Coconut Features

September 1996

By Brian L. Dear
Herbal marketers are astir these days because they think they're on the verge of a new hit product. The herb itself, kava, isn't anything new --- some cultures have known about and used it for millennia. But recently a number of American companies have begun to call it the next big sensation.

"The market is just about to take off -- just wait a few months," says Bill Brevoort of East Earth Herbs in Eugene, Oregon. East Earth sells the Jade line of herbal products, including some kava-based ones. "You haven't seen anything yet," he says enthustastically.

Talk to enough herbal vendors and they start sounding like Hollywood agents. It's as if kava were the next Paul Newman, or Robert de Niro, or Arnold Swartzenegger.

"We are very bullish on kava," says Cheryl Richitt, vice president of marketing at Natrol, Inc. "It's poised to be the next hottest garlic, ginkgo, or ginseng." Natrol just recently announced Kavatrol, and is running ads in the September 1996 issue of Prevention magazine.

"We think kava is going to be huge," says Chris Kilham, a marketing consultant and co-founder of Pure World Botanicals, as well as the author of Kava: Medicine Hunting in Paradise, a just-published book (See sidebar below for more on the book.) Says Kilham, "We think it's going to go completely bonkers. It's going to be a ginkgo, a melatonin. In fact, we're counting on it."

In addition to his work for Pure World, Kilham runs Cowboy Marketing, Inc., out of Lincoln, Massachusetts. (For an interesting profile on Kilham, read the 1995 Boston Globe article that featured him.) One of Kilham's gigs is product evangelism. "People pay me to talk for eleven minutes and get a crowd of 4000 people to stand on their feet and jump and rave and cheer," he says. He'll be coming to San Diego soon to speak at a Multi-Level Marketing conference. "You know the MLM technique, it's 'psych out and sell'? Well, I'm the hitter they bring in to do a psych job," he says. His objective: "get people blood-curdlingly, insanely psyched" about a product so they'll go out and sell.

His book mentions his ties to Pure World, and the Pure World sales materials use the same photos that appear in the book. Kilham is absolutely convinced kava is going to be a winner. "It's why I wrote my book," he explains. "When kava goes bonkers I want my book to be the Bible!"

Piper methysticum, growing in Vanuatu.
Photo by C. Kilham

Background on Kava

One cannot study the cultures of the Pacific Islands for long without coming across kava, the drink of choice all over the Pacific. Even a brief browse of books on the Pacific Islands shelf in the travel section of your local library or bookstore will yield mention of kava (also known as kavakava, sakau, yaqona, yanggona, awa -- they're all pretty much the same thing).

Traditional kava is a beverage made from the pulverized roots of a pepper plant botanically known as Piper methysticum. The roots are chewed or otherwise ground up and then placed in a bowl (sometimes a large ceremonial vessel in the more traditional settings), and then coconut half-shells are dipped into the bowl to scoop up a cup of the stuff, and then it is drunk.

On some islands, you first must clap before you gather the shell in both hands and drink it. It's drunk down in a single gulp. By all accounts, it's advisable to drink it in one big gulp, as it is a bit, well, unusual-tasting.

Kava has a reputation among Westerners -- and even among many native Pacific Islanders who drink it often -- for tasting very, very bad.

How bad?

A little research turned up some, er, juicy quotes:

"It tastes really, incredibly, phenomenally, STRONGLY GROSS! It makes me shudder just to think about the taste."

"Let me tell you, this stuff tastes god-awful!"


"The stuff was very slimey and very muddy. It was sort of like drinking dirty phlegm."

"It tastes like sawdust (definitely an aquired taste)!"

"Like chalk swimming in body sweat"

"It tastes like dirty water with a hint of clove."

Paul Theroux wrote about kava in his book The Happy Isles of Oceania (Fawcett, ISBN 0-449-90858-5). What words did he choose to describe when he brought up the subject of kava? "Revolting" and "horrible," among others.

* * *

So what's kava really like? Let's first take a look at the real thing in the real setting.

Experiencing Kava:
The Natural Way

To get the real experience, one must travel to Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, or any one of the many Pacific Islands where the natural herb is consumed. In many villages only men are allowed to participate: the traditional taboo held that women drinking kava might weaken its (or perhaps really the mens'?) power. But this is changing.

It's just not the same unless you drink kava out of a coconut shell. To drink it in anything else would be like drinking a fine wine out of a paper cup. Hence, one will often hear kava measured in "shells" as in "I had five shells of the stuff".

