and European settlers picked up the habit and capitalized on it.

But none of those things are the ubiquitous chewing gum we know today. That goes back to chicle again, and an American inventor named Thomas Adams Sr., who somehow (the history is murky) got a supply of chicle through a connection to an exiled Mexican president, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Adams and his sons first tried to vulcanize the chicle into a useful industrial substance, like rubber, but eventually hit on a better idea—boiling and hand-rolling it into pieces of chewing gum.

“They sold out their first batch at the local drugstore in hours and decided to go into the manufacturing business,” Mathews writes. “By the late 1880s, Adams gum was sold widely…They produced five tons of chewing gum daily.”

Around the same time, a young soap salesman named William Wrigley came up with a smart marketing gimmick: His company would give free chewing gum to vendors who placed large soap orders. When he realized that “the gum was more popular than the soap itself,” he switched careers. It took several false starts and a massive advertising campaign before the William Wrigley Jr. Company really took off, but by the time he died in 1932, Wrigley was one of the richest men in the nation.

The average American chewed 105 sticks of gum a year by the 1920s, creating a massive demand for chicle. As the fortunes of Adams, Wrigley and other chewing gum magnates surged, many Latin American communities would soon pay the price:

“Workers in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize became highly dependent on North American corporations buying their product, and fluctuations in the prices and rate of purchases had a huge impact on their countries’ economies. This unsustainable industry set into motion another so-called collapse of Maya civilization that continues to have an effect today.”

As is often the case, human appetites outmatched nature’s resources. Unsustainable harvesting methods used to increase yields killed at least a quarter of Mexico’s sapodilla trees by the mid-1930s, and scientists predicted total forest depletion within four decades. Fortunately for the trees (but unfortunately for Latin American economies), chewing gum manufacturers soon began switching to cheaper, synthetic bases made from petroleum, wax and other substances. By 1980, the United States was no longer importing any chicle from Mexico.

But chicle may be staging a small comeback. In Britain this year, a small Mexican company called Chicza just launched what it is marketing as “the world’s first biodegradable chewing gum.” Has anyone spotted a product like this in the United States yet? If not, I expect to see it soon.

Chicle – from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley

Jennifer Mathews has crafted the comprehensive text on the history of chewing gum production in the Americas. With an emphasis on the environmental, social, and commercial impacts of chicle harvesting, Mathews offers a fascinating study of the sticky business. Painstakingly researched, richly textured, and most of all, fun to read! The idea that the seemingly small product of a little-known industry could have such an interesting back story surprised even me — and I actually make the stuff! — Deborah Schimberg, President of Verve, Inc., makers of Glee Gum.

Although Juicy Fruit® gum was introduced to North Americans in 1893, Native Americans in Mesoamerica were chewing-gum thousands of years earlier. And although in the last decade “biographies” have been devoted to salt, spices, chocolate, coffee, and other staples of modern life, until now there has never been a full history of chewing gum.

The Chewing Gum of the Americas

Chicle is a history in four acts, all of them focused on the sticky white substance that seeps from the sapodilla tree when its bark is cut. First, Jennifer Mathews recounts the story of chicle and its earliest — known adherents, the Maya and Aztecs. Second, with the assistance of botanist Gillian Schultz, Mathews examines the sapodilla tree itself, an extraordinarily hardy plant that is native only to Meso-America and the Caribbean. Third, Mathews presents the fascinating story of the chicle and chewing gum industry over the last hundred plus years, a tale (like so many twentieth-century tales)of greed, growth, and collapse. In closing, Mathews considers the plight of the chicleros, the “extractors” who often work by themselves tapping trees deep in the forests, and how they have emerged as icons of local pop culture — portrayed as fearless, hard-drinking brawlers, people to be respected as well as feared.

Before Dentyne® and Chiclets®, before bubble gum comic strips and the Doublemint® twins, there was gum, oozing from jungle trees like melting candle wax under the slash of a machete. Chicle tells us everything that happened next. It is a spellbinding story.

Jennifer P. Mathews, an associate professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, began studying ancient Maya roads in the jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula that had been used by the chicle industry in the late 1800’s as routes for their railroads. But when she started to research the history and interviewing the local chicleros, she realized that there was a truly fascinating story behind the industry.

Chopping and Chewing: 11,000 Years of Chicle

Q & A’s with author Jennifer Mathews.

In your introduction, you say that Chicle is an 11,000-year overview of chewing gum. How did you tackle such a comprehensive project?
What got you interested?

