The kava we use today, Piper methysticum, is the distant relative of Piper wichmanii, or wild kava. This kava requires its stems cut to encourage propagation, allowing for the Pacific Islanders, who domesticated the plant 3000 years ago, to use their century’s-old knowledge to select plants with the most desirable characteristics to reproduce. The resultant noble kava we enjoy today is often used for regular consumption, as it promotes favorable and mild effects on the body that include reducing anxiety and feelings of euphoria.
Alongside this modern kava grew another strain that more closely resembles the wild kava of the past. As such, it contains combinations of kavalactones and flavokavains that, by today’s standards, are more undesirable than those found in noble kava. Traditionally, tudei kava has been used only during special ceremonies because of how hard it hits. Tudei is the Baslama word for “two-day,” named aptly for the often long-lasting day-after malaise this strain causes.
A closer look: Flavokavains
Kava roots can contain three different types of flavokavains. These compounds are the early stages of flavonoids, found in many pigmented plants, that help contribute to the dark colours of berries, dark orange colour of carrots, and the deep green in many vegetables. Flavonoids provide many significant health benefits that can also be attributed to kava.
The three flavokavains in kava roots are labelled A, B and C, and have very different functions once ingested. Of main concern here is flavokavain B (FKB), which is found in high concentrations in tudei kava. Inside the body, glutathione neutralizes highly-reactive molecules called free radicals, effectively protecting the body from being harmed by them. When FKB is introduced, however, it has been shown to deplete the body’s store of glutathione, which is very dangerous for the health of the body’s cells.
In noble kava, there is no detectable FKB. Tudei kava, however, can contain significant concentrations of FKB in its chemical makeup, which makes it more dangerous to ingest than its relatively benign noble cousin. For this reason, one of the biggest global kava producers, has outlawed the trade of tudei kava to ensure consumers are protected from its potential for harm.
A closer look: Dihydromethysticin
Kavalactones found in the kava root are responsible for the various psychotropic effects commonly associated with kava consumption. The kavalactone dihydromethysticin is larger than other kavalactones and takes quite a while for the body to metabolize. Usually a minor component of most noble kava mixes, it is found in much higher concentrations in tudei kava.
Because of this, tudei kava users tend to experience adverse side-effects including:
A two-day long kava “hangover”
How to tell the difference
The flavokavains found in tudei kava are part of a chemical group called chalconoids, which translates to “copper” in Greek. As such, when these molecules are present in a solution, they will reflect light and appear a dark orange. Because noble and tudei kava contain different amounts of flavokavains, they appear different when mixed with a solvent like acetone. Mixing kava root powder with nail polish remover should result in the solution changing colour. A bright yellow solution indicates noble kava, while tudei kavas will appear a deep orange.
As a last line of defence, tudei cultivars will typically denote their kavalactone mix on their packaging as 2-5-3, with dihydromethysticin being the highest concentration. If the producer mentions kava strains such as isa, koniak, or palisi, that is an indication that they are using tudei kava for their products. My best piece of advice is to do your research, and to be sure to only buy kava from trusted, ethical sources. It is difficult to tell who to trust on the internet, but the way some companies pitch their products can be an indication of their trustworthiness. Luckily, companies like this one are developing ways to help differentiate between noble and tudei kava.
When making the decision to introduce kava into your daily life, it is important to be acutely aware of what type of kava you choose to purchase. The different psychotropic and biochemical effects that noble and tudei kava have on your body prove one thing: lineage matters. Instead of blind experimentation, choose noble varieties from trusted and reputable kava distributors to ensure your kava experience is as healthy and enjoyable as possible.