Shea butter is a common ingredient in many beauty products and it’s also edible. But what exactly is shea? If you have a tree nut allergy, you might have wondered if you need to avoid products made with shea butter. Shea allergy may not be as common as you expect.
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What is shea – is it a nut or a seed?
What exactly is a shea nut and where does shea butter or shea oil come from?
Shea trees grow in the tropical parts of East and West Africa. This includes countries like Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda. The botanical name for the shea tree is Butyrospermum parkii or Vitellaria paradoxa.
The shea “butter” we know is the oil or fat that comes from oily kernels inside the seed of the fruit of the shea tree. To make shea butter, the kernels are taken out of the seed and dried in the sun. The dry seeds are then ground into a powder and boiled in water. Shea oil rises to the top and forms the solid shea butter. Raw shea butter is whitish in colour.
So does she butter technically come from a seed or a nut? The Food and Drug Administration in the US categorizes shea as a true tree nut.1
What types of products is shea butter used in?
You are probably familiar with shea butter as an ingredient in beauty products and personal care items. Shea nut butter is high in oil and is popular as a moisturising product, especially for dry skin. Some of the products that may contain shea nut butter include:
It can also be used for making candles.
Refined shea nut butter is sometimes used in foods as a substitute for cocoa butter (for example, in confectionery products including chocolate). Outside of this it isn’t a common ingredient in countries like Australia or the US. However, raw shea nut butter and shea fruit is used in foods in some African countries.
While shea nut is in fact a tree nut, it is actually not a known or common cause of allergic reactions.
According to a review by the Food Allergy Research and Resource Programme (FARRP) in 2016, at that time there had been no reports of cases of allergy to shea nut or shea nut butter in the medical literature.1
Refined shea nut butter doesn’t contain residual food proteins that cause allergic reactions. Shea butters used commercially in Australia and the US are usually highly refined. The refining process – including filtering and heat treatment – removes food proteins from the finished product.1
In its refined state, shea nut butter or shea oil is classified as a “Generally Recognised as Safe” food ingredient by the FDA in the US.
Despite the risk being remote, it is always possible that some people may be allergic to shea nut proteins and may react to residual proteins is shea butter.
We have noticed more raw unrefined shea butter for sale online and marketed as a moisturising product. Unrefined shea butter may become more common with the increasing popularity of organic beauty products, like this body butter.
There is also concern that people may become sensitized to certain food proteins through the skin barrier, especially in people with eczema. It is arguably possible that someone could become sensitized to shea nuts by using moisturisers or other products that contain shea butter which is unrefined or contains residual food proteins. This is an area for more research.
While shea allergy is not common, you should ask your treating allergy specialist about your own situation and whether they recommend that you avoid shea or not.
What about shea nuts and allergen labelling?
In the US, the FDA regards shea as a tree nut. Foods containing shea nuts or shea butter must list this as an ingredient on food labels. Ingredient labels need to include a tree nut warning where shea is an ingredient. This is despite the lack of evidence of allergic reactions to shea.
Here in Australia, shea is not considered a significant tree nut allergen. As part of its safety risk assessment with regard to changes to food allergy labelling in 2018, Food Standards Australia concluded it did not need to include shea as a specifically identified tree nut for a few reasons. Firstly, there was little evidence of allergic reactions to shea. Secondly, shea was unlikely to be widely used in processed food and would only be consumed by small numbers of people. However, FSA did note that this position may change if shea became more widely used in food production.2
Food ingredient labels in Australia list shea if it is used as an ingredient, but it will not be in bold or listed in the allergen statement under the current food allergy labelling requirements.
The UK and the EU also don’t include shea in the significant tree nuts for labelling requirements.
Personal care products can be problematic as they don’t need to contain allergen statements. A product containing shea needs to list this as an ingredient. However, you may also see it identified by a botanical name instead of shea nut butter.
You can read more about the importance of checking for food ingredients beauty products and cosmetics in our post 10 personal care products to check for food allergens
References and more information
Find out more information about shea nuts and shea allergy from:
- Anaphylaxis Campaign (UK), Shea Nuts
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunuiogy, Allergenicity of Shea nut/Shea butter
1Taylor. SL, Baument, JL and Kabourek, J, Expert Opinion Statement, Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, University of Nebraska, “Lack of Allergenicity of Shea Nut Butter”, 26 June 2018
2Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Supporting Document 1, Proposal P1044, Plain English Allergen Labelling, Safety Risk Assessment
*Disclaimer: Allergy Spot does not provide medical advice. You should always consult a suitably qualified medical practitioner in respect of your own medical conditions, symptoms or concerns. See our Website Terms for more details.