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Kava Drinkers: Beware of Free-Range Kava, Bar Owner Warns

Aficionados of kava -- a drink made from the kava root, which is said to have a mild sedative effect -- are warning of ill effects from kava gathered in the wild. Apparently, free-range kava is to be avoided and carefully cultivated varieties the way to go.

Echoing a scare earlier in the millennium over the Polynesian root and, like that one, concerned with the potential for liver damage, ethical kava bar owners are now making sure they know their suppliers and the identity and consistency of their product.

See also: Try the Inebriating Elixir Before It's Banned

We learned of the kava kerfuffle courtesy of an old friend who owns and operates an out-of-state kava bar for which he regularly travels to the South Pacific to cultivate his sources and drink deep of kava lore.

In a recent Facebook chat, he spilled the beans, saying he was getting static from certain parts of the South Florida kava community for "posting on a forum about the dangers of selling/drinking kava that contains flavokawain-B (biochemistry type stuff)."

"Is that a current issue in the kava universe?" we inquire.

"Huge," he writes. "Something that everyone in the industry should want known, for the sake of protecting it, and our incomes. But a quick buck is more important to some people than long-term longevity."

Ever the curious type, we google "flavokawain-B."

Lo and behold, we find this article from the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. The gist? "Our data identify FKB as a potent GSH-sensitive hepatotoxin [like, bad for the liver], levels of which should be specifically monitored and controlled in kava-containing herb products."

Back to our kava bar buddy, who writes:

Exactly. Noble varieties do not contain any significant amount of FKB, whereas wild ones do. And guess which ones are cheaper to get -- the ones that grow on their own, or take cloning and cultivation?

That is the problem they ran into in Europe a decade ago, when the pharm extractors were simply buying kava biomass without regard for type. But now that we know more, it is our responsibility to do things properly.

And by "properly," our buddy means:

Notice that article is from 2010... They have yet to publish the findings about [flavokawain-B] not occurring in noble types, but happening in other varieties. Yet, since 2002 the Kava Act in Vanuatu forbid the export of all non-noble kavas, because they knew from hundreds of years of use that they are not good kavas. Dr. Lebot [a leading kava expert of long standing and solid credentials] finally has an HP-TLC machine, but needs funding to get it online, to test all kava for FKB.

As for the heat our buddy's getting for taking the FKB issue public (even just semi-public), he writes:

I have my suspicions that, apparently, he/they (?) has/have a huge stock from PNG (Papua New Guinea) that is not a "noble" strain, and do not want people to know it is not recommended to drink it. PNG does not have kava drinking as a native practice in its culture, because it does not have any native noble strains of kava, so the government has no incentive to regulate the safety. So people will likely go there for cheap kava, until FDA places restrictions on its import.

His parting words? "Be careful the kava you drink! South FLA is a screwy environment for it."

So... we called around to a couple of local kava bars for comment.

One hasn't got back to us. Another did, one we're familiar with from its earliest days, West Palm's long-running, laid-back, family-friendly Purple Lotus, where owner Jim Scianno has been scooping bowls of root brew since 2006. As he tells it, he's been all over the FKB issue.

Scianno says he has "a good relationship" with his supplier, one he's "used since we opened." His kava "comes from Vanuatu", where they "protect their standard and only provide certain strains that [kava-wonk alert] come off the main crown, no lateral roots."

Scianno cautioned us against inferior product. "The wild form," he said, "they just rip it out of the woods and sell it as kava. It's a similar plant but not good."

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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