top of page

What is Kava?


Authors

Published

June 24, 2024


Unlike most substances reviewed at Drug Science, kava is not simply a drug, but inclusive of wider cultural understandings including practice, therefore defying a narrow definition script.

 

Further confusing this matter are pharmacological preparations and nutraceuticals, together with pop-culture products and ‘culture industry’[i] appropriations, that are often incorrectly called/labeled kava when they are not. This review, while culturally slanted more-so toward a Fijian context, or from a central-Oceania perspective, will clarify what kava is and who has the authority to define it, while also discussing some of the pharmacological preparations and pop-culture products that lead to kava misunderstanding, use harm and regulatory confusion.  

 

Kava is typically explained as either the Piper methysticum plant unique to tropical Pacific Oceania or the beverage made by steeping the crushed roots and basal stump of the kava plant in water.

 

This explanation fails to recognize and acknowledge kava’s cultural complexity informed by 2000+ years of traditional knowledge together with kava’s role as a leading Pacific cultural keystone species[ii] and icon of identity.[iii] Therefore, kava is vastly more than a plant and drink and is recognized as including cultural form and function. This includes its facilitation in facilitating veiyaloni/vā, or relational connection through shared ancestry, cultural practices and social experience underpinned by spiritual and ceremonial exchange, linguistic reflection and medicinal use.[iv] This is further exemplified in that kava is understood to be imbued with, and capable of transferring, mana or spiritual power, giving efficacy to that culturally informed behavioral function.[v] Kava’s sole defining authority, that being 2000+ years of traditional Pacific knowledge, understands the word kava to be both a verb and a noun.

 

There are over 200 cultivars of kava with traditional knowledge categorizing these into four dominant groups: noble, medicinal, tudei (or ‘two day’), and wichmannii. “Of these, only the cultivars classified as noble kava are permitted for export. This restriction is informed by traditional knowledge and reasoned on recognition that the effects produced in the user vary widely, and noble cultivars produce a more desirable and safer experience. In particular, the presence of relatively high kavain content [see psychopharmacology discussion under] is associated with enhanced quality and efficacy of the anxiolytic properties that kava is best known for, while dihydromethysticin and dihydrokavain-forward cultivars produce more overpowering and/or unpredictable effects such as nausea and headaches that can last multiple days."[vi] 

 

Just as the peoples of the Pacific are not homogonous, neither is kava use practice. However, similarities, particularly in cultural practice and medicinal use, can be observed. Kava (Piper methysticum, Figure 1) is typically harvested at three years of age, the roots and basal stump are washed, and in some areas of the Pacific, dried to aid storage and longevity.


Figure 1: Yaqona, Piper methysticum, 3 years of age


Whether in its green or dried state, the rhizome and lateral root are crushed and strained through water in a tanoa or kumete (designated wooden bowl for kava use). The tanoa or kumete also acts as the serving vessel, with kava served in bilo or ipu (cups made from half coconut shells) to drinkers (see Fig. 2). Kava beverage typically looks similar to milky-coffee and tastes slightly peppery with earthy undertones.


Mixing kava in a tanoa / kumete (kava bowl) in Auckland

Figure 2: Mixing kava in a tanoa / kumete (kava bowl) in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. Photographer: Todd M. Henry, 2019.


Kava preparation and consumption often follows established cultural protocols, with drinkers typically sitting cross-legged in a circle on mats on the floor. Cultural etiquette observed during a kava session includes designated times of formal speech and announcements, a serving order based on hierarchy, cobo (a hollow clapping to show respect), drinkers engaging in talanoa or culturally guided discussion aimed at solidifying veiyaloni/vā (relational connection). Kava is a holistic practice inclusive of substance and practice underpinned by respect-based values (see Fig. 3 and 4). As Pacific people have migrated, they have taken their kava-culture with them, with kava use and its related cultural practices continuing within Pacific diasporic communities. This has also influenced kava use among non-Pacific people, some who not only use kava to facilitate socialization and as an alternative to alcohol, but also observe aspects of the traditional kava-use practice, particularly that which facilitates talanoa and builds veiyaloni/vā.[ix]


Figure 3: Kava drinking rural Fiji.

Figure 4: Urban kava drinking in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand


Based on research and observations from a variety of Pacific and European counties, ‘typical’ individual kava use consumption volume and duration have been identified as 3.6 litres (6.33 pints) of kava beverage over six hours.[x] This ‘average’ has been used in a small number of clinical trials where data was collected in naturalist, or traditionally informed kava use, settings.[xi] Even at these high consumption volumes consumed over an extended period – including daily use for weeks on end – in which users often ingest over 5000mgs of kavalactones (explained shortly) per sitting, kava is not associated with health risks or adverse side-effects including addiction.[xii]


Concluding comment

The Journal of Drug Science, Policy and Law [xiii] paper which addresses kava myths and the reasoning behind these is clear that no drug substance, including kava, is harm-free. However, when kava’s extremely low level of harm is taken into consideration[xiv], together with its regulation as a ‘food’[xv] when guided by 2000+ years of traditional Pacific knowledge and the Kava Codex Alimentarius,[xvi] “the weight-of-evidence from both a long history of use” is clear that kava can “be consumed with an acceptably low level of health risk."[xvii] Threatening kava’s safe reputation is mis- and disinformation and the conflation of this safe cultural keystone species with Piper methysticum nutraceuticals and extracts, and/or Piper methysticum pop-culture products adulterated with other drug substances, unintended/inappropriate use methods and selected practices encouraged by the ‘culture industry’.



