Shea nuts are oil-rich seeds found in the fruit of the shea nut tree. Although most of the world does not consume shea nuts as food, the FDA has them on its list of tree nut allergens.
The commercial product we know as shea nut butter, shea butter, or shea oil is made from the fat content of the nut. The fat is cold-pressed, refined, bleachedx and deodorized before being used as a cocoa butter substitute in packaged confections or as an ingredient in skin care products.
An Unlikely Allergen
Although shea oil is widely used, allergic reactions to shea nut butter have yet to be recorded in clinical literature. It is the protein in certain foods that individuals develop allergies to, and allergy research indicates there is no detectable protein residue in shea nut butter.
In a frequently cited study by Dr. Kanwaljit K Chawla of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, shea butter was added to blood samples of people with tree-nut allergies. Chawla found the blood’s immunoglobulin E antibodies, the primary immune molecule involved in allergic reactions, barely attached to the added shea butter.
Chawla’s work suggests our immune systems do not recognize shea nut butter as a nut protein.
Research reveals that a true allergy to shea butter is unlikely. However, there are numerous anecdotal reports of individuals with a tree-nut or peanut allergy having a reaction to shea butter products.
“I have seen reactions among those with nut allergies to both shea and cocoa butter,” said Dr. Ellen Marmut, author of Simple Skin Beauty. “Even organic or natural ingredients can cause allergic reactions.”
There are also personal reports scattered across the Internet about individuals with nut allergies experiencing itchy skin or other reaction after a few applications of a shea butter product.
Some people allergic to latex are also reported to have developed a skin reaction to shea butter after repeated use. This is owed to a latex-protein found in shea and cocoa butters.
Certain shea butters have more of this protein than others. Some companies, such as Vermont Soap, developed a process to remove most of the latex-protein from their products.
Your Comfort Zone
Despite reports of reactions to shea butter, not all countries are concerned about the risk shea nuts might pose. Since most people do not eat shea nuts and because they are mostly fat, which does not cause allergic responses, shea nuts are not subject to mandatory allergen labeling in Europe.
However, it is easy to understand why the U.S. and Europe can classify the shea nut differently and both be right. It is true the likelihood of a shea reaction is small, but it is also false to claim that no one could develop a shea allergy.
We can each live a fulfilling life without using shea butter products, so no one with a tree-nut or peanut allergy is diminished by exercising caution and avoiding shea butter. Those wanting to try shea butter products can do so with minimal risk, though it would be wise to get your doctor's approval beforehand.