The kava beverage has infused Pacific Islander culture for thousands of years and is still an important part of their history, rituals, and social life. Notably, it has safely been consumed with the population suffering little to no negative side effects.
As kava began to permeate the world outside the Pacific Islands, negative health effects supposedly caused by “kava” began to permeate the world along with it. Claims accusing kava of negative effects ranging from toxicity and liver failure all the way to death sprouted up as “kava” became more widespread.
Through a three part series, the next three kava conversations will investigate the disjuncture between the evidently safe kava within the Pacific Islands and the alleged risks and negative health effects associated with kava outside the Pacific Islands.
One new kava user wrote an op-ed on kava reviewing the the understandably alarming cases of liver toxicity associated with kava products reported to the FDA and talked to several owners of kava bars who were “quick to dismiss the safety concerns.”
Although the traditional kava beverage has its long history of safe use in the Pacific Islands, blindly dismissing the reports of toxicity without further understanding or explanation—especially to the new and uninformed kava user—is harmful both the user and to the kava industry. Some responses from kava bar owners were helpful and specific saying that, “if it’s made in the traditional way — extracting the kavalactones with water, using only the Noble variety, using only the plant’s roots — kava is safe.”
However some kava bar owners used meaningless and arguably harmful rhetoric stating that “After 14 years of investigation, the FDA hasn’t found a causal relationship between kava and liver dysfunction” going on to say “And of course they allow it to continue to be sold, so that’s very telling in and of itself how serious that link is.” Researching and actually proving a causal relationship is virtually impossible in the scientific world. And stating the FDA allowing kava to be sold is also virtually meaningless. The FDA has allowed an endless number of unsafe products to remain on the market for far too long and, in any case, it is not the supreme authority for safeguarding the population against every single unsafe consumable on the market—that sort of supreme authority does not exist. This sort of rhetoric that came from some kava bar owners was arguably as meaningless as some of the vague and unbacked claims of institutions trying to ban kava.
The author of the op-ed describes the struggle of walking along the disjuncture between the long and safe history of kava in the Pacific Islands and its reports of toxicity outside the Pacific Islands. They continue to struggle to find the harmony between their newfound love of the kava beverage and their concerns over the very real dangers of quality-control in the kava market and possible contamination.
The author notes that, “[a]s a hard-working Manhattanite who over-stresses about pretty much everything, of course I wanted to try the drink, which promises relaxation.” In order to save money, they began to make their kava beverage at home with kava powder bought online. They go on to say, “I began worrying about the kava I had just consumed. What if my stomach couldn’t take it because the kava root was contaminated with molds? What if it had heavy metals, and I didn’t know? I’m really picky about my food, so why in the world was I trusting a random vendor on Amazon?”
Kava bars in the U.S. typically don’t produce kava themselves—there are rare exceptions like Modernesian Kava Social—and the responsibility for ensuring their kava is safe falls on the shoulders of the kava vendors. They are not required by law to test it, but the good ones do in order to make sure their product is free from contaminants like mold, heavy metals, or dangerous bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella.
The author concludes their poignant op-ed saying, “Though I enjoy the relaxing feeling kava gives me at the end of the day, those cases of skin rashes, hepatitis, and liver failure never leave the back of my head as I’m sipping. What if the kava I’m served at a bar contains heavy metals or liver-damaging molds? There’s no real way to know. Right now, I have to blindly trust kava bar owners to source their kava from a reliable farmer in the South Pacific and run the adequate safety tests.”
The new kava user poignantly expressed the struggle of walking navigating through the mixed messages surrounding kava and their desire to consume kava beverages necessitated a “blind trust” in kava bar owners in the hopes that they were getting a safe and high-quality kava beverage. This brings us to the issue of quality control in the kava world.
As already discussed, alleged negative health effects from kava have been attributed to contamination from inedible parts of the kava plant, tudei kava as well as contamination from toxic metals or mold. It is noted that “kava is grown in tropical countries that are hot and humid, so if it’s not stored properly, dangerous molds can grow, (including aflatoxins that are known to damage the liver and cause cancer in people).” Kava is regulated by the FDA as a dietary supplement which means that it does not have to be proven safe in order to go on to the market nor do manufacturers have to get the FDA’s approval before producing or selling the products.
In a review of the safety of kava, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that the “risks” associated with kava came from the fact that there was a “high level of variability in relation to kava beverage preparation, composition, and consumption” and that “there is also a significant body of evidence based on long-term use and more recent research results that indicate is should be possible to establish parameters to ensure a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of kava beverage.” In other words, the WHO concluded that with the proper quality controls, it is possible to ensure that drinking kava is completely safe.
The parameters specified by the WHO were the following:
Kava, when prepared properly as the traditional kava beverage, should be completely safe. However, it is up to kava vendors and kava bar owners to ensure the kava they are providing to consumers is safe and high-quality and does not contain any contaminants.
When kava bar owners are not the kava farmers themselves or have a lot of distance from the kava farmers, this can be a difficult task. Not all kava beverages are created equally. As such, kava lovers should go to just any of the abundance of kava bars increasingly popping up, but make a conscious and informed decision when choosing which vendor to purchase their kava from and which kava bars to drink their kava at.
End of Part 1/3
Comments will be approved before showing up.