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Shea fruit resembles a small green plum and consists of an oil rich nut surrounded by a thin, tart layer of fruit. The fruit is mildly sweet with a texture of ripe pear and is an important source of energy to local people. Shea butter has a mild, nutty flavor and is common in Sahelian cuisine.
Shea trees produce their fruit throughout a regions rainy season.
Vitellaria paradoxa, or Shea, is a deciduous tree native to Africa. Resembling an oak tree, a Shea tree takes 10-15 years to begin bearing fruit, reaching maturity at 20-30 years, and continues to produce fruit for up to 200 years. It can grow to a height of 15-25 meters. The fruit surrounds a relatively large and oily nut that is used to make Shea butter, a product that is locally consumed or exported as a cosmetic ingredient.
The pulp surrounding the nut has significant amounts of carbohydrates, protein and fat as well as vitamins and antioxidants. The kernel within is rich in fat (42-48%), with both vitamins A & E, cinnamic acid (which provides UV protection), and has demonstrated both anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Shea butter is used as a cooking oil and as a skin product. The leaves, fruit, and bark are used in a variety of applications including medicine and food. Once the fruit ripens, the thin green layer surrounding the inner kernel can be eaten raw or cooked. The nuts are then dried, cracked, cooked and processed into Shea butter which can keep for months or even years. The wood is hard and reportedly termite resistant; it is used for lumber and to make charcoal. The blossoms and fruit are processed into local medicines treating a variety of ailments including arthritis, congestion, and gastric pain.
Africans have been consuming both the fruit and the nut of the Shea tree for centuries. Europeans discovered the properties and benefits of Shea and began importing the nut and its products. Both farmed and wild trees are subject to the collection of the fruit and the nuts. Typically the nuts are gathered and processed by women and children in rural areas, providing an important source of income for these otherwise underserved populations.
The Shea tree grows in the savannah belt of sub-Saharan Africa. It is found in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Guinea.