As an archaeologist, I’m drawn to stories that span an extensive amount of time. I first became interested in chicle when I was studying the ancient Maya roads that criss-cross the jungles of Yucatán. What we realized when we were mapping these old roads was that the chicle industry placed their miniature railroads (known as Decauville railroads – think “large-scale train set”) on top of the ancient road beds, and used them to haul bricks of raw chicle and valuable hardwoods like mahogany between their jungle camps. I started mapping these rail systems and would frequently run into some of the older men still living in the area that had worked in chicle up to the 1970s. They were curious that anyone would be interested in their stories, but were happy to share them. I soon realized that there was a really colorful history to tell. I started with a book chapter on the railroads and before I knew it, I was writing a book on a history of chewing gum that goes back even further than the Aztec and Maya.

Decauville railroads – a Sapodilla tree’s blooming flower

Many people think that rules about gum-chewing have a basis in contemporary society.
How did the Aztecs view chicle?

The Aztecs had very strict social norms, which thankfully are documented in an amazing resource known as the Florentine Codex. This is a series of twelve books that was written under the supervision of the Spanish friar known as Bernadino de Sahagunstarting in 1540. In it, he noted what “good” and “bad” people did in society. “Bad” people included men and married women that chewed gum in public – only children and old women were allowed to get away with this shameful behavior. The book even notes that prostitutes could be identified by their heavy perfume and the sound of “clacking” their gum like castanets. Men and women who failed to follow these social norms were socially ostracized as “whores” or “sodomites” in an attempt to discourage this behavior. Four hundred years later, Emily Post was saying much the same thing – proper young ladies, for example, should never chew gum in public because “watching someone chew gum is, as older generations say, like watching a cow chew its cud.” Yet, it was still sold in the public marketplace because the Aztecs knew it served a practical purpose of cleaning teeth and freshening breath—they just didn’t want people to actually use it in front of anyone.

Can you tell us about chewing gum and manners?
Emily Post refused to mention it in her etiquette books for nearly 25 years.
Any interesting anecdotes you discovered while doing your research?

Yes, I found out that gum chewing has been viewed as a terrible habit that Americans were imposing around the world for more than a hundred years. For example, in 1898 a British newspaper reported that health officials were issuing warnings against”American chewing gum,” which was considered even more dangerous than Italian ice cream. Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary, commented that chewing gum was a way for Capitalism to keep the working man from thinking too much — With an automatic movement of the hand the people extract from these automats pieces of sweetish gum, and they grind it with the automatic chewing of their jaws. It looks like a religious rite, like some silent prayer to God-Capital.— Additionally, in the 1950s movies in the United States, gum was regularly used as a prop to identify lowly characters such as car-hops, gangsters, and prostitutes, while the lead characters were never seen chewing it.

What is chicle latex, where does it come from?

In general, latex is produced by plants to form a protective seal when they are cut or bitten into. Chicle latex comes from the sapodilla or chico zapote tree (Manilkara sapota), and is a milky white emulsion.

Where does the sapodilla tree grow? Chicle is in the bark, right? Can it be extracted from the leaves too?

The sapodilla is a slow-growing evergreen native to the forests of Meso-america, including the Mexican states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, and Campeche, the Alta Verapaz and Petén regions of Guatemala, northern Belize, and the Atlantic coastal forests of Nicaragua.

Chicle is collected from the tree by cutting into the bark, much like rubber, which causes the tree to excrete it and it runs down the trunk. And yes, it can also be extracted from the leaves. When plucked from a branch, the leaves will produce a small amount of latex as a way of protecting the tree from damage by insects or herbivores. This characteristic encouraged the chicle industry to make a minor attempt to increase yields in the 1930s by extracting latex from the leaves, but they produced so little that the experiment was abandoned. Older sapodilla trees are recognizable from the zig-zag marks that were made to extract chicle.

Does the bark grow back eventually or are the scars permanent? How many times can you extract latex from one particular tree?

The scars are permanent to the tree. Chicleros, or the extractors, generally mark trees with their own unique symbol so that they can keep track of when a tree was last tapped. Preferably, the trees were left untouched for five years between cuttings to ensure that they would continue to produce latex.

Was spruce gum the original chewing gum in North America? It had a bitter aftertaste, correct? When did spruce gum disappear and why?

