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By Zane Yoshida

Kava and Kratom: Similarities and Differences

Kava is often compared to, and sometimes confused with, kratom. You also see kava and kratom next to each other on health food stores the world over.

But there are some important differences between the two…

Location of origin

First things first; kava and kratom originate from different geographical locations and cultural backgrounds.

Kava hails from the Western Pacific islands like Fiji, Vanuatu, and Hawaii, where it has been interwoven into the fabric of the culture since the beginning of the region’s recorded history.

Kratom, on the other hand, is found in Southeast Asia. It is native to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia etc., where it has also been used by the native populations for many years.

Plant of origin

Kava (Piper Methysticum) and kratom (Mitragyna speciose) come from different families of plants – and different parts of the plants are used in their preparation.

Whereas the kava plant is part of the pepper family of plants (its name means ‘intoxicating pepper’), kratom comes from a tropical, evergreen plant in the coffee family.

The preparation of kava is from the roots of the plant, whereas kratom is prepared from the leaves of its plant.

Traditional and modern usage

Kava was traditionally used as a beverage in important ceremonies and to greet visitors, as well as for various health purposes. It was used in religious ceremonies where the village chief might contact the ancestors. Nowadays it is drunk in social gatherings to relax and unwind; it is usually taken either in traditional beverage form, as a pill supplement, or mixed with water from a powder.

Kratom leaves are still sometimes chewed but are more commonly taken in their dried and powdered form, mixed into water to create a cold beverage or the leaves are made into a tea.

Effects of taking it

Both kava and kratom can induce a sense of euphoria, and may boost energy levels; however, kava may also induce feelings of sleepiness, depending on the type and dosage of the kava taken.

Kratom is a psychoactive drug that can boost energy and make people more socially active; larger doses may also act as a sedative.

Health benefits

Kava and Kratom both have effects that lead to recreational use and use for health purposes. Both have long been used as medicine in the native populations, with workers using kratom as a stimulant to relieve exhaustion and pain, and kava being taken as a relaxant, sedative, pain reliever, and to aid sleep.

Nowadays, kava is well proven to relieve stress and is an alternative anti-anxiety treatment; other uses include treatment for muscle pain and it may even be used in cancer treatment in the future.

Potential dangers and health risks

Kava is gaining more widespread acceptance around the world as its health benefits are increasingly being shown to outweigh the risks –  especially as an anti-anxiety treatment. Dangers to the liver have been well-publicised but are greatly dependent upon the type and amount of kava taken; the vast majority of people who take high quality kava in moderate doses have no problems.

Kratom, on the other hand, is generally more frowned upon and, in many places, regulations are tightening. In the U.S., there is currently a legal battel over a ban. There is less scientific study on kratom than kava, but it is known that Kratom interacts with the brain differently to kava. It behaves more like an opiate drug, whereas kava works on the GABA receptors; it also stimulates the serotonin and norepinephrine receptors, whereas kava stimulates the dopamine receptors.

This means that kratom can be addictive, unlike kava. It has even been used to wean people off heroine, which may be one of the reasons why it has a more negative reputation than kava.

There you go – kava and kratom in a nutshell! As you can see, there are quite a few similarities, but a couple of important differences to bear in mind.

By Zane Yoshida

The Way Forward For Fijian Kava

After the trials faced by the Fijian kava industry in recent months, it was great to see one of our ‘elite’ kava saplings emerge from the lab this week.

Our previous post focused on the present kava shortages. The Fijian kava industry has been hit hard by the devastating cyclone back in March.

This one is all about the way forward for kava, and its bright future.

Rehabilitating the kava industry: an opportunity

As the Fijian kava industry rebuilds, there is an opportunity to establish itself firmly as the world leader in the production of high quality or ‘elite’ kava.

Already known for its high quality amongst Pacific kava-producing nations, steps are being taken to up the ante in quality in Fiji.

As reported in a previous post, South pacific Elixirs has been working with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) on an ‘elite kava’ project that has been co-funded by the Australian Government.

The project, called Development of a mass propagation system for elite varieties of Piper methysticum (kava), is now starting to bear fruit. The photo above, taken in the lab at the University of the South Pacific, is evidence of this.

The project set out to establish a rapid propagation system for clean planting material. Its over-arching aim was to provide world-leading kava quality and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Fiji.

New kava propagation methods

Traditionally, kava propagation uses the stem of the plant to make cuttings. This may increase the risk of disease being passed on from plant to plant.

The production of a disease-free, high quality kava is seen as vital to protecting the future of the kava industry. As exports rise and world attention increasingly focuses on kava as bans are lifted, the need to maintain the highest quality possible is in everybody’s interests.

The stated goal our project is:

“…to develop an efficient and effective propagation system for ensuring a sustained and uniform supply of quality planting material of the selected variety.”

High quality kava cultivars help to eliminate the problem of ‘Kava dieback’. This is a rapidly spreading black soft rot of the stem tissue. Symptoms appear on the leaves a few weeks before the visible rot starts, and it is a problem around the entire Pacific area.

Back in 2005, around 40% of the Fijian kava crop was wiped out. When problems arise, it’s a long way back for the kava industry, because kava does not produce seeds and it takes several years to grow.

When the problems are as severe as those experienced in the wake of Cyclone Winston, a lack of high quality stems available for propagation exacerbates the situation.

Our solution creates tissue cultures that maintain a constant supply of high quality, disease-free new kava plants:

“Once ‘clean’ kava plants are established in the nursery, the growth of axillary buds can be accelerated to produce material from which tissue cultures can be established.”