"Its first effect (after a successful effort to keep it down) is a slight numbing of the back of the throat," says Stan Combs, who has written a wonderful photo essay on Kava and the people of Vanuatu. Combs lived in Vanuatu for a number of years and his stories and observations are enlightening.

Successive shells increase the effect until one reaches a state of being, well, as Pink Floyd would put it, "comfortably numb." But unlike the story told in the rock song, the kava experience is not done to shut one out of the world. Quite the opposite. Over and over again you'll hear kava enthusiasts tell you how it brings the world in.

Theoroux described his experience this way:

I sat and clapped a little as he handed me the shell --- and drank it down in a gulp -- then handed the empty shell back and clapped again. It had a revolting taste. It was lukewarm, and it had the slightly medicinal flavor of mouthwash to which some mud had been added. There was nothing alcoholic in it, though there was a mild afterburn and a hint of licorice.

With the first shell my lips were numb and my tongue was furry. The second shell deadened my tongue and killed my facial nerves. Successive shells paralyzed my legs, reaching my toes first then numbing my shanks.

Kava is gentle and does not bring out agressiveness. Writes Combs: "Ni-Vanuatu women prefer their men to drink kava because they come home, want sex, and then fall asleep; while a night of alcohol drinking can end with a wife-beating." He adds: "While some Christian denominations have attempted to stamp out kava drinking since the arrival of their first missionaries, others quietly encourage its use as a less-harmful substitute for alcohol."

Theroux had this to say on the subject:

No one ever went haywire and beat up his wife after bingeing on yanggona. No one ever staggered home from a night around the kava bowl and thrashed his children, or insulted his boss, or got tattooed, or committed rape. The usual effect after a giggly interval was the staggers and then complete paralysis.."

In the island nation of Vanuatu, which is generally acknowledged to be the place where kava-drinking got its start, most towns and villages have one or more nakamals, or "kava bars". A nakamal's facilities might range from a fancy Western-style bar or lounge, to a shed or hut or lean-to with a dirt floor.

In the nakamal, the pounded, strained kava liquid is served in a large bowl. Who gets to drink first is determined by one's social status. One fills up the coconut shell and down the hatch it goes. Often, the coconut shell is shared among the group. (More than one travel book advises tourists to bring their own shell --- to avoid hepatitis!)

Inside a nakamal in Vanuatu.
Photos by C. Kilham

The drinking is a ceremony, a special time, usually at sundown, after a hard day's work. "Kava time" on some islands is like "tea time" in England. Just as important, just as essential a part of daily life.

In the ninteenth century, the missionaries viewed kava as "the devil's drink" and attempted to wipe out its use in many island communities. On a few islands they succeeded and the nakamals were closed down for good. On others, only for a short while. On still others, the villagers steadfastly refused to give up a tradition spanning thousands of years just to appease some appalled foriegners.

On Hawaii, kava, known in Hawaiian as "awa" (pronounced like "kava" without the initial "k"), was largely wiped out by the missionaries. The tradition continues, however, among a few groups on the islands. "Most local folks know very little about kava and its use," says Gary, the owner of Kava Kauai, a kava vendor on the island of Kauai. "I put together a kava stand at a local canoe race recently. I had a nice place set up for folks to come in and drink a cup and relax for free. Then I sold them some kava if they wanted. I hope to be going to more cultural events to promote the use of kava."

Experiencing Kava:
The American Way

Alas, this writer could not get to Vanuatu to try kava in its natural setting, form, and potency. The next best thing? Unfortunately, the next best thing is, by all accounts, so different than the real thing, one wonders why they still call it kava.

In the United States, if you want to buy kava, you have a couple of choices. Contact a mail-order company, buy it on the web, or buy it in a health-foods grocery store. But you won't usually buy kava the way one gets it in, say, Vanuatu. Instead of a purchasing a bundle of raw plant roots, you'll typically get it in a bottle, around which most vendors apply a "tamper-proof" plastic seal with an inscription such as, "sealed for your protection."

This writer's first kava experience was from buying a baggie of kava powder from The Herb Shoppe in San Diego.

I found the Herb Shoppe to be a small, rather dimly lit store with a stimulating potpourri of herbal aromas in the air. Many glass containers of potions and powders lined the shelves. Towards the back of the shop was a large glass jar of kava powder. I hadn't expected it to be the color of sand -- indeed, I thought it might be sand. I bought two ounces for about five bucks. I asked the lady behind the counter if she had any suggestions on how to best prepare the kava for use. She apparently didn't know, and glared a terrified look at me which seemed to say, "My god, you're not really going to use this stuff are you?" Finally she spoke up and warned me, "Just take a tiny bit! Please, be careful! It will make you hallucinate!"