Yes, in North America, Native American Indians and Inuit have used gum from the spruce tree to waterproof canoes as well as for chewing. When European settlers came to New England, they adopted the indigenous custom of chewing on spruce tree resin. A New Englander by the name of John Curtis capitalized on the popularity of chewing resin and in 1848 invented the first commercial spruce tree gum called the State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum. Other imitators soon followed, which in addition to the increased demand for spruce wood pulp needed for making newspapers, caused there reserves to shrink. Another disadvantage to spruce gum was that although it was aromatic, the resin had a bitter after-taste and became brittle after being chewed. By the 1920s, there was only one producer of spruce gum left—Harry Davis, the self-proclaimed “Spruce Gum King,” who catered to older customers who wanted to chew their childhood gum. In the place of spruce gum, other small-scale producers prepared gums from ingredients such as beeswax, paraffin, and saps from the cherry and tamarack trees — and of course chicle, which came about in the 1870s through an inadvertent connection between a New York family by the name of Adams and the exiled former president of Mexico,Antonio López de Santa Anna. The chewing gum industry has created “several U.S. millionaires and thousands of jobs across the Americas.”

Really? All for gum? Can you talk about some of the major players in the industry over the years? Who will we get to meet in Chicle?

The inventor of chicle-based chewing gum was Thomas Adams. Thomas Adams Sr. was born in New York City in 1818 and lived in the region until he died in 1905. After his career as a Civil War photographer, he tried his hand as an inventor, creating a new kind of horse feed bag and a burner for kerosene lamps. Eventually, he opened a successful store in Staten Island as a glass merchant. Accounts indicate that he continued working on inventions in his spare time and that starting in 1866 his sons John, Thomas Jr., and Horatio assisted him in early experiments with using chicle as a new kind of rubber substitute. All scholars seem to agree that the first chicle resin they used was obtained from the ex-president of Mexico, Antonio Lopéz de Santa Ana. When Santa Anna arrived in New York, he found out that the though he had arrived to help organize an expedition against the Napoleon III, backed leader Maximilian, then emperor of Mexico.

However, in reality, he had been duped into a ploy to cover the costs of a forty thousand pesos boat trip to the United States and was broke. By chance, Santa Ana’s personal secretary and interpreter had be-friended Thomas Adams Sr. and after learning that he was an amateur inventor, showed him a piece of chicle that his boss had given him. Santa Anna gave Adams a supply of chicle that he had brought with him from Mexico, in the hopes that he would be able to develop chicle as an alternative to rubber. If successful, it would have brought Adams and Santa Anna great riches and funded Santa Anna’s return to power in Mexico. However, after several unsuccessful attempts, Santa Anna lost interest, and he returned to Mexico impoverished, and unaware that the chicle latex he had left behind would change U.S. history.

The best-known figure in the chewing gum industry is, of course, William Wrigley Jr. (1861-1932). The oldest of nine children and the son of a soap salesman. He ran away for two years from his home in Philadelphia, at the age eleven, to sell newspapers in New York City. After being expelled from school, he returned home and convinced his father to allow him to become a traveling soap salesman. Eventually, he moved to Chicago to open up a new branch of his father’s soap company where he came up with the innovative idea to provide “premiums” to vendors with the purchase of certain amounts of soap. When he started giving away spruce and paraffin chewing gum with soap purchases, he quickly realized that the gum was more popular than the soap itself. He decided to go into the chewing gum business and produced gums such as Wrigley’s Spearmint, and Juicy Fruit. He founded the fledgling William Wrigley Jr. Company in 1898 and decided that advertisements were the key to keeping his business afloat. Apparently it worked when he sent a package of four sticks of spearmint chewing gum to all of the 1.5 million people listed in the U.S. phone book, and created a chain of 117 billboards in the shape of gum wrappers that ran for a half mile along the Trenton-Atlantic City railway in New Jersey. His personal estate was valued at $150 million and included large mansions across the United States, ownership of most of Catalina Island off the southern coast of California, as well as controlling interest of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. When he died, he was one of the most influential and affluent men in the United States.

The natural gum industry was pushed aside for the production of synthetic chewing gum- when did this happen? Why?
Would you say that natural gum is making a comeback? How?

Chicle supplies became strained as the popularity of chewing gum spread during World War II. The military had been including chewing gum in the rations of soldiers since World War I, consequently spreading the habit around the world. By the 1940s extractors were over-tapping the sapodilla trees to meet the increased demand, and trees were dying off. This was compounded by the fact that the U.S. had greatly increased import taxes for bringing in raw chicle latex from Latin America and U.S. companies began looking for lower-cost synthetics. I would say that natural chewing gum is making a minor comeback. Currently, there are two companies making chicle- one is a U.S. based company known as Verve, Inc, the maker of Glee Gum, and the other is Chicza, a Mexican-based company that is exporting primarily to Europe and Asia. Both are “boutique” companies that are selling to a small audience that seeks out natural products that pay workers a living wage.