Since Winston then, the program has taken on new meaning as a way forward for the Fijian kava industry as a whole. We are in the process of training others in these propagation methods so that they can be used more in commercial nurseries.

It’s onwards and upwards for the Fijian kava industry from here- and we are proud to be part of the solution.

By Zane Yoshida

What Factors Affect Kava Quality?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about kava quality. With the lifting of the European ban Pacific nations are more committed than ever to maintaining a high standard of kava for export.

There is considerable vested interest in this too – for the economies of the Pacific nations and the livelihoods of the kava farmers in those nations.

So why the need for kava standards- and what actually affects the quality?

Kava variations

Kava has always varied in quality and farmers have always identified different strains, based on its physical appearance, the brew produced from its roots, and the physical and psychological effects produced by its consumption.

The biggest factor in quality is in the strength and predictability of the kavalactones present in kava, rather than in the physical appearance, which may only differ slightly.

In Vanuatu alone there are an estimated 80 varieties of kava, and Fiji has many other varieties. These are the two largest producing nations in the Pacific.

Kava varieties can be broken down into three basic types:

  • Noble kava
  • ‘Two-days’ kava
  • Wild kavas

In its most basic definition, noble kava is high standard, cultivated kava that can be exported in root or supplement form. It is free from toxins and impurities.

‘Two-days’ kava is a particularly potent strain that is actually prohibited for international export, but which often makes its way onto the market. This can damage the reputation of kava as it may cause nausea and other unpleasant side effects. It is so-called because the effects can last for up to 48 hours.

Wild kava is another inferior type grown in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

What factors affect kava quality?

The overall quality of kava you enjoy in your beverages, shots, capsules, or powder form depends on several factors:

  • The variety
  • The age of the plant (usually should be harvested after 3-5 years of growth)
  • The part of the plant used (roots, stumps, or basal stems)
  • The way it is cultivated (organic or not? Soil fertility and sunshine hours?)
  • The geographic origin

This will all affect the appearance, consistency and, most importantly, the kavalactone content of the kava.

The ‘chemotype’ of the kava describes its chemical make-up and will help you understand more about the kavalactones present in the variety that you take.

As you sit back and relax with a Taki Mai kava shot, you are probably not thinking too much about what’s in that little 3oz shot. You are likely just enjoying the relaxing feeling wash over you.

But its consistent calming effect is because you are enjoying elite kava of the highest quality – and now you know a little more about the factors that make it so.

By Zane Yoshida

What is Elite Kava & Why is the Australian Government Interested?

You know we are always talking about the quality of the elite kava in Taki Mai supplements? Well, this is no empty brag – we can back it up!

Earlier this year the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research produced its final report on the elite kava project co-funded by the Australian Government and South Pacific Elixirs.

The project, called Development of a mass propagation system for elite varieties of Piper methysticum(kava) is raising the bar for kava quality in the South Pacific.

What is the purpose of the ‘Elite Kava’ project?

The project was established to support the development of the kava market in Fiji, through its focus on a rapid propagation system for clean planting material.

This contributes to the wider PARDI (Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative) goals of supporting stronger economic growth in the Pacific, and improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

As the report says:

“Such a system will support the commercial production of a high quality kava extract – essential to secure and maintain markets.”

So the ultimate goal of the project, through maintaining a high quality tissue culture, is:

“…to develop an efficient and effective propagation system for ensuring a sustained and uniform supply of quality planting material of the selected variety.”

The problem of disease

When you see kava growing it looks very hardy and strong. However, like any plant material, it can be susceptible to disease and it is vital for the future of the kava industry to tackle this problem to maintain its reputation.

As the report acknowledges:

“Provision of an adequate and continuous volume of disease-free, good quality planting material is a significant constraint in establishing any commercial kava enterprise. Kava dieback is a problem in many countries in the Pacific, and has been known to wipe out production.”

Kava dieback is a rapidly spreading black soft rot of the stem tissue. Symptoms of Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV) appear on the leaves a few weeks before the visible rot starts.

In Fiji in 2005 around 40% of the crop was wiped out and entire production was devastated in some areas. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that kava does not produce seeds and grows relatively slowly, limiting the number of stem cuttings available for planting.

What were the main project activities?

The threat of disease means that virus testing and tissue culture are important for developing an effective propagation system to generate disease-free kava planting material.

By testing kava stems and confirming that they are disease-free, these stems can be used to create tissue cultures for further propagation:

“Once ‘clean’ kava plants are established in the nursery, the growth of axillary buds can be accelerated to produce material from which tissue cultures can be established.”

Though the word ‘kava’ is widely and generally used for the root of the piper methysticum plant, it actually has many varieties. The project collected planting material of four varieties and soil samples from sites around Levuka, the capital of the island of Ovalau.

Leaf tissue from the kava planting material was tested for disease and two different propagation methods were evaluated, before tissue cultures were established from plants in the screenhouse.

A training workshop was also held in Levuka so that the successful propagation methods could be used in the commercial nursery, and to educate the local industry on early disease detection.

With the adoption of the new propagation method by the commercial nursery, South Pacific Elixirs is proud to be leading the way with elite kava production in Fiji.

Kava is such an important crop for the livelihoods of people of Fiji and the South Pacific that more initiatives like this are needed to keep on raising the bar for kava quality.

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Kava and Kratom: Similarities and Differences
The Way Forward For Fijian Kava
What Factors Affect Kava Quality?
What is Elite Kava & Why is the Australian Government Interested?
How To Grow Kava And Harvest It