Hallucinate? The last thing I wanted to do was hallucinate. I had never heard about hallucinations with kava. I thought kava was supposed to be as mild as say, coffee, but instead of coffee's stimulation, kava offered relaxation. Now I was confused. I assumed this lady simply didn't know her kava from her java and decided to proceed.

When I got home I went to the kitchen, got out one of my ceramic "Aloha" coconut cups (got a pair of them at a bar years ago -- finally, a use for them), got some cheesecloth, and prepared my first kava drink. I took a tablespoon of kava powder, placed it in the center of a piece of cheesecloth, wrapped the cloth into a ball, and dipped it in a cup of water. Then I strained the bundle into my ceramic cup. As if I were reusing a teabag to make a stronger cup of tea, I repeated this step several times, to get as much out of the kava powder as I could.

And then I clapped and took a sip of the liquid. It looked like the kind of water one might call the plumber for when it comes out of the faucet: dirty, pale brown, and entirely unappealing.

The taste was not horrible. Nor was it slimy, or atrocious, or gross. It just tasted like dirty water.

I felt no numbness of lips or tongue, nor did I feel a calming effect, not much of anything.

My dog sat on the floor looking up at me, his head tilted, wondering why I was clapping to myself. Good question. I was starting to feel like a fool.

I prepared two more cups over the next hour, and down the hatch they went. I was fascinated to discover that each successive cup of the muddy liquid tasted worse than the last! It was as if my system were telling me, yuck! No good! Stop!

After the third cup, and no change or effect, I figured I was right the first time: this was a bag of sand.

* * *

My second kava experience was quite different. This time I ordered several products from a web site called Kava Kauai, located at I ordered a jar of Bee Mellow, a combination of honey and kava powder. I also ordered an eight-ounce bag of "Waka Kava", which I was told was the strongest kava you could get from Fiji. And third, I ordered a jar of "Kava / Licorice Extract", not really knowing what that would be like.

The Kava Kauai package arrived only a few days later (see photo below). I was a bit confused by the fact that the package was marked "Fragile" not once but twice, yet the parcel itself was simply one of those yellow envelopes with a thin lining of bubbles inside. Hardly enough to afford dependable protection from the dainty hands of the U.S. Postal Service.

Along with the three products I'd ordered was a single-sheet flyer/brochure and a handwritten note thanking me for my order and offering a few serving suggestions. A nice touch. Something you probably won't get from the big corporate establishments.

The Bee Mellow concoction ("my own recipe", Gary, proprietor of Kava Kauai, told me) came in a small white jar, not unlike a jar of boot wax or shoe polish. I opened it up and thought, hmm, perhaps this is shoe polish. The thick, gooey, brownish stuff inside had stuck a bit to the lid, so when I unscrewed the lid and began to pull it away, a baby tornado-shaped funnel of Bee Mellow tried to stay attached. I ate a spoonful of the stuff and immediately noticed this was much stronger than the powder from the local herb shop. There was a trace of numbness right away, but the sweetness of the honey was intense and tended to overwhelm the kava flavor (perhaps that's intentional!). My tongue struggled to deal with the kava powder's bitterness mixed with the honey's sweetness, the two blended together with the sticky consistency of peanut butter. An interesting experience. Not really that bad, actually. The Bee Mellow did make me feel a bit fuzzy but I firmly believe that was from the sugar in the honey. I always get (uncomfortably) fuzzy when I ingest a lot of sugar -- I don't like the feeling at all.

The Zip-Loc bag of powder was enclosed in a second Zip-Loc bag, along with a sheet of paper labelled "PREPERATION [sic] OF KAVA FOR BEVERAGE" that contained instructions for preparing a kava drink the traditional way, or a more "modern" way --- with a blender.

Feeling somewhat modern one day, I chose the blender method. I put two tablespoons of the powder and two cups of water into the blender, and blended on "high" for two minutes, as per the instructions. I strained through more cheesecloth, put the pulp back into the blender, added another cup of water, blended again, strained again, and presto, wound up with 3 cups of dirty brown water. "Mix all your liquid together and enjoy," the instructions suggested, so I did.

Mix them together, that is.

I can't say I enjoyed it.

