Natural butters: fractionation alternatives

Global demand for natural, organic and Ayurvedic personal care products continues to grow apace and as such, these sectors always seek alternatives to replace synthetic, petrolatum-based, toxic, or ingredients processed with petrochemicals.

In under two decades there has been a revolution in organic sourcing, green chemical production, chemical-free processing, supply chain transparency, social responsibility and sustainable branding of ingredients sought at volumes by these industries.

Shea butter is just such an ingredient having the functionality and sustainable storylines1 that makes it ideally suited for use in natural cosmetic formulations. Its West African production has also undergone a revolution, after first being introduced into western cosmetics, demand for exports of hand-crafted butter have leapt from just a few tonnes annually exported in the early 1990s, to dozens of 20 tonne container loads being ultraefficiently shipped out every month. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sheanuts are now industrially processed in factories, into butter destined for both edible and cosmetic demand. Following years of support from the USAID West Africa Trade Hub team, in October 2010, the industry founded the Global Shea Alliance (GSA). This professional body currently has a membership of 400+ from every facet of the industry, many of whom are determined to prove just how environmentally sustainable and socially responsible the shea sector really is. These include associations of women collectors, civil society organisations through to various large-scale nut processors (AAK), hand-crafted butter exporters (Savannah Fruits), ingredient distributors (Kerfoot Group), international cosmetic brands (including Sundial, Body Shop and Burt’s Bees) and, of course, confectionery brands (such as Hershey’s) who are still the major users of shea stearin as an ingredient in cocoa butter equivalents and improvers. In 2013, the GSA formed two membershipendorsed working groups, and are currently developing sustainability and quality standards for the sector, in time for announcement at Shea 2014; the industry’s next international conference to be held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire from 24-27 March (www.globalshea.com).

With production growth focused on West African sources, one topic natural formulators continue to bring up as an issue is that whole natural shea butter – whether unrefined, micron-filtered or organically purified – has a rather limited melting profile unless it has been fractionated and/or hydrogenated (Table 1), most likely after solvent-extraction, processes which use petrochemicals. According to standards developed by highly respected bodies, use of these solvents will render any high or low melting point shea butter produced in such a manner as unsuitable for harmonised certification as an ingredient for natural or organic personal care products.

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