Q: My 5-year-old is allergic to tree nuts, and I’d like to know more about shea (nut) butter, as it’s in so many products. Is it safe to use on her skin as a lotion? Are candies with it safe for her to eat?
Dr. Sicherer: Shea nut butter or oil is derived from the seed of the fruit of the shea tree, which is indigenous to parts of Africa. the other nuts or peanut, has not been reported, although shea nut is distantly related to Brazil nut. The FDA does include shea nut in food labeling laws.
The seed is very rich in oil. The oil or butter is refined, bleached and deodorized, and the final product is primarily fat rather than protein.
One study evaluated the protein content of extracts of shea nut and shea nut butters and could only find trace protein. The researchers tested blood from people with peanut and tree nut allergies against the shea nut proteins and could not detect any IgE antibodies ‘recognizing’ the shea proteins. [Editor’s note: In allergy, this ‘recognizing’ factor leads the immune system to mount a reaction.]
Although these results suggest that consuming the products is unlikely to trigger an allergic reaction, the question of whether topical applications of skin-care products could result in sensitization to the residual protein has not been investigated.
However, there are no reports of either topical immediate allergic reactions or reactions from the ingestion of shea nut oil or butter. Although allergy to these products is theoretically possible, the above information suggests that the minimal available protein in these products makes allergy to them, including for those with nut allergies, very unlikely.
Dr. Scott Sicherer is Chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. Together with Dr. Hemant Sharma, Associate Chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, he writes “The Food Allergy Experts” column in the American Edition of Allergic Living magazine. Questions submitted below will be considered for answer in the magazine.