Historically chicle was chewed naturally – no sugar, additives, etc. – when did this change?
Was the change responsible for increased sales?

When Thomas Adams invented the first chicle-based chewing gum in 1859, it was sold in the form of small gray hand-rolled balls with no added flavor. They later created mold-based gum with added sugar and flavoring, and their sales increased dramatically. William J. White, the inventor of “Yucatan” gum was the first to add peppermint-flavoring, and William Wrigley added spearmint flavor. All three became “chewing gum kings” of the industry.

How did the production of gum in North America impact chicle-producing countries, including Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala?

Chicle was a blessing and a curse for countries like Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. While it became a major employer for these countries for about a hundred year period, workers in the Mexican chicle industry became highly dependent on North American corporations buying their product, and fluctuations in the prices and rate of purchases had a huge impact on their country’s economies. Over the years, local Maya were displaced when Mexico gave foreign Chewing Gum companies land grants, and laborers were relatively low-paid for dangerous work. The chicleros (extractors) often lived within a system of debt-servitude because the chicle extraction companies purchased all of their food, clothing and equipment and rarely made enough money to cover these costs. The nature of the industry also produced smugglers who snuck the raw latex across borders, as well as pirates who were raiding chicle from camps that were preparing to send the cargo to the United States. When the bottom fell out of the industry in the 1940s and 50s, it left a hole in the economies of these countries.

Most people think of baseball cards and gum. What about WWII and gum?

Card collecting actually started in the 1870s when cigarette manufacturers included pictures of Civil War generals, flags, corporation and ships, and then in 1886, baseball cards. During the 1930s, Bowman Gum issued the first chewing gum cards, which included a war series. During World War II the Topps Corporation released a number of card series, including plane spotter cards (to teach civilians how to identify enemy planes), the “Freedoms Wars,” world leaders and events, and flags of the United Nations. It wasn’t until 1952, that Topps issued baseball cards with its chewing gum.

Is it true that the gum sector is worth $19 billion annually?

Yes, that’s true. The chewing gum industry has produced great fortunes. When William Wrigley III died in 1999, his estate was worth over $3 billion. Today, William Wrigley IV, great-grandson of the Wrigley chewing gum company founder, is consistently inthe top fifty on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans. Since 2006, the gum sector has grown 7 percent over three years.

Tell us about the chicleros. The legends, the lives? Are chicleros respected, feared? What role do they play in history, archaeology?

I think the chiclero has been greatly misunderstood. Most of the legends focus on a kind of wild and lawless life, much like the legends of the North American cowboy. Much of the chiclero work force, particularly in Mexico, was made up of a mish-mash of local Maya, former henequen workers including Koreans who had been sold off by an English slave trader, as well as migrants from Veracruz, the Caribbean islands, and Central America. They worked long days that started before dawn and lived in isolated camps in the jungle for months a time. They were frequently bit by snakes and disease-carrying insects, and frequently suffered from malaria and a disease known as chiclero’s ulcer, which when untreated, was something like leprosy and ate away at their skin. They experienced machete accidents and falls from trees, and the companies provided no medical care while they were out in the bush. The overall combination of poor working and living conditions frustrated chicleros, who had little recourse for negotiating with their employers other than through uprisings.

The chicle camps could be violent places, and there are numerous stories of chicleros engaging in machete fights and bodies being found outside of bars during the off season. Although many of the accounts of their behavior have likely been exaggerated, these fears were not totally unfounded. Before starting a tapping season, and after receiving pay advances, chicleros often went on drinking binges and spent much of their pay on drinks for themselves and their companions. Similarly, after long periods of remote living in the forest and conducting months of solitary, dangerous, and dulling work, chicleros might arrive in local towns with pockets full of money and a need to blow off steam. Public drunkenness and other disruptive behavior colored public opinion of chicleros, and they were seen as people to be avoided.
However, many chicleros brought their wives and children, avoided trouble, and simply made their living in the solitude of the forest.

Chicleros were also naturalists, advisors, and guides to archaeologists. In general, they have an excellent working knowledge of forest plants and usually know names and the habits of wildlife, and can pin-point water sources and other natural features such as caves. During their daily explorations for untapped sapodilla trees, chicleros came across numerous archaeological sites under the cover of the jungle. Archaeologists have taken advantage of this knowledge of the locations of ancient settlements and have hired them as guides for nearly a century. Some of the most important sites in the Maya world, including Bonampak with its famous murals, and Calakmul, which has more carved monuments than any other Maya site, were found with the aid of chicleros.Many archaeologists still use chiclero guides to help them search for sites in the jungle today.

