Sunday, December 18, 2016

Kava Controversy - The Noble and Tudei Debate Unpacked

When I started drinking Kava 17 years ago, there were essentially no choices in the Kava marketplace. It was before the era of e-commerce (hard to imagine such a time now!), and Kava vendors had to sell their products mostly through skeptical, risk-averse health food stores. Luckily, I worked in a health food store that sold Kava King Instant Kava, a product that is still around to this day though mostly marketed towards consumers outside of the Kava community. This particular product was a life-changing, anxiety-crushing friend to me for several years. After that, Yogi Tea came out with a Kava Stress Relief tea that was both effective and delicious, and I drank that tea for more than 9 years.
Fast forward to 2009, when I discovered the amazing marketplace online for Kava: Nakamal at Home had been around for a couple of years and was definitely offering the largest variety of potent Kavas, Kona Kava was moving a lot of product, Kaui Kava/Real Kava were selling excellent powders, Vanuatu Kava Store was a giant, Pacific Kava out of New Zealand had some excellent products, Kava by Rex was in the game, and of course Hawaiian Kava Center had great, fresh, local products.  It was at this time that I launched the Kavasseur blog, which at first was just a fun idea I was toying around with. Needless to say, it became something much bigger and ended up launching two discussion boards, one of them which is dominant today – Kava Forums.
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The now unavailable “Chief’s Jungle” Kava from Papua New Guinea, a Tudei Kava, circa 2010
In these “early years” the topic of Tudei Kava was something that people were curious and excited about. You could buy Tudei Kava that was labeled as such from Nakamal at Home, Kava by Rex, Paradise Kava, Hawaiian Kava Center, and many more. It was well known for its strength and sometimes unpleasant side effects. After all, the word “Tudei” is literally the Melanesian pidgin “two day” which refers to the length of time in which you should expect to feel the Kava. If you drank a Tudei Kava from Papua New Guinea, you were likely going to have a buzz from it that would last into the next morning. Vendors were pretty clear about the fact that this Kava was strong and meant for people who were seeking out that kind of feeling.
The contrast to Tudei Kava is “Noble” Kava. Noble Kava is the kind of Kava that people like to drink everyday. It is clean, has no side effects, and is used daily as a medicine for anxiety, insomnia, and other ailments. It is basically the only kind of Kava you can buy anymore. In most ways, this is a good thing because it prevents newcomers to Kava from having a prolonged, or negative experience from Tudei Kava. Islanders all over the South Pacific prefer Noble Kava, and have for thousands of years. It is a completely harmless and healthy natural Kava that you can drink daily without worry.
Tudei Kava is usually consumed only for “medicinal” and “ceremonial” purposes in the South Pacific. It is a variety of Kava that everyday Kava drinkers avoid because of its side effects. In countries like Fiji, farmers don’t plant Tudei Kava and most people despise it. Also, it has a complicated history because it was connected (erroneously) to the Kava ban in Europe. The Kava ban in Europe was a result of poisonous alcohol-based Kava extracts that ended up fatally affecting a few people. These extracts were also made from parts of the plant which are not consumed (stems and leaves) and contain the toxic alkaloid pipermethystine. When the Kava ban occurred, the poorly developed and immature field of Kava science led to the scapegoating of all “Kava problems” on Tudei. Further complicating the matter is that Tudei is higher in flavokavain K, a chemical compound which causes minor irritation to the liver. This irritation has never been connected to cases of illness or death in Kava drinkers. By comparison, a single bottle of Bud Light is far worse for your liver than several Kava sessions of Tudei. Nonetheless, the government of Vanuatu passed legislation that aimed at stopping the export of Tudei Kava as a way of showing they are “doing something” about the perception of Kava’s risks. Again, further complicating this is the fact that such a ban existed before as a means of “protecting” Tudei Kava as a “ceremonial” drink. So on the one hand, Tudei Kava was scapegoated as a sacrificial lamb to address the Kava ban in Europe, and on the other hand Tudei Kava had a cultural precedent for being protected as a traditional ceremonial medicine. Of course, other countries in the South Pacific don’t have export bans on Tudei and there is no legislation concerning it elsewhere.