Again, it tasted like, well, dirt and water. By now the taste of kava was as familiar as the taste of coffe. Even the smell of the powder was distinctive. "It grows on you," one kava vendor told me. I concur.

However, my earlier discovery held: each successive cup of the grog tasted worse. I don't know why. I kept thinking, "why am I doing this?"

After asking around, it was clear I was going to hear the same thing over and over: "Oh, you didn't drink enough of it. Drink more!"

* * *

My third kava experience differed again from the others. I tried two tinctures, one from Kava Kauai, and one from Pure World Botanicals. Both arrived in the same form: a small one-ounce bottle with a dropper on top. The Kava Kauai potion was a mix of kava root extract and "Glycyrrhiza glabra", which I understood to be licorice. Oh, both in a "40% grain alcohol" solution, according to the label. The label's suggested serving? "2 to 5 dropper fulls".

The PureWorld product was billed as being pure kava, 4500mg kavalactones in the bottle. Its grain alcohol content was higher. If you held the bottle up to a light, tilted it horizontally, and looked closely, you can see bits of leaves and other "chunks" through the dark glass. I assume this is the kava root. Made me a little less enthusiastic to ingest the stuff!

These extracts were unpleasant to ingest directly. And only a bit less pleasant to ingest in a cup of water. Both made me feel a tiny bit sleepy. The KavaPure stuff, if you take enough of it, will create a sense of numbness in the mouth. But is it worth it? What was the point? For seekers of the nakamal experience, tinctures are simply not the way to go. For stressed consumers simply seeking a way to calm down, the dietary supplement capsules may offer a better solution.

"The liquid extracts are the easiest to make," says Gary Friedman of Cosmopolitan Trading a.k.a Kava Kompani, in Seattle. He argues that these tinctures are not the best way to have kava. "The best delivery is in the soft gels," he says, "and the race is on for the soft gel market."

* * *

Why, I don't know, but I decided to experiment. I found that adding a bit of the kava extract to the liquid made from the powder did wonders. The Kava Kauai powder wasn't all powder -- there were many small pieces and tiny chunks of root interspersed with the powder. The kava extract affected them in minutes, made them mushy if not completely dissolved.

I even tried mixing a little bit of water, chocolate syrup, and coconut milk to the Bee Mellow, stirring them all up, and tasting the results. Just imagine a little bit of sawdust flavor added to the flavor of chocolate cake icing and you've got it exactly.

Of course, now I was thinking, "gross," "horrible," and "revolting" were not such extreme terms after all.

* * *

The Center of the Storm

Gary Friedman likes to refer to his company these days as "the center of the storm." And that's fine with him. He has positioned his multinational company, Kava Kompani, to be the sole exporter of kava from Vanuatu to the U.S. "We have exclusive export rights to the U.S. from the Vanuatu government," he says. "We deal with the chiefs of the islands. We formed a growers association, and the chiefs are shareholders in our company."

He emphasises that this approach is different from kava-growing on Fiji, which, he says, is still grown "plantation-style," and is "controlled by the East Indians, not the Fijians." Speaking about Vanuatu, he says, "You've got a third world country, a very proud people, in a paradise. They've learned the lessons of colonialism in the Pacific. They've seen what heavy industry, excessive tourism, mining, and the rest have done to other places." Kava, he believes, as do the ni-Vanuatu, offers an ecologically-responsible and economically sustainable alternative. "Ironically," he adds, "this plant may turn out to be their salvation."

He hopes that with the kava production, Vanuatu can eventually eliminate its dependency on foriegn government aid. "We want to help them move from aid to trade, in a way that doesn't have a negative effect on the environment or culture."

The Kava Kompani's kava is exported chiefly by air frieght. "We have special rates," he says. Most of the raw, dried root arrives in the U.S. at Los Angeles International Airport, where it's then shipped straight to the herbal companies.

"Kava is perfect for the stressed-out 90's," he says, "it's just perfect."

Friedman's biggest concern seems to be the proper positioning of kava for consumers. Right now, the FDA has no restrictions on kava itself, the substance. But herbal companies do have to back up their claims for any performance and particular use of kava products, or they can get into trouble. If an opportunistic company comes along and markets a product with kava and makes wild claims that turn out to be false, "it's only one short step for kava itself -- not a particular product, but the substance itself -- to be treated and regulated as a drug," he says. And that would spell doom for many kava ventures right now.