What’s your all-time favorite gum?

When I was a kid, I loved that super sweet Fruit Stripe gum – and of course blew endless bubbles with Dubble Bubble. Bob, the guy that ran the corner store in my neighborhood used to give us a free piece of Dubble Bubble whenever my best friend and I went in to buy candy, so I have fond memories of that. After writing this book, I’ve become a gum snob and I only chew “Glee Gum” – the only chicle-based chewing gum made in the U.S., although I still chew Wrigley’s spearmint in a pinch.

Check out the Yaax Che Botanical Gardens near Puerto Morelos to learn more about chicle.


Gum, in botany, adhesive substance of vegetable origin, mostly obtained as exudate from the bark of trees or shrubs belonging to the family Fabaceae (Leguminosae) of the pea order Fabales. Some plant gums are used in the form of water solutions in the manufacture of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and foods. When the water evaporates, a film having a considerable adhesive character is formed. Some plant gums, such as gum arabic, dissolve in water to give clear solutions. Other gums, such as gum tragacanth, form mucilages by the absorption of large amounts of water.

gum arabicGum arabic from Acacia species.© elena moiseeva/.com Read More on This Topic adhesive: Natural gums Substances known as natural gums, which are extracted from their natural sources, also are used as adhesives. Agar, a marine-plant colloid…

A gum is produced by making an incision in the bark of the tree and collecting the exudate repeatedly throughout the season. Gums so obtained consist of small lumps, usually transparent and light yellow. Trees produce gums by a process called gummosis, possibly as a protective mechanism, either after mechanical damage to the bark or after a bacterial, insect, or fungal attack upon it. The Acacia senegal tree yields the greatest amount of gum acacia when it is in an unhealthy condition, and good culture methods reduce the yield.

Gum arabic is the most widely used of the water-soluble gums. True gum arabic is gum acacia; that is, it is produced by species of Acacia. Examples of true gum arabic are gum sudan and gum kordofan, both of which originate in Sudan, and gum senegal, which comes from Senegal. Gum arabic is also collected in northern Nigeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Tanzania. The name gum arabic is sometimes also applied to substitutes for gum acacia, including gum gatti, collected in India.

Gum tragacanth is second in importance commercially; it is produced by several shrubs of the genus Astragalus, principally Astragalus gummifer, native to the arid regions of Iran, Asia Minor, and Greece. The exudate is produced spontaneously on the bark of the shrub, but the yield may be increased by making an incision and driving wooden wedges into it. One of the oldest drugs known, its use dates from pre-Christian times. Gum tragacanth is still used pharmaceutically as a demulcent (coating) and as a binding agent in pill manufacture. In processed foods it is used as an emulsifier and in sauces as a thickener. Gum karaya and carob gum have been used as limited substitutes for gum tragacanth.

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Chemically, the plant gums are complex compounds derived from carbohydrates; specifically, they are salts, either potassium, magnesium, or calcium, of acidic polysaccharides, the acidity of which is due to uronic acids in their structure. Rubber, chicle, and other latex products are not true gums. Varnish gums are actually resins and are chemically quite different from plant gums.

Q. I’ve seen some lovely paintings in which gum arabic is used in conjunction with watercolor. The colors are so vibrant! How would you use it? Is there a special technique for combining the two?

A. Gum arabic is the binder in which the pigments are dispersed to make the watercolor paints, so its use in the course of making a painting is akin to using an oil painting medium containing linseed oil with oil paints. Adding gum arabic to paints will have several effects: It will slightly extend the drying time of the paint, it will make the colors seem more vibrant and transparent, and it will increase the gloss of the dried painting.

You can use this substance in two ways: Add it to individual colors as you’re mixing them, or add it to the water that you’re mixing with your paints. In the first instance, pour some of the gum into a small dish to avoid contaminating the stock jar, then dip your brush in the gum and add that to the color-and-water mixture on your palette. Its addition will affect only those colors you’re mixing. In the second instance, add a small amount to your mixing water; the addition will affect all the colors you mix.

It’s hard to be precise about how much to add, since it depends upon whether you’re making large pictures or small ones, how much paint you’re using, and how big a jar of mixing water you have. You’re going to have to experiment. When you do your tests, be sure to keep this in mind: The layers of paints containing extra gum arabic should be as thin and transparent as normal watercolor paints. Too thick an application of the gum will make the paints quite brittle.

Nationally respected artist Kevin Macpherson is based in Taos, New Mexico.


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