Dear Kava Guru,
What is a noble strain of kava?
If you haven’t yet read the Kava Guru’s article, “The Emerging Controversy Around Tudei Kava”, that article provides a more in-depth exploration of the Tudei varieties’ chemistry compared to other kava strains, as well as the emerging controversy about the safety of Tudei kava. Suffice to say the Kava Guru is a little skeptical as to whether all the bad press for Tudei kava in its traditional aqueous form is justified; however, the research for that article made me realize there is another important aspect of kava I haven’t addressed yet. Many of those experienced in the world of kava may know that kava strains are separated into two broad classes, noble and ignoble strains. Only noble kava strains are considered suitable for export in Vanuatu and many other South Pacific regions.
What Makes a Noble Strain of Kava?
In the South Pacific, kava farming was a refined art long before European explorers made it to the region; farmers identified and named different types of kava based on the plants’ physical appearance and that of the brew produced by their roots. Just as importantly, people learned to distinguish different strains of kava by the physical and psychological effects they produced upon consumption. Although indigenous peoples didn’t yet know what kavalactones were, we know they had a well-honed understanding of the physiological effects of different kava strains. This helped them differentiate kava strains into “noble” and “ignoble” types based on these strains’ different ratios of kavalactones, which produced different physiological effects.
Noble Vs. Ignoble or Tudei Kava Strains
Another collective name for ignoble kava strains is Tudei kava, although the category includes some varieties that aren’t explicitly Tudei, such as wild kava, or Piper wichmannii . Other ignoble strains include Isa from Vanuatu, and Palisi from Papua New Guinea. Common to all ignoble kava strains is that their use is culturally restricted to ceremonies and medicinal use in the South Pacific, and none of the ignoble strains is legal to export internationally . Noble kava strains are legal to export either as whole root or processed into herbal kava supplements, and include famous cultivars such as Borogu, Fu’u, and Mahakea .
After thousands of years under cultivation by humans, kava has become a very diverse plant; but unlike other commercial crops like apples or tomatoes, kava’s diversity exists not so much in its physical appearance as in the chemistry of its kavalactones and other constituents. To really understand the difference between a noble and ignoble strain of kava, we must look at a little something called chemotype: a chemotype (sometimes also called a chemovar) is “a chemically distinct entity in a plant or microorganism, with differences in the composition of the secondary metabolites. Minor genetic and epigenetic changes with little to no effect on morphology or anatomy may produce large changes in the chemical phenotype. Chemotypes are often defined by the most abundant chemical produced by that individual, and the concept has been useful in work done by chemical ecologists and natural products chemists.” 
In the case of kava kava, different kava chemotypes are defined by the concentrations of the six major kavalactones in the kava root . Kava chemists have assigned each kavalactone a number, which you can see below:
A kava chemotype is “typed” based on the descending concentration of these six kavalactones within its roots . This means that a cultivar such as Vanuatu Melo Melo, with a chemotype of 245361, contains primarily dihydrokavain, followed in descending order of concentration by kavain, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, methysticin, and desmethoxyyangonin . To be classified as a noble kava, a strain must have a chemotype that begins with either 2-4 or 4-2, meaning its roots contain primarily either kavain or dihydrokavain .
Legal Status of the Noble and Ignoble Kava Cultivars
As set out in the Republic of Vanuatu Kava Act of November 7th, 2002, only noble kava cultivars are legal to export from the archipelago, and those exporters also have to meet strict quality control standards for storing, harvesting and processing their kava, such as ensuring their kava raw material is free of aerial parts of the plant such as stems and leaves . Ignoble kava strains and Piper wichmannii (wild kava) are banned from export, though unfortunately some less-than-scrupulous vendors still try to get around these laws to sell Tudei kava to customers.
Why make this legal distinction between kava cultivars of different chemotypes? Well, it actually has to do with the effects produced in the human body by those different ratios of kavalactones. “Noble” cultivars such as Borogu are higher in smaller kavalactone molecules, such as kavain, that metabolize faster, resulting in a shorter onset and duration of their physiological effects . Because of this, kavain and other smaller kavalactones are thought to have fewer accompanying side effects; kavain in particular is considered a “happy” kavalactone with primarily mental, mood-lifting effects .
In contrast, the larger double-bonded kavalactones such as methysticin and dihydromethysticin, found in profusion in Tudei kava as well as wild Piper wichmannii, take longer to metabolize . In fact, the name Tudei kava comes from the fact that these compounds can remain active in the body for up to two days! While many people still seek Tudei kava to take advantage of its long-lasting effects, this increased potency can often come with the pricetag of more undesirable side effects—often nausea or stomach upset, dizziness, headache, prolonged sleep, and drowsiness that can last into the next day . There is also the possibility that Tudei strains may contain notable levels of flavokavain B, a non-kavalactone compound that has the kava community atwitter with studies that it may not be safe for the liver. That controversy is still evolving, and you can read “The Emerging Controversy Around Tudei Kava?” for my full take on it.
In Vanuatu and other South Pacific countries, it is understood that Tudei kavas are not everyday drinking kavas, and only noble kava strains are suitable for everyday use. That said, this doesn’t mean that ignoble kava cultivars have no use in the South Pacific. Actually, some ignoble cultivars such as Isa have specific medicinal uses for conditions such as urinary tract infections and cystitis, and are also used as analgesics . Even more interesting, research has suggested that the very presence of large double-bonded kavalactones that make ignoble varieties unsuitable for casual use may be at the root of these varieties’ medicinal effects, especially analgesia . So it seems even ignoble kavas have some pretty noble uses after all!
1. “Buy Kava Online”. Kava Dot Com. Accessed July 7th, 2014. http://www.kava.com/?p=512.
2. Teschke, Rolf. March 2011. “Special Report: Kava and the Risk of Liver Toxicity: Past, Current, and Future”. American Herbal Products Association Report 26 (3): 9-17.
3. “Chemotype”. Wikipedia. Last modified June 17th, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemotype.
4. “Kava Definitions: Kava (Piper methysticum) and Types”. Kava Forums: Connecting Kava Lovers Around the World. Last modified May 30th, 2014. http://www.kavaforums.com/forum/wiki/kava-definitions/.
5. “Mahakea Kava: The Happy Kava”. Kona Kava Farm. Last modfied June 1st, 2014. http://www.konakavafarm.com/blog/kava-news/mahakea-kava-the-happy-kava/.
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7. Bruggemann VF and HJ Meyer. 1963. “Studies on the analagesic efficacy of the kava constituents dihydrokavain (DHK) and dihydromethysticin (DHM)” [in German with English abstract]. Arzneimittelforschung 13: 407-409.