"The tolerance policy in the FDA at this point is in everybody's interest," he says. A golden seal of approval from the FDA would go a long way to enhancing the public perception of kava. To this end, Kava Kompani, Natrol, East Earth Herbs, Acta Pharmacol, and other kava manufacturers have formed a committe, the Kava Council, within and under the direct auspices of the American Herbal Products Association, to make sure kava gets what the FDA terms a "structure/function claim" --- which Friedman explains is "the information and substantiation the FDA needs to allow us to make certain claims" about kava products.

"You're talking to somebody who came out of the illicit substance trade -- came out of the 60's and 70's. I don't do that stuff anymore," he says. "Kava is a world apart from acid, cocaine, peyote, mescaline, all of those things. It's not really attactive to druggies," he continues. "Kava is very subtle, nonthreatening."

But, he warns, kava is something that will be "fraught with danger if it is marketed as a psychoactive substance."

* * *

Which Kava For Me?

The kava marketers are trying all kinds of different products in the hope that something will catch on with the American consumer.

In their zeal they sometimes badmouth other products while praising their own. For example, Chris Kilham (a Pure World shareholder) rather emphatically dismisses Natrol's new Kavatrol product: "You couldn't swallow enough of it to get an effect... They have strong, great marketing," he says, but adds: "Go out and buy six boxes and take them all... after you don't feel a thing, you be the judge! There's no there there."

The question is, what is the effect Mr. Kilham seeks to "get"? Everyone in the kava biz seems to have a different definition for "effect". And that could come back to haunt the different vendors if consumers, and the FDA, are confused.

Paul Koether, CEO of Pure World, downplays the psychoactive aspect of kava, and claims Pure World is positioning its product as an alternative to Prozac, Valium, even Sominex. "Our kava is a calming agent. It's going to do away with Sominex," he says.

He's concerned that, as he says, "the ethical drug industry will try to debunk it, because it's competitive."

When asked who exactly is Pure World's targeted customer, he says, "the person who's been in sitting in traffic for the last hour and a half, gets home to their split-level house, and wants to calm down."

McZand Herbal is pushing their kava capsules to help you sleep and "dream epic dreams."

Natrol is also positioning their product as a calming agent. However, they make no claims about making their product making you feel sleepy. Given their target market of busy baby-boomers at their workplace, the last thing someone would want is a product that makes you feel sleepy on the job. Natrol wants no comparison made between Kavatrol and Sominex. However, like Pure World, they do want their product to be considered a "safe alternative to Valium or Prozac," says Natrol's Cheryl Richitt.

The majority of kava product marketers have decided to push kava as a calm, relaxing, safe dietary supplement, and keep its more exotic South Pacific cultural history locked up in the closet. Hence, the consumer who's seeking the more traditional, ceremonial, psychoactive kava of the South Pacific will have to either make do with the extracts and powders on the market, or journey to Vanuatu or other islands. What Americans will read about in the coming months is a kava that's workplace-safe, in capsule form, for the on-the-go, stressed-out baby boomer.

Some think it's a shame that kava has to lose its rich cultural history in order to sell to America. Says Andy Levine of Yellow Emperor Herbs, "In the South Pacific, it's a revered drug experience. Other cultures haven't eschewed drug experiences the way America has. We don't know how to deal with these experiences... our traditional culture is, going to McDonald's..."

Levine also laments the way the kava vendors weakened in front of the FDA. "Unfortunately," he says, "the American Herbal Products Association is standing behind the medical model, feeling coerced by the FDA. It's unfortunate that they didn't take a stand and say that these are folk herb products." He added, "The people who were originally against this orientation [and instead for the more traditional folk herb orientation] are now promoting it."

And so it goes. On the horizon are more interesting uses of kava, all of them even further distanced from that celebrated drug experience of the traditional cultures. Nobody in interviews would name names, but many spoke enthusiastically of kava tonics, kava chips, kava chewing gum, kava toothpaste, kava mixed with decaffienated coffee, and, perhaps most interestingly, kava included in soda pop. Several companies confirmed they're in discussions with "well-known" soda companies, but all declined to comment further.

* * *

"Kava is a complex plant, it's sneaky and subtle," says Bill Brevoort of East Earth Herbs. Not enough is yet known about the six kavalactones, which ones do what, what differing percentages of different kavalactones do when they interact with each other, or with other herbs. Indeed, a new study is about to be published in a journal which announces the discovery of yet more previously-unknown kavalactones (up until now, six have been commonly identified). The whole field cries out for more research, even though so much is already known.

