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The tree is extremely well adapted to drought and other environmentally harsh conditions of southwestern Morocco. The genus Argania once covered North Africa and is now endangered and under protection of UNESCO. The argan tree grows wild in semi-arid soil, its deep root system helping to protect against soil erosion and the northern advance of the Sahara. This biosphere reserve, the Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve, covers a vast intramontane plain of more than 2,560,000 hectares, bordered by the High Atlas and Little Atlas Mountains and the Atlantic in the west. Argan oil remains one of the rarest oils in the world due to the small and very specific growing areas.
The earliest known European account of argan trees was by Leo Africanus, in 1510. An early specimen was taken to Amsterdam where it was cultivated by Lady Beaufort at Badminton House in 1711.
Before modern times, the Berbers of ancient Morocco would collect undigested argan pits from the waste of goats which climb the trees to eat their fruit. The pits were then ground and pressed to make the nutty oil used in cooking and cosmetics. However, the oil used in cosmetic and culinary products available for sale today has most likely been harvested directly from the tree and processed with machines.
Now increasingly important for oil produced for sale, as the oil will keep 12–18 months and extraction is much faster. Using mechanical presses, mixing of the dough and water is unnecessary and the dough can be directly pressed.
The fruits of the argan tree are nut-sizes and may be round, oval or conical in shape. The fruits are covered by a thick peel which covers the fleshy pulp. The pulp surrounds a hard-shelled nut which represents approximately 25% of the weight of the fresh fruit.
Contained within the nut are one to three argan oil-rich kernels. Argan oil is extracted from the kernels, with yields varying from 30% to 55% depending on the extraction method used.
Extraction of the kernels is key to the argan oil production process. In order to extract the kernels, the argan fruits are first dried in the open air and then the fleshy pulp of the fruit is removed. Sometimes the flesh is removed mechanically without the need to dry the fruits. The flesh is usually used as feed for animals.
The next stage involves cracking the argan nut to obtain the argan kernels. Attempts to mechanize this process have been unsuccessful and therefore it is still carried out by hand, making it a time-consuming and labour-intensive process.
Kernels used to make argan oil for food use, culinary argan oil, are then gently roasted. After the argan kernels have cooled down, they are ground and pressed. The brown-colored mash expels pure, unfiltered argan oil. After this, unfiltered argan oil is decanted into vessels. The press cake remaining after the argan oil has been expelled is protein-rich and is frequently used as feed for cattle.
Cosmetic argan oil is produced almost identically, although the argan kernels are not roasted to avoid an excessively nutty scent.
After pressing, the argan oil is decanted and left to rest for approximately two weeks. This allows solids suspended in the argan oil to settle to the bottom, creating a natural sediment. The clearer argan oil may then be further filtered depending on the clarity and degree of purity required. Pure argan oil may contain some sediment. This is a natural part of the production process and does not affect the quality of the argan oil.
Argan oil contains tocopherols (vitamin E), phenols, carotenes, squalene, and fatty acids, (80% unsaturated fatty acids) The main natural phenols in argan oil are caffeic acid, oleuropein, vanillic acid, tyrosol, catechol, resorcinol, (-)-epicatechin and (+)-catechin.
Culinary argan oil (argan food oil) is used for dipping bread, on couscous, salads and similar uses. Amlou, a thick brown paste with a consistency similar to peanut butter, is produced by grinding roasted almond and argan oil using stones, mixed with honey and is used locally as a bread dip.
Various claims about the beneficial effects on health due to the consumption of argan oil have been made. Researchers have concluded that daily consumption of argan oil is 'highly likely' to be one factor helping the prevention of various cancers, cardiovascular diseases and obesity.
The results of a nutritional intervention study, in which volunteers were given either argan oil or animal fats (butter) in their diet, were published in 2005. The results showed that regular dietary intake of argan oil led to reduced levels of harmful cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, compared to a diet with regular intake of animal fats.
Unroasted argan oil is traditionally used as a treatment for skin diseases and as a cosmetic oil for skin and hair:
"In cosmetics, argan oil is advocated as moisturizing oil, against juvenile acne and flaking of the skin as well as for nourishing the hair. This oil has also medicinal uses against rheumatism and the healing of burns ... Externally, argan oil is used ... for hair as brilliantine, to fortify and ... in the treatment of wrinkled or scaly dry skin".
Argan oil has become increasingly popular for cosmetic use. The number of personal-care products on the US market with argan oil as an ingredient increased from just two in 2007 to over one hundred by 2011. It is sometimes mixed with pomegranate seed oil due to its antioxidizing benefits, with vendors promoting this blend as an all-in-one serum both for skin and hair. Argan oil is also sold without additives as a natural skincare and hair care product.
The increasing popularity of argan oil has prompted the Moroccan government to plan for increased production, with their aim being to increase annual production from approximately 2,500 to 4,000 tonnes by 2020.
The production of argan oil is beginning to have noticeable environmental and social impacts. Argan oil production means that argan trees are now seen as a valuable resource. This has led to their preservation with a knock-on impact on the environment. The labour-intensive nature of argan oil production, now frequently carried out by women’s co-operatives, has provided a steady income for many women and their families, improved the social status of some women and has encouraged producers of other agricultural products to examine the co-operative model.
The Argan tree provides food, shelter and protection from desertification. The tree has deep roots which help prevent desert encroachment. The canopy of the argan tree also provides shade for other agricultural products and its leaves and fruit provide food for animals.
The argan tree also helps landscape stability, helping to prevent soil erosion, providing shade for pasture grasses and helping to replenish aquifers.
Producing argan oil has helped to protect argan trees from being cut down. In addition, regeneration of the Arganeraie has also been carried out: in 2009 an operation to plant 4,300 argan plants was launched in Meskala in the province of Essaouira.
RARBA (Réseau des Associations de la Réserve de Biosphère Arganeraie, Network of Associations of the Argan Biosphere Reserve) was founded in 2002 with the aim of ensuring sustainable development in the Arganeraie.
RARBA has been involved with several major projects, including the Moroccan national anti-desertification programme (Programme National de Lutte contre la desertification (PAN/LCD)). The project involved local populations and helped with improvements to basic infrastructure, management of natural resources, revenue generating activities (including argan oil production), capacity reinforcement and others.
The production of argan oil has always had a socio-economic function. At present, argan oil production supports approximately 2.2 million people in the main argan oil producing region (the Arganeraie).
Much of the argan oil produced today is made by a number of women's co-operatives. Co-sponsored by the Social Development Agency (SDA) with the support of the European Union, the UCFA (Union des Cooperatives des Femmes de l’Arganeraie) is the largest union of argan oil co-operatives in Morocco. It comprises twenty-two co-operatives that are found in other parts of the region (e.g., Coopérative Al Amal, Coopérative Amalou N'Touyag, Coopérative Tissaliwine, Coopérative ArganSense, and Coopérative Maouriga).
Employment in the co-operatives provides women with an income, which many have used to fund education for themselves or their children. It has also provided them with a degree of autonomy in a traditionally male-dominated society and has helped many become more aware of their rights.
The success of the argan co-operatives has also encouraged other producers of agricultural products to adopt the co-operative model.
The establishment of the co-operatives has been aided by support from within Morocco, notably the Fondation Mohamed VI pour la Recherche et la Sauvegarde de l’Arganier (Mohammed VI Foundation for Research and Protection of the Argan Tree, and from international organisations, including Canada’s International Development Research Centre and the European Commission.
Funding has enabled technical support for the production and marketing of argan oil and for technical, professional and personal development of the women involved in the co-operatives.