You may not have heard of gum arabic but you've almost certainly drunk it, eaten it or worn makeup that depends on it. Tapped from acacia trees growing across Sudan's "gum" belt, the wonder ingredient was first used in Egyptian mummification 5,000 years ago.
Today it is vital as an emulsifier and suspension agent in soft drinks and candy bars and as a stabilizer in cosmetics and newspaper ink. Scientists have yet to find or invent an exact alternative to the amber-like substance, so products such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Minute Maid rely on imports from Sudan, which supplies more than 80% of the world market.
In 1997, when the U.S. imposed sanctions on Sudan for its alleged sponsorship of international terrorism, this presented something of a problem. Taking a stand on human rights was well and good, but no Coke? Soft drink bosses lobbied the Clinton Administration for gum arabic to be exempted. Not surprisingly, they won. Just in case there's a change in that exemption or the supply they depend on dries up, big manufacturers have built up a five-year buffer stock. "Pepsi-Cola is not a joke," says Magid Gadir, general manager of the Khartoum Gum Arabic Processing Co., one of the biggest exporters in the country. "If we stop selling, they have enough to last and they will try seriously for alternatives."
Frustrated that prices have more than halved over the past 20 years, Sudanese exporters are looking to increase sales by shifting into new markets. Gadir talks up the medicinal benefits of gum arabic, which was traditionally used to treat kidney complaints, infections and broken bones. "We have also noticed an increase in the sexual potency of our people in the gum arabic regions," he says. "We think it may be a substitute for Viagra." Spoken like a true salesman.