How will the public cope with this wide, perplexing spectrum of kava roots and peelings, powders and tinctures, extracts, pills and capsules? Who will answer Joe Consumer who asks, "Which is the best kava for me?" And what about the FDA? What's in store with FDA regulation for kava as the products take off in the next twelve months?

Nobody knows for sure, but you can count on one thing: kava is here to stay, and a whole slew of businesses are scrambling to make it a success.

* * *

To be continued
in a future issue of COCONUT

* * *

KavaPure, from Pure World Botanicals. It's a tincture, basically, a liquid extract consisting of 4500mg of kavalactones, the active ingredients in kava, in a solution of grain alcohol. The alcohol is the best way to keep kava's active ingredients soluble -- they don't dissolve well in plain water. The alcohol is also an excellent preservative, PureWorld says. Other extracts like vanilla are also sold in an alcohol solution.

Many people in the kava biz believe extracts won't be the big sellers, compared to the capsule or pill products that have no taste.

Bee Mellow, from Kava Kauai. The consistency of peanut butter, the intense sweetness of pure honey, and the dirt-like bitterness of fine kava powder. Not bad, actually!

From Natrol comes Kavatrol, marketed as a "calming dietary supplement." Natrol's web page for Kavatrol starts with the slogan "Move to another state... a calmer state." I was sure the second part of that slogan was going to be "...of mind!" but no. Natrol claims this stuff "increases mental acuity". Evidently it's aimed at baby boomers who want less stress but sharper thinking during working hours. Kavatrol includes a blend of "complementary herbs", says Cheryl Richitt, VP of Marketing at Natrol. The blend includes passion flower, chamomile flower, hops flower, and schizandra fruit. Says Richitt: "It's long been believed that herbs work better with other herbs."

McZand Herbal sells a bottle of "kava kava" capsules each with 37.5 mg of kavalactones. I tried a few before bed and could have sworn the only effect I experienced was a headache. I tracked down Zand Herbs in Boulder, Colorado and gave them a call. A person there suggested to me that essentialy it was my fault -- that kava doesn't work for everyone. A competitor told me McZand "got a bad batch" from their kava supplier. Another competitor told me the capsules had very weak, essentially performanceless, kava in them.

What The Book Doesn't Say

Chris Kilham's new book, KAVA: Medicine Hunting in Paradise, from Park Street Press (ISBN 0-89281-640-6). Click here to read a review of this book.

Pure World Botanicals sent Kilham to Vanuatu to find growers that could supply the company with kava root back in the U.S. The book is his engaging account of the trip. Interviews with numerous stakeholders in the kava business revealed a lot went unsaid, however, about the kava situation in general, and Pure World's relationship with kava growers in specific.

"When Kilham went down there," says Gary Friedman of Cosmopolitan Trading / Kava Kompani in Seattle, "we were already in place. They [Pure World] did everything they could to go around us, put us out of business."

Andy Levine, who runs an herbal company called Yellow Emperor in Oregon, calls the dispute "Kava Wars". Like others interviewed for this article, he was reluctant to discuss the dispute other than to acknowledge it exists.

But it's clear there's some serious hardball being played by Pure World and Kava Kompani.

If you look at the beginning of the book you'll notice the disclaimer, "Some names in this book have been changed to obscure the identities of proprietary sources." Interviews with both Kilham and Friedman revealed that "Anneke," a woman mentioned in the book, is apparently a woman named "Roxanne," Friedman's Kava Kompani business partner who works out of Port Vila in Vanuatu. Kilham is very sensitive about the subject, saying he was lied to and misled.

Pure World refuses to be a member of the newly-formed Kava Council (a subcommittee within the American Herbal Products Association) because, among other things, Friedman's company is a member. Says Paul Koether, CEO of Pure World, "The Kava Council was formed by competitors for their own purposes."

Says Friedman, "Pure World pulled some pretty nasty action on us," but declined to describe further.

"Anytime there is a lure of money," says Kilham, "there's always some element that goes after it in a sleazy, cheesy way." He expressed disgust at what he called "foriegn interlopers operating in Vanuatu," going so far as to call them "shitheads." But he respects competition, adding, "I don't blame anybody for trying to corner the market on anything."

He won't mention Friedman's name, but he adds, "There is an individual in Seattle whose company is Cosmopolitan Trading [the name of the U.S. distribution 'arm' of Kava Kompani] working with a woman in Vanuatu. They're conducting themselves in the kava business in a manner that I consider... untoward," he says. He then questioned "the unaccounted-for funds... the huge tonnage of kava... the activity conducted that's not consistent with the truth." Finally, he says, "I've been told outright lies by both individuals."

