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Shea Butter; What-all is the big deal?

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In Uganda there is a saying, "He who swallows a seed of the ekungur [shea-butter] tree should know the size of his anus," meaning, "Don't bite off more than you can chew." Objects of great significance to a people often make their way into aphorism.

In Black communities across the United States, shea butter has become part of beauty lore for its superlative moisturizing and anti-aging properties. The bright yellow label on the 8-oz. plastic tubs you buy on 125th Street in Harlem also tell you that 100 percent natural African shea butter can be used to treat eczema and minor burns; for pain relief from swelling and arthritis; to improve muscle relaxation and stiffness; as a sunscreen because of its rich content of vitamins A and D; to treat dark spots, stretch marks, skin discolorations, wrinkles and blemishes; for massages and diaper rash; and as a hair conditioner.

The shea tree grows wild in Africa. It begins to bear fruit after about 20 years, reaches maturity at 45 and may produce nuts for up to 200 years after that. The white to light-yellow fat [butter] extracted from the large seeds [nuts] embedded in the fruit is known as "women's gold," for women are the primary producers. Shea butter is cheap because supply far exceeds demand. Demand is growing, however, as its applications expand. In 2001, more than 800 metric tons, or $13 million worth, was imported into the United States, 11 percent more than the year before.

Most of the shea butter we use in the United States comes from nuts of the Vitellaria paradoxa variety found in the "shea belt" of west and central Africa. In addition to cosmetic products the nut's butter and liquid oil are used in cooking oil, margarine, detergents and candles. It is even...