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Shea Butter
Latin Name:

Vitellaria paradoxa



CTFA name:

Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter)


Vitellaria paradoxa, a deciduous tree1  that can grow to 50 feet high2  , resembles an American oak in appearance.3  Shea butter trees are native to and still found exclusively in West Africa south of the Sahara Desert.4,5  The elliptical fruit is a greenish-yellow color and about 1 inch by 2 inches in size.2  Removing the fleshy outside layer reveals the seed.6  The seeds are ground into a paste and boiled in water to extract shea butter. As the water cools, the fat floats to the top and is skimmed off and rolled into balls.6  

History and Cultural Significance

Travelers in Africa wrote about shea butter trees as early as the 1300s. One record details a large amount of shea butter being transported to Egypt during Queen Cleopatra’s reign. It first became known to the outside world in the late 1700s through the writings of Mungo Park, a 25-year-old Scottish surgeon. In his book, Travels into the Interior of Africa, he described the process of making the butter, called shea-toulou (meaning tree butter) by the natives, and its importance to the local people.3  Even today the cultivation of shea butter is the livelihood of many African countries. It is referred to as “women’s gold” in many places because it provides them with valuable jobs in their villages. The women commonly perform the crude preparation of the butter, while the men handle the marketing and shipping. In these African communities, shea butter is referred to as karité, meaning life.7  

Modern Research

Shea butter is used in traditional African medicine.2,6  In the United States it is commonly found in cosmetics to protect the skin.8  It also has culinary uses as an ingredient in baked goods (baking fat)7,9  and as a substitute for cocoa butter in chocolates.

Future Outlook

One recent European trial studied particular ingredients of shea butter, and their effect on HDL cholesterol levels (the “good” cholesterol).10  


1  Von Maydell H. Trees and Shrubs of the Sahel: Their Characteristics and Uses. Eschborn, Germany: Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit; 1990. Cited by: Vermilye KL. Vitellaria paradoxa and the Feasibility of a Shea Butter Project in the North of Cameroon [dissertation]. Missoula, MT: University of Montana; 2004.

2  Iwu M. Handbook of African Medicinal Plants. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1993.

3  Alley-Crosby M. Bats, the Shea Tree, Tree Butter and Money for Poor African Women. Bats, Plants and People web site. January 2004. Available at: Accessed November 23, 2005.

4  Van Wyk B, Wink M. Medicinal Plants of the World. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 2004.

5  Carney J, Elias M. African Women, Shea Butter, and Globalization. UCLA Globalization Research Center Africa web site. 2005. Available at: Accessed November 23, 2005.

6  Neuwinger H. African Traditional Medicine: A Dictionary of Plant Use and Applications. Stuttgart, Germany: Medpharm; 2000.

7  Harsch E. Making Trade Work for Poor Women. United Nations web site. Africa Recovery. 2001;15(4):6. Available at: Accessed November 23, 2005.

8  Bruneton J. Pharmacognosy, Phytochemistry, Medicinal Plants. Paris: Lavoisier Publishing Incorporated; 1999.

9  Davidson A. The Oxford Companion to Food. New York: Oxford University Press; 1999.

10  Tholstrup T, Vessby B, Sandstrom B. Difference in effect of myristic acid and stearic acid in plasma HDL cholesterol within 24 hours in young men. Eur J Clin Nutr. June 2003;57(6):735-742.

11  Sakyi-Addo K. Shea Butter Producers Aim for US Market. US Agency for International Development (USAID) web site. 2005. Available at: Accessed November 29, 2005.