Friday, March 26, 2010

The Great Shea Debate Part I

Ever since I started working with shea butter over five years ago and began researching the qualities and properities of this natural emolient, I have come across a ton of conflicting information regarding shea butter.

There is very little first hand information, that is information directly from those who actually produce shea butter available - actually, I have found no information from a shea butter producer.  What I have come across is many articles and tibits from those who say that are experts, but give no credentials to back up their assertions.  Each of these "experts" have given conflicting information which makes it difficult for the average end-user to gain a clear picture of what denotes "good" shea and what denotes "bad" and the grey area in between these two.

I do not claim to be an expert.  What I do have is a bit of first hand information from handling the product, using it personally and using it to create skincare products.  I also have the tons of research I have done.  With that, I will attempt to discuss my findings, give as many facts as possible and shed a bit of light on some of the inconsistencies so that you can make a more educated decision when selecting shea butter.

Because this body of knowledge is so broad, this blog will have several parts, I cannot say how many as of yet, but I will let you know when I have written what I feel to be the final installment.

PART I of  "The Great Shea Debate" will cover critical analysis of the information available on shea butter.


The first thing you should do when you read any information regarding shea butter (or anything for that matter) is consider the source.  The internet has opened up the information superhighway and allows us easy access to loads of information on every topic imaginable, but it has also loosened the restrictions on who can make what kind of claims.  In the past, to have your information published in a book, newspaper or magazine, you would need to not only state what makes you an authority on the subject, but you had to provide documentation to that extent. Now, anyone can post information and make claims without any type of proof online.  So it is important to ask some important questions when doing research, including but not limited to:
  1.  Does this claim seem plausible? Simply use common sense.  If someone claims that shea butter cures cancer, that would seem a little far fetched...
  2. What are the writer's credentials?  How did this person become an expert?  How long have they worked with the product, were they apart of the production process?  Did they complete some sort of tests or study of shea butter?
  3. Where is the proof?  If a person states "research shows..." then they should also tell you about the research study that was conducted or give you a link to the study for you to read up on it.
I will not go into much more detail here.  For more information on critical thinking, check out these books:


I used to believe that if an institute released information, then that information must be true.  However, institutes should be critically analyzed much in the same way we would with an individual.  I don't want to mention specifics, but recently, I acquired new exotic pets that I saw for the first time in my local shopping mall.  The people selling them seemed to know everything about the pets and even distributed information from an institute that studied the animals.  Once I did a bit of research on the animals, I found that the institute this company was referring to was actually of their own creation to perpetuate what I have come to find out is actually many falsehoods about these pets.  So when you see information from an institute regarding shea or any other topic, check their credentials as well, what research have they actually done?  Are they linked in anyway to a company that may skew their research?

OK, I realized that I have not talked much about shea butter in this blog.  But I felt it important to lay a foundation for our further exploration.  So let me leave you with one specific item in regards to shea butter.


Many companies state that they offer pure "Grade A" shea butter.  But how do you grade shea butter?  According to the American Shea Butter Institute ( and I am paraphrasing - Shea Butter can be divided into five categories based on its quality, Grade A, Grade B, Grade C, Grade D
or Grade F.  You can check the website for further details, "Lab Testing and Grading", but the gist of the grading process is that based on the amount of nutrients and lack of contaminants, through their testing process, which currently is $600 per sample, the institute can determine if your sample is of the highest quality or Grade A, of premium quality, Grade B, of acceptable quality, Grade C, of medicore quality, Grade D or of a quality unfit for human use, Grade F. 

Now, I am not indicating that the American Shea Butter Institute is a false organization or that it has been set up by a shea butter company to further its agenda.  They appear to have annual conferences, of which I have not attended and I have not made an inquiry to the institute regarding their status.  However, I will note that there are no research study results or any clear research that the institute has done.  They do have a list "21 Uses for Shea Butter", but this appears to be andectodal in nature (information from word of mouth, instead of in depth research). 

So, I pose to you my observation, and this is my observation only.  From what I know of shea butter, it is a handmade product, produced outside of the US so its production is not regulated by the USDA.  All information I have found usually states that this is made by women in numerous different location, in pots that usually sit outdoors from the pictures I have seen online, and therefore there is no real consistency in how each batch of shea is made.

If I send a sample to be tested and graded, wouldn't that mean that the grade would only apply to that particular batch?  Wouldn't I have to get each batch of shea tested to assure the same grade of shea?  If so, at $600 per sample, the cost would be astronomical.

Your thoughts & comments are appreciated.