The traditional elixir is known as awa in Hawaii and was brought to the islands by the early Polynesian settlers.

The state Department of Health has determined that kava is “Generally Recognized As Safe,” a designation that could help unlock the crop’s market potential and ensure its preservation.

Known as awa in Hawaiian, kava is a tropical shrub that was brought to Hawaii by early Polynesian settlers. Its rhizomes and base stems are pounded and mixed with water to make a beverage prized for its calming properties.

The health department was alerted that awa was “erroneously classified” as unsafe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in October last year, after being given a letter sent to Hawaii’s congressional representatives.

DOH Director Kenneth Fink last week issued a memorandum detailing the agency’s stance that kava can be sold pre-prepared or as an additive to beverages.

The agency subsequently deemed that kava, when extracted traditionally with water or with coconut water, and consumed fresh or as an ingredient within a beverage, was not in violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act.

Since October, DOH worked alongside the University of Hawaii to better understand the local crop and research its potential health ramifications.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

Kava enthusiasts have argued that being able to make shelf-ready products and products including kava would be both a business opportunity and a means to help preserve the plant’s future.

DOH issued a consumer advisory as part of the memorandum saying the tincture should not be consumed by those under 18 years old, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and should not be used with alcohol. It also advised potential consumers that using kava while taking medication could lead to complications.

The FDA has yet to give kava its “Generally Recognized As Safe” classification, citing its 2020 decision that it can lead to liver issues, among other things.

The FDA’s 2020 memorandum further states that “longterm and excessive use of kava can lead to malnutrition, weight loss, and apathy” and “may lead to serious negative consequences.”

The research that FDA based its research on has become highly contested.

The World Health Organization and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization both deemed the traditional beverage safe in 2016.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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