UH scientists may have solved kava mystery

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
HILO, Hawai’i — A team of University of Hawai’i scientists may have solved the mystery of why some Europeans who used products containing kava extract suffered severe liver damage, prompting a number of nations to ban sales of the herbal supplement.

The culprit may be a compound found in the stem peelings and leaves of the kava plant — known in Hawai’i as ‘awa — but not in the roots that are used to make the traditional kava drink consumed by Pacific Islanders.

Just to be safe, people should avoid tea or anything else made from the leaves or stems of the plant, according to C.S. Tang, professor of molecular biosciences and biosystems engineering at UH-Manoa.

Bans in Singapore, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere wiped out pharmaceutical sales of kava and virtually destroyed it as an export crop in Hawai’i. While kava supplements are not banned in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory in March 2002 warning of the potential risk of severe liver injury from dietary supplements containing kava.

The health alarms left farmers in Hamakua and elsewhere with crops that were hardly worth harvesting.