What with all the media hype and misleading studies about kava being damaging to the liver, you might wonder if kava is legal in the United States? It would not be surprising if the FDA had taken similar steps to ban the sale of kava as have health food agencies in Europe, Great Britain and other Western countries. However, contrary to the more common pattern of government overreaction against herbs with a history of safe use, not only is kava legal in the U.S., but the FDA has even examined its safety in clinical studies and issued daily allowance guidelines for the safe use of kava as an herbal supplement.
Concurrent with kava’s spike in popularity in the early 2000s, kava bars started opening up in U.S. states like Hawaii (a traditional center of kava use), California, and even as far east as Florida. U.S. health food stores began to stock their shelves with kava supplements touted as a safe natural route to anxiety and insomnia relief. At the time, the FDA had not conducted any clinical research on the safety or effects of kava: as in Europe, the U.S. sale of kava was relatively open and unregulated. Its murky status in the United States put kava in a vulnerable position in 2001, when studies came out of Germany and Switzerland that linked the use of kava supplements with around 30 cases of liver damage and even liver failure. The impact of the studies on European herbal supplement policy was swift and brutal, with kava being quickly banned for sale in many continental European countries as well as the United Kingdom.
In 2002, Canada and the U.S. followed suit: Health Canada issued a stop-sale order in early 2002, requiring health food stores and companies to withdraw kava products from their shelves, and on February 25th, 2002, the FDA issued a warning that use of kava might potentially cause liver toxicity and damage based on the German studies and similarly restricted its sale. However, for once this wasn’t the final word on kava’s legality in the U.S.: a few years later, numerous studies had come out examining the effects of kava preparations that used only the root— the traditional way to prepare kava uses only the roots extracted into cold water. The results of these later studies seemed to debunk the connection between use of kava and liver damage under traditional kava use guidelines. You can read elsewhere about the factors that may have skewed the original German study, but it suffices to say here that after these fresh results, the FDA decided to conduct a kava safety study of its own in 2005.
Today, the FDA seems to have accepted kava as a dietary supplement with recommended safe dosage amounts of about 290 milligrams per day; a recommendation that sets kava apart from many herbal products marketed as sleep and anti-anxiety aids that lack specific dose recommendations. However, in other respects kava is still relatively unregulated in the United States, as the FDA has only approved it for use as a dietary supplement rather than a medicine or food additive. As a dietary supplement, the FDA has so far issued few requirements for kava vendors regarding the source, ingredients and preparation of their products. Because the FDA hasn’t issued purity control standards for kava products, there is still a potential for U.S. vendors to sell kava products made with unsafe parts of the plant such as the stems and leaves, or extracted with solvents such as acetone and ethanol which can leave behind toxic residues. So even though kava is legal in the U.S., consumers here still have to do the research to make sure they find a reputable kava vendor whose products are both safe and effective.
What should you look for as a customer in your kava vendor? We believe that the more a company tells you about their products, their processing standards, and the sources from which they obtain their kava, the better. You want to find a vendor who specifically states that they only use kava root in their preparation, preferably the lateral root at that (lateral kava root has been shown to have a greater concentration of kavalactones and thus a higher potency). It’s also prudent to look for enhanced extracts and kavalactone paste products that have been made without the use of chemical solvents or alcohol (there is some clinical evidence that kava combined with alcohol may be harmful to the liver). For a traditional preparation, you really can’t beat buying the whole dried or powdered kava root from a vendor: soaking the whole fresh or dried root in water for a few hours (or about 30 to 45 minutes for the powdered form) is the traditional way of preparing kava, and South Pacific islanders have been consuming kava brews in this way safely for hundreds of years.
If you follow these simple guidelines, you can enjoy kava from any United States kava vendor or kava bar, confident in the knowledge that you’re consuming a safe and legal herbal preparation with marked psychological benefits. Relax with some kava that’s grown in the U.S.A and toast the promising future of this invaluable calming herb!
Keith Cleversley (Guest Contributor)