CTFA name: Orbignya Oleifera Seed Oil
Return to herb list |
The babassu palm tree grows to 60 feet and produces fruit from August through February.1 Babassu is native to Brazil and is also grown in Mexico and Guyana.1 The hard-shelled nuts of the babassu are the most valuable commercial part of the palm due to oil they produce, but the remaining parts (flower, stalk, leaves) are utilized as well.2
History and Cultural Significance
The oil extracted from the babassu nut has many uses. Cosmetically, the oil is employed as an ingredient in body milks, face creams, lip balms, hair products for brittle, dry hair, and cleansing products. Babassu oil is also used in detergents, soap production, and for lamp oil.1 The residue that remains after oil extraction is used in fish bait and cattle feed.1 The kernels of the babassu nut, which are ground and mixed with water to make ‘babassu milk’, serve as good sources of protein and for cooking oil for indigenous people.2 The inner skin of the nut is also used to make flour used in cakes and porridges eaten by the natives.3 The outer skin of the kernel shells are processed and sold to foreign buyers as a source of fuel for industrial use.1,3 The fruit of the babassu is used as a food for humans and animals.1 Traditionally, the husks from the fruit of the babassu have been used medicinally to treat and cure athlete’s foot.2 The leaves are used in the construction of roofs, as well as for production of paper, folders, bags, and hunting blinds.2,3
In pre-colonial Brazil, the Tupinambá Indians and nomads used babassu palms as a fuel and fiber food.2 Later European settlers dominated the land and harvested cotton, rice, and sugarcane until the end of slavery in 1888. When the land was abandoned, the babassu palms reemerged and the freed slaves again used the palms as before. The Guajá Indians of the region use the kernels of the fruit as a stable source of food due to its ability to withstand predators and rain. It takes 5 metric tons of pressure to crack open the fruit to be able to get to the kernel inside. This requires the Guajá to use a semi-concave rock and a wooden club, or another rock, in order to crack the kernel open. In ritual ceremonies, the sprouts of the babassu are consumed. One such ritual is the rite of passage into womanhood, which requires that women during their first three menstrual periods be confined to their homes and eat the sprouts of the babassu while lying down.2 In 1986 due to conflict between cattle ranchers and settlers of the region, the court ruled that the settlers be allowed to harvest the babassu nuts.3 A women’s cooperative, the Copallj, researched and implemented the most beneficial way to harvest the nuts, a process which is still in use today.3
There are no current documented clinical studies on the cosmetic uses of babassu. Currently, laboratory tests are being performed on the medicinal applications of babassu oil.
Rural Brazil harvests babassu using approximately 450,000 families which provides an important economic service to the community.1 Increasingly, the babassu charcoal that is made from the shell that surrounds the nut is being sold to foreign and national industrial buyers.1 Plus, there is a current contract with a U.K. company to supply babassu oil at a set rate which, in turn, produces a guaranteed income for the local women and daughters.3
1 Babassu palm monograph[Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations]. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/X5043E/x5043E04.htm. Accessed October 18, 2004.
2 Forline LC. Using and sustaining natural resources: the Guajá Indians and the babassu palms. Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor November 2000;8(3):3-7.
3 Hands On: Fair Trade, Fair Profit (Babassu Breakthrough)[Television Trust for the Environment website]. Available at: http://www.tve.org/earthreport/archive/doc.cfm?aid=904. Accessed October 18, 2004.