Argan oil – Good Times Magazine - September, 2011
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Argan oil – Good Times Magazine - September, 2011

Argan oil is the latest ingredient touted for its cosmetic and health properties, but in Morocco, it’s liquid gold

By Wendy Haad

Morocco’s Treasure
Thanks to a burgeoning interest in socially – and environmentally-responsible products, an ancient ingredient is rapidly becoming the hot new commodity not only in the cosmetic and personal care industries, but also in gourmet food and natural health circles. And, in the process, it’s bringing prosperity and independence to a group of women who traditionally have enjoyed little of either.

Allow us to introduce you to exotic argan oil, made from nut of the Argania spinosa tree, which grows almost solely in arid and semi-arid regions of the southwest Morocco. The drought resistant trees perform several important functions, from providing forage for goats and camels to preventing the desert from swallowing up productive land. But it’s the fruits, which resembles a cross between a large olive and walnut that holds that nutritional, medicinal, and cosmetic prize. The kernels within contain the oil, which, for centuries, Berber women extracted by cracking open the fruit and grinding the nuts with rocks, (The Berbers, or Amazigh, are a non-Arab people native to North Africa.) If roasted beforehand, the kernels produce an edible, nutty tasting oil that’s used in much the same way as olive oil, yet is twice as rich in vitamin E. Raw kernels produce a cold pressed non-edible oil that can be applied to the skin, hair, and nails.

In addition to its enticing flavor, argan oil is prized for its medicinal properties; its topical counterpart protects hair and skin form harsh, dry air, and is purported to help ease psoriasis and acne. Tourists from other countries also notice something that piqued interest in the oils cosmetic possibilities. “People realized that women that were pressing the oils from the nuts even if they were wrinkled allover, had soft, smooth hands,” notes Elise Mailhot-Paquette, director of communications at Zorah Biocosmetiques, a Montreal company that makes a line of argan-based skin care products.

“Women Can Go Further”
Still, until roughly a dozen years ago, relatively little had been done to explore argan oil’s potential. At the same time, despite the trees importance to the local economy (an estimated two million people make their living directly or indirectly from the argan forest) they were disappearing at an alarming rate due to drought, overgrazing, and use of fire wood. (Harvesting the fruit doesn’t harm the hardy trees, which live roughly 200 years.) Meanwhile, people in the area continued to live in much the same way they had for centuries, with little or no access to electricity, employment or education. Economic opportunities were particularly scarce for Berber women who were traditionally discouraged from working outside the home.

Enter visionaries like professor Zoubida Charrouf, a chemist and researcher at Rabat’s Mohammed V University, who has studied the shrinking of the argan forest and helped persuade the Moroccan government to declare part of it off limits to grazing. If argan oil commanded a larger price, and production could be made more efficient and increase in scale, perhaps farmers could be persuaded to remain in the land rather than migrate to the cities, she reasoned. With more economic incentive, people might also be persuaded to plant more argan trees. And if research could prove the nutritional and medicinal value of argan oil, demand, and thus price, might also climb. Finally, since making argan oil was already a female enterprise, expanding the industry could conceivably create jobs for women. In fact, why not establish a co-operative run entirely by women?

Enter visionaries like professor Zoubida Charrouf, a chemist and researcher at Rabat’s Mohammed V University, who has studied the shrinking of the argan forest and helped persuade the Moroccan government to declare part of it off limits to grazing. If argan oil commanded a larger price, and production could be made more efficient and increase in scale, perhaps farmers could be persuaded to remain in the land rather than migrate to the cities, she reasoned. With more economic incentive, people might also be persuaded to plant more argan trees. And if research could prove the nutritional and medicinal value of argan oil, demand, and thus price, might also climb. Finally, since making argan oil was already a female enterprise, expanding the industry could conceivably create jobs for women. In fact, why not establish a co-operative run entirely by women?

After a great deal of lobbying, and with financial backing from several sources, including Canada’s International Development Research Centre, in 1999, Charrouf managed to do just that. Since men were reluctant to allow their wives to join, at first, the members were primarily widows and divorcées, but that began to change as the co-op’s success grew. Co-op members make about €6 a day – more than 10-fold what the women earned just a few years ago. This has made an enormous difference not only to the women and their families—for example, by allowing them to pay to send their children to school—but also to the surrounding area, by supporting other businesses, such as grocers. The co-op also organized training in the technical aspects of argan production, as well as bookkeeping and other business skills, and, of course, reading and writing. “Now, all of these women send their daughters to school, Charrouf notes, “because they know women who are literate can go further.”

From Co-ops to Cosmetics
Meanwhile, personal care and cosmetics companies had begun taking notice of argan oil, as more consumers demanded organic, additive-free products made from natural, sustainable ingredients for which the farmers and producers received a fair price. From boutique producers to personal care giants, manufacturers stepped forward to meet that demand by using argan oil as in ingredient in their products—Moroccanoil professional hair products, Nivea Pure & Natural, the Body Shop’s Spa Wisdom Morocco Black Olive and Argan Oil Scrub, Aveda’s Green Science, Kiehl’s, and Zorah being just a few examples. (L’Oreal alone uses argan oil in seven of the company’s 25 brands, which include Garnier, L’Oreal Paris, and Lancôme.)

Nor does this trend seem poised to slow anytime soon. For instance, when Zorah Biocosmetiques was founded in 2006, the company purchased oil from a single cooperative: today, “we’re importing so much that we have 13 co-ops that supply it,” Mailhot-Paquette says. And similar stories must be playing out elsewhere: according to Charrouf, “now, there are actually 170 co-operatives, with more than 4,000 women.”

As for research, Charrouf and her colleagues have begun to unravel some of argan oil’s health and beauty secrets. Argan oil is rich in the heart-healthy oils omega 3, 6, and 9, but it also contains high levels of vitamins E and A, antioxidants purported to have anti-aging properties. Clinical trials conducted by Charrouf and her colleagues appear to confirm the benefits of argan oil. They discovered that men who consumed 25 mL of edible argan oil daily lowered their bad cholesterol and triglycerides and increased their good cholesterol and vitamin E levels. Another study, in menopausal women, yielded similar results—and the same benefits were seen whether the oil was ingested or applied to the skin. “We also checked the level of hydration of the skin,” Charrouf adds, and in both cases, moisture content increased, “and there was less wrinkling than before.”

Despite the beauty buzz surrounding argan oil, research on its cosmetic and therapeutic properties remains scant. “I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but we don’t have a lot of data,” explains Dr. Lisa Kellett, a Toronto dermatologist, but she adds, the same can be said of many cosmetic ingredients.

But that may not be the most important consideration for many discerning cosmetics consumers. After all, a product that enriches the lives of thousands of women while helping to protect the planet is a thing of real and lasting beauty.

 

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