This three-part series has been investigating the disconnect between the centuries-long history of safe kava beverage consumption and the alleged risks and negative health effects associated with kava outside of the Pacific Islands.
Alleged negative side effects of kava appear in stark contrast to the relatively safe history the kava beverage has had in the Pacific Islands for thousands of years. Upon a closer look at these allegations, they often appear to be the result of shoddy investigations or referring to something that is not necessarily kava per se.
So what’s the deal? Was kava toxic all along and Pacific Islanders developed some sort of immunity to it? Obviously, this is not the case. Rather, kava’s relatively recent introduction to markets outside the Pacific Islands combined with the rapidly increasing demand for kava outside the Pacific Islands has resulted in issues with quality assurance. Moreover in addition to shoddy investigations, it turns out the “kava” those reports claimed were toxic were not necessarily kava at all.
The first part of the series focused on quality assurance, the second part focused on the different kinds of “kava” on the market, and this third and final part delves a bit deeper on a specific type of so-called kava on the market—organic solvent extracts of kava.
Traditionally and throughout history within the Pacific Islands, the kava beverage has been prepared by mashing the fresh or dried root of the kava plant with water and then strained and consumed. Thus, it has always been a “water extract.” This process can be seen as tedious and time-consuming. The kava is also not sustainable in this state and must be consumed immediately upon preparation. Although studies on how to prolong the shelf-life of kava are underway, it is currently the case that “kava beverages are highly perishable even under refrigerated conditions.”
Rather than solely a ceremonial or social beverage, kava has been appreciated and arguably even appropriated and exploited by the Western market for its pharmacological effects through the creation and sale of health/dietary supplements and alternative/complementary medicine. These alternative medicines are often products that contain kava extract—particularly kava that has been extracted with organic solvents like acetone or ethanol. Currently, “the vast majority of medicinal products available to consumers in the form of dietary supplements use kava organic extracts as the active ingredient.”
When the kava has been extracted this way, a much higher kavalactones concentration can be obtained than with a water extract and the kava can then be preserved for longer and used in alternative medicinal products and the like.
However, kava extracted with organic solvents is a relatively new phenomenon and does not have the centuries-long history that the traditional kava beverage has. As such, it has not yet been proven to be completely safe and has been linked to several of the negative health reports associated with kava.
Organic solvent extracts of kava are chemically compositionally different than water extracts of kava and thus have a different effect on the body when consumed and result in different reactions. For instance, there is a lack of amino acids—which play an important role in the metabolism of kavalactones— in organic solvent extracts of kava which can result in toxicity and possible tissue damage in users with genetic deficiencies. Furthermore, “chemicals other than kava lactones might be responsible for hepatotoxicity with the organic extracts.” In other words, some other part of the product containing organic solvent extracts of kava could be responsible for the alleged negative health effects and it is difficult to disentangle the exact causality.
A WHO report on kava mentioned that organic solvent extracts of kava appear to contribute to the unsafety associated with kava generally noting that “risk factors for hepatic reactions appear to be the use of organic extracts, heavy alcohol intake, pre-existing liver disease, genetic polymorphisms of cytochrome P450 enzymes and excessive dosages [and] co-medication with other potentially hepatotoxic drugs, particularly anxiolytics, antipsychotics, and antithrombotics, might lead to harm.”
A report on kava from the New Zealand government directly concluded that “traditional methods of preparation in water are considerably safer than kava prepared in organic solvents (ethanol, acetone, and hexane)”
Since organic solvent extracts of kava are not proven to be completely safe, are compositionally different than water extracts of kava, and have arguably been tainting the reputation of the traditional kava beverage, the question remains: Why are they still on the market? And why were they ever on the market in the first place?
Although there are safety concerns with organic solvent extracts of kava and products containing these extracts, they are generally far significantly safer than pharmaceutical alternatives. BUT, the aqueous/water extracts of kava and the traditional kava beverage are the safest and have little to no negative health effects when prepared properly and are not consumed with any other substances that can also create an atypical or negative chemical and bodily reaction ( for example, like caffeine or alcohol).
A more antagonistic perspective could argue that the Western market desired a way to capitalize on the pharmacology of kava and thus needed to produce and package it in a way that was sustainable as well as was familiar to Western consumers—as a pill, for instance. It is possible that the traditional kava beverage would not be seen as an acceptable alternative medicine because of its atypical presentation as well as its perishability. Subsequently, kava needed to be repackaged and presented in a way that suited the Western market and consumers and at least gave the façade of the ability to be regulated. Perhaps consumers felt that taking a pill was a more legitimate, effective, and convenient alternative medicine than preparing and consuming a beverage made from kava root and water?
Delving into the many shapes and forms “kava” takes outside the Pacific Islands can shed some light on the alleged negative health effects associated with it and aid in the understanding of the disjuncture between the safety associated with kava within the Pacific Islands and the alleged dangers associated with kava outside the Pacific Islands. Although this disjuncture can likely be attributed to factors beyond what was discussed in this three-part series—for instance, a rejection of a cultural product stemmed from discriminatory or racist policies (this topic is also worth further investigation)—this series found that the disjuncture can also largely be attributed to quality assurance and to the fact that the “kava” a lot of these negative health reports reference is not actually kava at all.
The fact that a product contains Piper methysticum does not mean that the product is kava. Analyst Garry Stoner of TK Labs emphasizes this point stating that, “To start, we can immediately eliminate ‘kava extracts’, ‘kava paste’, and ‘kava tinctures’. If you've tried one of these, you've experienced a product that is as much like kava as Red Bull is like coffee. Crudely extracting some of the active components of a plant (along with many undesirable ones) with a highly volatile solvent is a long-standing Western tradition often touted as an ‘improvement’, but in the case of kava nothing could be further from the truth.”
The analyst brings the point home concluding that “if it was in the form of an extract, tea, or contained a two-day cultivar in any form, you haven't experienced true kava; you've only experienced a Western perversion of a fine South Pacific tradition.”
By understanding this reality, we can begin to clear the name of an important part of Pacific Islander culture and truly bring justice to kava.
End of Part 3/3
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