What Is Shea Butter?
With its growing reputation we are enticed to try this “new” and wonderful sounding ‘butter’ which is not a dairy product. Technically, shea butter is a nut fat, as it is derived from the crushed nuts of the karite tree that grows wild in the African savannah, an area that comprises more than a dozen countries and is approximately the size of America. To a person from Ghana or Burkina Faso, two of the largest exporting countries of shea butter, they are quite accustomed to the benefits of shea butter. They massage it on their skin and hair; they cook with it, and it’s known to help people of all ages with accelerating the healing of minor cuts, burns, and scrapes. Those who try natural shea butter are amazed to discover that applying all natural shea butter onto their skin, a thin protective layer forms, that is non-greasy!
Shea [Karite] Trees Grow In The Wild
Shea butter comes from karite trees, which live for hundreds of years and only begin providing fruit by the time they are about 25-30 years of age. Most wild [as opposed to cultivated which is very small scale at this time], karite trees are pollinated by small fruit bats, which help to ensure the continued existence for this ‘tree of life’ as those whose livelihood depends on these fruitful trees oftentimes refer to it as. The shea nuts aren’t picked from the trees as they must first mature and fall from the trees where they are then collected. Women are responsible for the gathering and production of shea nuts and helping cultivate them into valuable shea butter. The process of harvesting the shea fruit is time consuming, but the results are well worth the amount of effort that goes into each batch of natural shea butter. While the ripe green, fleshy fruit is rich in ascorbic acid as well as vitamin B; it’s the kernels inside the nut that comprises the shea butter.
Making Shea Butter
The nuts are first sorted and parboiled, and then left to dry in the hot sunshine for up to one week. When the shea nuts are completely dehydrated, they can either be stored for several weeks or months, or they go to the next step of shea butter production.
Crushing the dried nuts, either with a wooden pestle, or, in more sophisticated operations, a special press, causes the nuts and the kernels to be separated. Next, the kernels are roasted in large metal pots and processed through a grinder, which results in a brown colored paste. This paste is processed a second time. The labor-intensive procedure continues with the mixing and kneading of the kernels after some water has been added. While this step of the shea butter making production goes on for several hours, it’s a vital step as this is what creates the shea butter itself. It’s still unrefined, but many people prefer the natural shea butter to the more refined versions. Also, there are places in Africa that have various types of shea refining machinery, allowing the shea extracting process to remain easier for all parties involved. For instance, the shea butter is filtered by a natural cold process method that strains the shea butter of any debris such as gourd pieces, dirt, leaves, etc. Most shea butter that is refined in Africa is usually free of hexane solvents that not only bleach and remove many of the vitamins and minerals, but also can remain in the finished product.
Unrefined Shea Butter
This type of shea butter has a wide range of colors and some differences in textures. Generally, unrefined shea butter is that which has been filtered [hopefully] and possibly refined at least once in the most natural cold process method. Beige, light or dark green, gray or dark tan are the colors that unrefined shea butter can end up. The green colors come from shea nuts that are less mature than the beige colors. Shea colors are also dependent upon the time of year the nuts are harvested and processed, along with the region in which the shea nuts are selected from.