By Milene Brownlow, PhDAlso referred to as “gum arabic,” gum acacia is a water-soluble nondigestible carbohydrate derived from the sap of the Acacia Senegal tree, a plant native to parts of Africa, Pakistan, and India. The harvested gum is dried and crushed into a fine powder, rich in complex polysaccharides (carbohydrate with several sugar molecules bound together), highly soluble in water, and primarily indigestible to both humans and animals. Consequently, the ingested acacia is not broken down in the small intestine but fermented by the resident microorganisms in the colon.1
We all know the importance of a healthy gut. How happy are you with a tummy ache or when plagued by constipation/diarrhea or any other variation of a bothered digestive system? The connection between gut health and mood has been strengthened by findings of how specific bacteria strains can regulate not only body weight and composition2 but also influence brain health and contribute to neurological applications.3
Acacia has recently gained the attention of the research and medical communities due to several of its health-promoting benefits, such as:
1. Metabolic health
Ingestion of soluble fibers slow digestion and the rate at which nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. This could possibly help regulate blood glucose levels following meals. Data have shown that ingestion of 20 g of acacia, when consumed with glucose, resulted in lower blood glucose levels than ingesting glucose alone.4 A 2010 study investigated the metabolic effects of a drink containing gum acacia and pectin in 21 men with metabolic syndrome. After 5 weeks, subjects consuming the fiber drink displayed improved fasting glucose turnover (the rate of glucose uptake and production) despite the lack of changes in insulin sensitivity or fasting plasma glucose.5 Researchers explored the mechanism of potential blood glucose regulation in an animal study. Specifically, when mice drank water with gum acacia, the researchers observed reduced protein levels of an intestinal glucose transporter, suggesting reduced intestinal absorption of glucose. This effect was sufficient to prevent glucose-induced increases in body weight and fasting plasma glucose levels in the mice that consumed the gum acacia.6
2. Satiety and reduced caloric intake
Acacia may help digestion by adding bulk and softness to stool, which in turn may promote regular, healthy bowel movements while promoting satiety, as described in a study of 10 overweight subjects who consumed a mixture of dietary fibers (including gum acacia) for four weeks.7 When healthy volunteers consumed 5 or 10 grams of gum acacia, they decreased energy intake and reported increased feelings of satiety three hours after intake.8 In another study, healthy women who consumed 30 grams of gum acacia daily for six weeks experienced a significant reduction in body mass index (0.32 points) and body fat percentage (2.2%) compared to those in the placebo group (pectin).9
3. Gut health
Gum acacia has been studied for its impact on gut health as well. This nutrient has been associated with improved digestive health by increasing both the number of beneficial bacteria and the production of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the gut:
By acting as a prebiotic and increasing the number of beneficial bacteria: Prebiotics are defined as substrates that are selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit.11 A case study performed in 1986 investigated whether the daily addition of 10 grams of gum acacia in a healthy volunteer could lead to changes in the fecal microbiome. After 18 days of consuming gum acacia, the fecal sample from the volunteer had higher numbers of Bacteroides and Bifidobacterium colonies than the starting samples, suggesting adaptation to the dietary intervention and increased fermentation of the ingested gum acacia.12
Another study investigated the prebiotic efficacy of gum acacia in 54 healthy adults at several daily doses (5-40 grams) for 4 weeks. Compared with the control group (who took 10 grams of inulin which is a well-known prebiotic), the number of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli in stool samples was significantly higher in subjects consuming acacia versus inulin with the optimal dose being around 5-10 grams. The doses tested also resulted in fewer gastrointestinal side effects, such as gas and bloating.13 Since inulin is a well-known prebiotic and known to cause issues like gas and bloating, the finding that acacia gum performed better in both the aspect of promoting beneficial bacteria in stool while not causing as many side effects suggests that acacia may also be a strong prebiotic.
By increasing production of short chain fatty acids: In addition to increasing the number of beneficial bacteria, ingesting prebiotics may result in increased production and release of SCFAs, such as butyrate.14 In vitro research using bacteria isolated from the human colon demonstrated that human colonic bacteria can rapidly utilize gum acacia.15
Considering its chemical and physical properties and the benefits reported above (and others under investigation), gum acacia is widely used as an emulsifier and stabilizer by the pharmaceutical and food industries. Because of its neutral taste and high solubility, it can easily be mixed into liquids without thickening it or adding any grittiness to its texture.
Earlier this year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released an updated guidance stating that gum acacia fails to meet the definition of intrinsic and intact due to its chemical structure and processing and is not, therefore, considered a dietary fiber.17 Industry partners are currently working with researchers to demonstrate physiological benefits for acacia as a dietary fiber and seeking to provide this additional information to the FDA.18 Acacia gum may, however, be considered a functional fiber under the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) definition as a nondigestible carbohydrate isolated or extracted from a natural plant or animal source, or manufactured or synthesized.19 While the “Is acacia a dietary fiber?” discussion continues, we can recognize that some scientific evidence exists demonstrating that gum acacia may support metabolic and digestive health among other benefits.