"Kilham is a shameless self-promoter," says Friedman. "Everything he says needs to be taken with a grain of salt."

Friedman argues that Paea, the "Tahitian prince" and kava supplier for Pure World who's featured prominently in Kilham's book, is actually a shareholder for Kava Kompani. But it appears that Pure World is working hard to win over Paea. Kilham recently brought him over to the U.S. for a whirlwind, month-long media blitz and sightseeing tour of the eastern seaboard.

"If Saudi princes are a dime a dozen," Friedman says, "'Tahitian princes' are a penny a dozen." He did not want to comment further on Paea, but it's clear a major dispute is going on between these parties.

Friedman is firm about Kava Kompani's exclusive rights to Vanuatu kava export. "If Pure World thinks they're going to control the kava market, they're mistaken. Have you seen the EDGAR reports on Pure World? That's the kind of company you're dealing with."

He adds that his company is "in negotiations" with Pure World so that Pure World will buy its kava from Kava Kompani.

The EDGAR reports, by the way, make for interesting reading. Here is a link to EDGAR's search page listing all the Pure World-related documents. The 10QSB document dated 3/28/96 is especially intriguing.

For a profile on the Koethers and Pure World, see the New Jersey Business article entitled "The Koethers Aim at a New Target" by Paul Fiorilla and Mukul Pandya. You can reach the article by scrolling down the "Feature Stories" list until you see the article's title. Just click and it'll be retrieved for you.

Says Peggy Brevoort, who's heading up the new Kava Council, "You could spend a lot of your time trying to find out who's trying to corner the market on whom and it's not going to get you anywhere." She adds, "There's internal politics going on, but I think everyone, including Pure World, agrees with the general principles and charter of the Council."

The principal effort for this council is "to fund a comprehensive study of the efficacy and safety of kava, peer-reviewed from a medical and legal perspective," says Cal Bewicke of ACTA Pharmacal, a leading supplier of kava ingredient for many herbal companies in the U.S.

Kilham accuses ACTA of misrepresenting their kava's formulation. "Mugenberg is a good, well-respected German outfit that uses Fijian kava for its extracts," says Kilham. "Mugenberg sells to ACTA, ACTA takes the Mugenberg extract, and according to what ACTA calls 'a mathematical formula,' mixes the Mugenberg extract with a powder carrier, and at the end of the process claims a 30% kava compound." Which Kilham argues is false. "It's actually 21 or 22%," he says, adding, "yet ACTA's extract is the best-selling one sold to herbal businesses. Which makes it pretty hard to compete."

"I don't know where Pure World gets their samples," says Bewicke of Kilham's criticism. "They certainly haven't contacted me directly."

Paul Koether spoke of seeking other sources for kava besides Vanuatu. He spoke of "taking some tubers and experimenting with growing them in South America." I asked him, wouldn't you need fresh, live, kava plants to grow elsewhere? Doesn't the Vanuatu government prohibit the export of live plants?

"Well," he replied, "Vanuatu is a fairly Third World kind of place. It wouldn't be too hard to get something on a plane and off the islands. Just slip a customs guy a twenty, tell him to take a coffee break -- or a kava break... The stuff can get out."

* * *

It is ironic that one of the wonderful traditions of the South Pacific, with regard to kava, is that it is used to settle disputes. The arguing parties sit together in a circle, share some shells of kava, calm down, settle their disputes, and life goes on. Perhaps some kava vendors should consider doing the same thing?

Tom Harrisson, in his 1937 book, Savage Civilisation, suggested that kava would do wonders for political and diplomatic disputes among Western nations: "It would change the face of Geneva."