Sometime around 2011, the topic of Tudei Kava became something of an obsession for a small group of people in the Kava community. They began to see Tudei Kava basically everywhere they looked. There were rumors of certain vendors “spiking” their Kava to make it stronger and more easily marketable. There were other stories about vendors buying Tudei Kava that was promised as Noble Kava. They went into the Kava literature and researched “testing” methods for determining whether Kava was Noble or Tudei. One of the main (cheapest) tests they preferred and could easily replicate was the acetonic test. This test involves putting Kava in a glass and mixing it with a solution. If the solution turns dark yellow or orange it is assumed that the Kava is Tudei. If it stays a golden light orange, it is assumed that it is Noble. However, this test is incredibly unreliable and sometimes leads to “false positives” on Noble Kavas. Of particular annoyance is the fact the mature, very high quality Kavas tend to test orange even though they are completely Noble. This is where the controversy exploded. These “testers” (as I like to call them) started ranting on forums and discussion boards all over the internet and trolling Kava vendors who were selling perfectly good Noble Kavas. They also attacked vendors who decided to include labeled Tudei Kavas in their offerings. Sometime around 2012, these Testers started giving out stickers to vendors who they preferred as Noble-only sellers, and refused to give these stickers to vendors who decided to sell Tudei Kavas as well. This led to the complete wiping-out of Tudei Kavas in the marketplace. It also led to the rise of a few vendors at the expense of many others. Now let me be clear here – most of the vendors who have these stickers on their Kava products have no bad intentions and have our best interests at heart. There is one particular vendor however, who I will not mention here, that has allied with the Testers and tried to monopolize the Kava marketplace and even slandered Kava vendors who have decided to stay away from this frenzied witch hunt.
As you can imagine, this debate has thrown the Kava community, which is already a very tiny group of people, into turmoil. On the one side you have people like me who have been drinking Kava for much of their lives and are saddened by the rise of the Testers and their transparent preference for certain vendors. We have seen some of the best vendors close up shop, drop great Kava products from their catalogues, or absorb senseless and constant attacks by the Testers. On the other side, you have newcomers to Kava who, not knowing any better, accept the discourse of the Testers as biblical fact. They can get just as trollish and extreme as the Testers. I have been personally attacked and sent threats just because I tell the truth about the history of the Noble and Tudei controversy, and certainly get attacked when I point out that certain vendors have used this campaign of falsehoods to gain prominence in the marketplace and libel and slander other vendors.
Now let me be very clear here, I completely advocate for the proper labeling of Kava. I think Kava drinkers should know what they are getting, and have meaningful choices to make when they order Kava. Vendors should maintain excellent relationships with farmers so that they know they are selling what they say they are selling. Since there is no   way at this time to test Kava and determine whether it is accurately Noble or Tudei, we must trust the traditional knowledge of Kava farmers. This means fostering good relationships, drinking Kava to determine its quality, and selling it in good faith and with the name that most accurately reflects what it is.
My position has always been that if you want to only be drinking Noble Kava, then you should be able to confidently do so. If every now and then you want to drink Tudei Kava, you should also be able to have access to it as it is perfectly healthy and legal. I only drink Tudei Kava once or twice every few years because I also don’t prefer its next-day effects. 
Back when we had a robust, competitive marketplace and the Testers hadn’t taken action against certain vendors, we had a great variety of Kavas to choose from. I hope that one day the truth about Noble and Tudei Kava will become the standard discourse  and that this whole fight, which is really about nothing at all, will be resolved and the Testers can find better things to troll about.
Finally, I believe in Kava science and its usefulness. We are currently seeing great news about Kava having properties that prevent cancer. We already know that it effectively fights anxiety and can transform peoples’ lives. We can learn a lot from studying its chemical compounds, and learning about what makes certain varieties feel a certain way. But we must make sure that we focus on how this science can help us, and not how it can help particular vendors who want to dominate the marketplace – particularly when it involves bad science and fear mongering. 
Many Bulas to the readers of my blog, and to the people of the South Pacific who domesticated this great medicine. May we drink it in peace, and create a reunified Kava community at peace with itself.

Kavasseur, 18 December 2016
Baltimore, Maryland

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