Depending on who you ask, the definition of kava can vary to a somewhat surprising extent. The New Zealand government states that the term “kava” can refer to the kava plant, the drink prepared from fresh or dried kava root, its use in medicinal products, and acetone or ethanol extracts of the plant for use in medicinal products.
On the other side of the coin, the Pacific Island country of Vanuatu recognizes only the two following meanings of kava:
∙ plants of the species, Piper methysticum
∙ the traditional beverage obtained by cold water extraction of the plant’s underground organs
Vanuatu’s government specifies that “kava products” include dried kava, bark, peelings and makas of kava (maka referring to the “residues remaining after the cold water extraction of the kava plant’s underground organs to obtain the traditional beverage”).
Within kava, noble kava, medicinal kava, and two days/tudei kava are distinguished and treated as three separate entities. Noble kava and medicinal kava are the only ones permissible for sale and noble kava is the only kava permissible for export.
In Vanuatu’s Kava Act of 2007, more detailed regulations surrounding the sale and export of kava can be found including the length of time before it was harvested and the method of cultivation.
The distinctions between Vanuatu’s and New Zealand’s definition of what kava is reflects a disjuncture between what kava truly is and what kava has been perceived or appropriated as. This disjuncture is further deepened and reflected by kava’s association with kratom and/or the association between kava bars and kratom in the U.S.
Kava beverages that are prepared with fresh or dried kava root and water/nut milk are chemically and pharmacologically different than “herbal medicinal products containing kava”, “kava extracts”, “kava paste”, and “kava tinctures.” These products are fundamentally different from the traditional kava beverage that has been consumed for thousands of years in the Pacific Islands.
One specialist in phytochemical analysis points out that, “[c]rudely 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 same goes for ‘kava tea’; the active components of kava are substantially modified and largely destroyed by boiling water, making kava tea a rather less than useful product.”
It is worth pointing out that although Vanuatu bans its sale and export and it is not consumed within the Pacific Islands because of its negative side-effects, tudei kava has somehow found its way outside of the Pacific Islands and in so-called kava products. Tudei kava has been seen by some as vast departure from what is truly and traditionally actually kava—strictly noble kavas.
Alternatively, some have questioned the distinction between noble and tudei kava leading to heated discussion in the kava community arguing that a clear distinction “created an environment in which it became difficult to move forward on important policy and regulatory matters.” Although much research suggests Tudei kava might be associated with negative health risks, another survey stated that “No available evidence suggest that evidence suggests that the known side effects of two-day kava drinking are associated with an increased hepatotoxic risk relative to everyday drinking of beverages made from noble kava cultivars.”
Associations—often baselessly—of kava with kratom, low quality kava bars, and so-called kava products are arguably contributing to the fears and negative perceptions surrounding kava. These associations can paint a fictitious picture of negative health consequences among other falsities about kava.
We have already touched on the association of kava with kratom (or at least kava bars with kratom bars) but this as well the subsequently mentioned associations need to be further investigated in order to begin to decipher the institutional fear of kava and the seemingly false accusations surrounding it.
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