 

[i]

  • Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2002). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception (Chapter 4). In M. Horkheimer & T. W. Adorno (Eds.), Dialectic of enlightenment: Philosophical fragments (1 ed., pp. 94-136). California: Stanford University Press.

[ii]

  • Garibaldi, A., & Turner, N. (2004). Cultural keystone species: implications for ecological conservation and restoration. Ecology and Society, 9(3), 1-18.

[iii]

  • Lebot, V., Merlin, M., & Lindstrom, L. (1992). Kava: The Pacific drug. (Psychoactive Plants of the World Series). New Haven: Yale University Press.

[iv]

  • Aporosa, A. (2019). Kava and ethno-cultural identity in Oceania. In S. Ratuva (Ed.), The Palgrave handbook of ethnicity. (pp. Ch. 98. pp.1923-1937). London: Springer-Nature. (Permanent link https://hdl.handle.net/10289/12377)

[v]

  • Turner, J. W. (1986). "The water of life": Kava ritual and the logic of sacrifice. Ethnology, 25(3), 203-214. (p. 203)

  • Aporosa, A. (2019). Kava and ethno-cultural identity in Oceania. In S. Ratuva (Ed.), The Palgrave handbook of ethnicity. (pp. Ch. 98. pp.1923-1937). London: Springer-Nature. (p. 1924-1925, Permanent link https://hdl.handle.net/10289/12377)

[vi]

  • Bian, T., Corral, P., Wang, Y., Botello, J., Kingston, R., Daniels, T., . . . Xing, C. (2020). Kava as a clinical nutrient: Promises and challenges. Nutrients, 12(10), 3044. (p. 4-5)

[vii]

  • Aporosa, S. (2008). Yaqona and education in Fiji: A clash of cultures? Germany: VDM Verlag. (p. 21).

[viii]

  • Singh, Y. N. (2004b). Botany and ethnobotany of kava. In Y. N. Singh (Ed.), Kava: From ethnology to pharmacology (Medicinal and Aromatic Plants - Industrial Profiles Volume 37) (pp. 50-75). Boca Raton: CRC Press. (p. 61).

[ix]

  • Aporosa, S. (2015). The new kava user: Diasporic identity formation in reverse. New Zealand Sociology, 30(4), 58-77.

[x]

  • Aporosa, S., & Tomlinson, M. (2014). Kava hangover and gold-standard science. Anthropologica (Journal of the Canadian Anthropology Society), 56(1), 163-175. (p. 165).

[xi]

  • Aporosa, S. A., Atkins, M., & Brunton, R. (2020). Kava drinking in traditional settings: Towards understanding effects on cognitive function. Journal of Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 35(2), e2725.

  • Aporosa, S. A., Ballard, H., Pandey, R., & McCarthy, M. J. (2022). The impact of traditional kava (Piper methysticum) use on cognition: Implications for driver fitness. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 291(115080), 1-15.

  • Aporosa, S. A., Hébert-Losier, K., & Aughton, H. (2022). Traditional kava use and body sway: A pilot investigation. Pacific Health Dialog: The Journal of Pacific Research, 21(10), 683-692.

[xii]

  • Aporosa, S. A. (2019). De-mythologizing and re-branding of kava as the new ‘world drug’ of choice. Journal of Drug Science, Policy and Law, 5, 1-13.

  • Aporosa, A. S., & Foley, E. (2020). De-mythologizing and re-branding the traditional drink kava. Research Outreach (113), 106-109. (Permanent link: https://hdl.handle.net/10289/13568).

[xiii]

  • Aporosa, S. A. (2019). De-mythologizing and re-branding of kava as the new ‘world drug’ of choice. Journal of Drug Science, Policy and Law, 5, 1-13. (p. 6-7)

[xiv]

  • Bonomo, Y., Norman, A., Biondo, S., Bruno, R., Daglish, M., Dawe, S., . . . Castle, D. (2019). The Australian drug harms ranking study. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 33(7), 759-768. (p.764).

  • Abbott, P. (2016). Kava: A review of the safety of traditional and recreational beverage consumption (Technical Report). Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization. (p.26)

[xv]

[xvi]

  • WHO. (2023). Regional standard for Kava products for use as a beverage when mixed with water, CXS 336R-2020, Codex Alimentarius International Food Standards. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization, Rome.

[xvii]

  • Abbott, P. (2016). Kava: A review of the safety of traditional and recreational beverage consumption (Technical Report). Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization. (p. 26)

Keep up with developments in drug science

Reading, engaging with, and sharing our publications, papers and commentary gives evidence-based science and policy the audience it needs and deserves.

bottom of page