UKM’s Research Into Gum Arabic Set to Create International Demand For It

Wednesday, 29 June 2011 00:15
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By S. Sivaselvam
Pics by Saliman Leman

KUALA LUMPUR, 28 June 2011 – Gum Arabic a natural prebiotic that can only be found in Sudan, is set to spur the international pharmaceutical, food and cosmetic sectors – and strengthen Malaysia’s status as a global halal hub - thanks to intensive research on it that is to be spearheaded by UKM.

It is involved in a unique government-university-private sector partnership that would enhance worldwide recognition of the valuable health properties of Gum Arabic.

While the government sector is represented by Sudan’s Gum Arabic Board (GAB) and the country’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur and UKM is another party, the key personality who engineered this joint venture is the director of Natural Prebiotic Sd. Bhd., Ramli Sani.

And he is a walking testimonial for the good that Gum Arabic does – for he claims that he used to undergo dialysis three times a week for renal failure, but after having taken Gum Arabic for seven months, he stopped the dialysis because his kidneys were functioning normally again, and he has now been off dialysis for about 10 months.

He had undertaken contracting projects in Sudan and is secretary-general of the Malaysia Sudan Business Chamber. His experience in the “wonder cure” of Gum Arabic led him to put in touch Professor Dr Aminah Abdullah, Principal Fellow at the School of Chemical Science and Food Technology in UKM’s Science and Technology Faculty, with GAB, which led to UKM and GAB signing a letter of intent in June last year.

His confidence is such that he has pledged three percent of the sales of Gum Arabic products by his company to UKM’s research into Gum Arabic. Natural Prebiotic is the sole distributor of Gum Arabic products in the region other than Indonesia.

What is prebiotic? While probiotics are live bacteria products that add healthy flora to a gut, prebiotics feed these beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract and keep them healthy.

Prebiotics are currently mostly found in food products from the West, such as rice crispies, certain types of bread, cereal bars as well as supplements in the form of capsules.

What’s distinct about those from Sudan is that more than 90 percent of its output of Gum Arabic is of top quality and it is natural, obtained directly from two specific varieties of the acasia tree which are unable to be cultivated anywhere else in the world save Sudan, not even in neighbouring Chad and the US. The gum is derived from the tree much like how latex is tapped from the rubber tree.

Among the Gum Arabic products that Natural Prebiotic is marketing in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Brunei are capsules that are said to counter the irritable bowel syndrome, regulate blood sugar, boost the immune system and provide extra energy.

Another is a drink that includes the Baobab fruit and said to be rich in Vitamins C and B, potassium, calcium and iron as well as high in antioxidants. It is said to treat diarrhoea and constipation as well.

Gum Arabic is claimed to be the richest source of natural prebiotic beside human milk and 10 times richer in calcium than fresh cow milk.

UKM Vice-Chancellor Professor Tan Sri Dato’ Wira Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin, today opened a one-day Gum Arabic International Conference and witnessed the signing of an agreement between the university and natural Prebiotic on conducting research on enhancing the use of Gum Arabic and discovering other properties of, and uses for, the commodity.

She termed the collaboration among all three partners as very strategic. UKM is a research university which is keen in generating knowledge which will be of benefit for both countries. Sudan is blessed with Acacia trees, 90 percent of which produce high quality and the most sought after Gum Arabic in the world. In fact Sudan produces up 65 percent of the world’s supply of the gum. Natural Prebiotic is the industry partner that is keen on a well-planned and organised research in Gum Arabic.

“Together with GAB and UKM’s Centre for Confectionery Technology or MANIS, (which Prof. Aminah heads) we should be able to collaborate in research on the utilisation of Gum Arabic in food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and health,” she added.

The main research focus of MANIS, is the development of nutritious, tasty and healthy confectionery products. In this regard MANIS has proposed the setting up of a Gum Arabic research centre or laboratory which Prof Sharifah Hapsah hoped GAB would support.

Gum Arabic is not only an important additive that is widely used as an emulsifier, stabiliser, texturiser and prebiotic, it is also a natural halal substance, she said.

“An important source of dietary fibre and food ingredient, its potential pharmacological properties is waiting to be explored through R&D. This research could also lead to more innovative products which will create demand and ensure the price stability of Gum Arabic internationally,” she added.

The highlight of today’s conference is presentations on the utilisation of Gum Arabic in the food and pharmaceutical industries. Most of the papers deal with research related to the use of Gum Arabic in various health-related diseases and disorders, particularly gastrointestinal problems and colon cancer, chronic renal failure and obesity, and children’s health.

Prof Sharifah Hapsah hoped that research on the combination and blending of Gum Arabic and carrageenan, an important seaweed product from Malaysia, will hopefully be able to create a new plant-based food hydrocolloid which will be as good as or even better than gelatin, which is a controversial additive in halal products.

UKM has about 40 graduate students from Sudan studying in various faculties. Some of them are sponsored by the Malaysian government under its Technical Cooperation Programme. The Vice-Chancellor hoped that with funding provided by GAB, more students from Sudan can be trained at UKM in line with the development of human capital to advance Gum Arabic research activities in Sudan.

Prof Aminah said the research to be conducted will related to the potential use of Gum Arabic to improve health as well as for use as food additives and as an ingredient in halal food products in line with the promotion of Malaysia as a global halal hub. “This will be the beginning of a new era for Gum Arabic within Muslim countries,” she added.

GAB Chairman Dr Taj El Sir Mustafa noted that while only about 40,000 to 50,000 tons of Gum Arabic are being produced annually and exported as raw gum, this could increase dramatically to 500,000 tons annually once there is ample international recognition and demand for it.

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