Kava Links

Add the suffix "http://" before each of the following URLs: -- The home of Kava Kauai, a web site that offers several kava products including some featured in this article. -- A small web page for Kava Kompani, a distributor and exporter of raw kava root to herbal companies. Gary Friedman, head of Kava Kompani, has asked that consumers not email him for kava orders, since Kava Kompani does not sell anything to the general public. (Suggestion to Kava Kompani: correct your page because it's easy to be misled into thinking you do offer kava products to consumers!) -- Stan Combs' "Kava in Vanuatu" page. A fascinating photo essay on the history and ethnobotany of kava and the ni-Vanuatu (as the people of Vanuatu are known). An excellent place to start for those who are just beginning the kava journey. --- Pure World Botanicals' web site is pretty much a brochure for the KavaPure product. Nice color photos (many identical to ones that showed up in black-and-white in Chris Kilham's book) of Vanuatu peoples and kava-making. --- Natrol's home page, containing white papers on various herbs as well as a promotional page about their new Kavatrol product. -- An article on insomnia, melatonin, and kava root extract.
--- Product description page for something called "TranQuell" marketed as a stress-reliever.
--- THE KAVA BOWL web conferencing forum. --- Nature's Source of Salt Lake City, a reseller for Nature's Way products, including kava.
--- Oxyfresh's "Whole Leaf Aloe Vera With Pulp plus Kava Kava and Ginkgo Biloba" product description. Their description of kava is interesting: among other things, it "is known to strengthen the mind" and produces, among other things, a "euphoric effect." At $34 per bottle, one would hope so. --- Another kava page from Vanuatu. Part of the larger Van-Net website. Interesting tidbit: some of the photos on this page are the same as those in the KavaPure product brochure and website. Yet this site seems to be sponsored at least in part by Kava Kompani. Thorough confusion should set in right about now.
--- Lee Kagan's indispensable reference guide to everything you ever wanted to know about kava. An invaluable tool for readers looking for find out more about the subject.
--- A story from the Deseret News in Utah about Alfred Pupunu, a football player for the San Diego Chargers, who celebrates touchdowns by doing a "Kava Dance" in the end-zone --- he dances around and flexes his muscles and then "pretends to remove the top of the football as if he's opening a coconut, and then tilts his head back and drinks from it." --- The home page of 'AWA NOENOE, a vendor of Hawaiian kava. A very nice site, lots of interesting photographs, essays on the history of kava and its preparation, and an order form for ordering various kava related products.

The Utah Incident

Mention the word "UTAH" to anyone in the kava biz and most likely they'll perk up and reply, "yes, yes, I heard about it." How word travels fast in this kava community!

Recently, a driver was pulled over for "driving all over the road, like a beer drunk," says officer Paul Hiatt of the Utah Highway Patrol. The driver was given a breathalyzer test that didn't register any alcohol. This triggered the officer to take the driver to the station for a blood test.

In Utah, if you refuse a blood test, they can take your license away for year. This particular fellow chose the do the test, and the blood was then examined in a lab.

"No traces of drugs or alcohol were found," says officer Hiatt, who's officially a Drug Recognition Expert for the Highway Patrol. But kava did show up, and the driver was charged with driving under the influence -- evidently the first kava DUI in the country.

Hiatt says he personally pulled over four drivers prior to this case -- all four drivers he suspected of using kava. "Every case was thrown out or dismissed by the court. The breathalyzers didn't pick up the kava, and laboratory tests did not show any substances in the blood." Other officers also pulled drivers over, found no alcohol impairment, but were not able to prosecute for kava use.

Hiatt decided that the cases would continue to be thrown out unless he educated the laboratories so they would know what to look for.

"So I went and bought some kava," he says, "took it to the lab, the state health lab, and told them 'this is what kava is,' for future reference."

It worked. Kava showed up in the blood test, and this driver was headed for court. "This guy had had sixteen cups of kava. He was all over the road, and he was sleepy," says Hiatt.

"We wanted to set a precedent in the court," says Hiatt. "The defense attorney wanted to plea for a lesser charge. We didn't want that. We wanted to go to trial and set a precedent."

Hiatt got his wish. The driver was convicted of Driving Under the Influence.

Apparently this is the first conviction in the U.S. for using kava while operating a vehicle.

"He got heavy fines," says Hiatt, "but they waived sending him to a drug treatment program, seeing that kava isn't an illegal drug and it's just part of life in the Polynesian community here."

"There's a large Polynesian community in Salt Lake," says Hiatt. "The LDS Church brought them over, and they came over and of course brought a lot of their culture with them."

Peggy Brevoort, of East Earth Herbs, laughed when she recalled the story. "The guy just drank too much kava! You can drink too much of anything and it'll be bad for you. You can kill yourself drinking too much water."

Since the one conviction there's been at least one other arrest for a kava-related DUI in Utah, and Hiatt expects this case will also result in a conviction.

To see the articles in Utah's Deseret News relating to the kava use, click here.

All photos by B. Dear unless otherwise noted.

Copyright 1996 Birdrock Media Corporation. All Rights Reserved.