Is Kava a Food or Dietary Supplement?

Is Kava a Food or Dietary Supplement?This is quite a complicated question depending on whom you speak with.  The Kava Guru has done his research, and has arrived at several conclusions regarding the current status of kava kava in the United States and throughout the world.

In as short an answer as I can provide:  kava kava is currently sold in the United States as a dietary supplement, and is not currently accepted as a food ingredient.  This isn’t to say that several very food-like products are coming out that are based on kava kava.  For example, over at the Kava Marketplace, there is Kava chocolate from Kava King.  Now, chocolate bars are typically thought of as a food, but the folks over at Kava King insist that their product is a dietary supplement and have the data and research to back it up.

The same is true of a Kava Gum that has recently (2013) appeared on the market.  I have spoken with the owner of that company, and he stated that he has a 29-page legal document that justifies the gum part of the kava gum as being nothing more than a delivery method for the kava.  I am not an expert, but I don’t see any reason why that kind of use cannot be justified, and would think that the FDA would have a difficult time taking issue with the kava gum product.

As far as kava chocolate and the Kava Candy that has also appeared, in my discussion with an FDA consultant, just because someone calls something a rose, doesn’t make it a rose.  So, just because someone is calling these kava products “dietary supplements” doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what they are.  It’s all a whole lot of gray area, but the Kava Guru is here to help you through the gray!

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 defines a dietary supplement as “a product (other than tobacco) that is intended to supplement the diet and that bears or contains one of the following ingredients: a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical, an amino acid, a dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total daily intake, or a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination of these ingredients” [1]. In other words, dietary supplements are substances meant to be taken in addition to a balanced, healthy diet; they are not intended to make up a large portion of a meal or of someone’s daily caloric intake [1]. The Food and Drug Administration’s definition of a dietary supplement also notes that these are often taken in the form of pills, capsules, tablets, powders or liquids [4].

One helpful way to determine if kava is a dietary supplement or a food is to look at its intended use. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts contain macronutrients (healthy fats, carbohydrates, and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) that contribute to overall health. In contrast, a dietary supplement is often taken to generate a very specific effect [1]. For instance, people take a kava kava supplement to relax, relieve anxiety, and treat insomnia. Kavalactones are a very specific class of compounds that give kava these physiological effects. In other words, many dietary supplements are targeted to address specific ailments or generate specific effects that contribute to wellness. In contrast, healthy foods keep you healthy by giving your body a broad range of the nutrients it needs to maintain wellness.

Is Kava Part of a Healthy Diet?

Let’s briefly look at what’s in kava besides kavalactones: by weight, fresh kava root is about 80% water, 43% starch, 3.2% sugars, 3.6% protein, and 3.2% minerals. Kavalactones make up about 15% of the root by weight [2]. Though kava is usually prepared as a beverage, if you were to eat kava root it would provide about 20% of your daily fiber needs [2]. Not bad!

However, contrast that with maca root, a relative of the turnip frequently called a superfood for its rich array of nutrients: maca root contains high levels of many health-essential macro- and micronutrients, including polysaccharides; complex carbohydrates; essential fatty acids; glucosinates; proteins; several minerals such as calcium and potassium; and trace elements including magnesium, selenium, iron, manganese, and zinc [3]. Maca contains a range of chemical constituents that our bodies require to maintain bodily health, making it by definition a “functional food” rather than a dietary supplement [1]. In contrast, even though kavalactones have demonstrable benefits for health, our bodies do not require them as they do micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, or macronutrients such as carbohydrates and proteins.

Is Kava a Food or Dietary Supplement?

Maca root (Lepidium meyenii) is a nutrient-rich Andean superfood from western South America.

Of course, just because the FDA does not consider kava a food doesn’t mean you can’t mix it with foods in any recipe you choose! The Kava Guru is passionate about finding new ways to cook with kava, and we add our favorites to our Kava Recipes page as often as we can. And as always, we welcome comments below about your favorite kava recipes and creative ways to enjoy this dietary supplement!

Sources

1. Halsted, Charles H. 2003. “Dietary Supplements and Functional Foods – 2 Sides of a Coin?” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 77 (supplement): 1001-1007.

2. “Kava – Composition” Wikipedia. Accessed March 12th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava#Composition

3. “Lepidium meyenii – Constituents.” Wikipedia. Accessed March 12th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lepidium_meyenii#Constituents

4. “What is a Dietary Supplement?” About FDA. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Last Modified December 30th, 2009.http://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/transparency/basics/ucm195635.htm

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