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"Good vendors will have tests performed on every shipment of kava they get. My understanding is that FDA requires a certificate of analysis on every incoming shipment of a nutritional supplement as of 1 Jan 2013. This can be avoided if the exporter does some shady labeling - but I can assure you everything we have is tested.
In a nutshell, the stems and leaves will have more of the larger, undesirable molecules (DHM, etc.) as well as the possibility of other compounds, alkaloids, etc. there is the belief that the larger molecules are more cumbersome for the liver to process, and that is what may cause the damage, which is why "noble" varieties have nigh levels of kavain, a very small molecule comparatively, and others.
That said, some people seem to like the long-lasting effects of tudei or Isa or wild kavas, which is non-noble. Isa in particular was introduced to Hawaii by Dr. Lebot. When I last spoke to him, he said he brought it there insisting it was for research only. Apparently, it grew so much faster than other noble types that sellers saw money, and ignored his warnings. That said, if I understood him correctly, Dr. Mattias Schmidt does not necessarily think there is anything wrong with consuming non-noble kavas - but don't quote me on that. I have found that non-noble varieties tend to have more of a piney, evergreen-type smell than the creamy or peppery smell of the nibles. Of course, the "smell test" is not as accurate as a lab test, but I have found that the more piney smelling the kava, the more likely I will get nauseated. (and nausea is also generally a sign of the larger kavalactone molecules.)
The different parts of the plant have different levels of kavalactones. If the NIRA chemotype shows that it is a noble variety, it is unlikely that anything but below-ground roots were used, as the concentrations of different lactones will differ in the different parts of the plant. Chemotype is genetically determined, and regardless of where the plant is grown, soil, etc - chemotypes will be stable for varying organs of the same cultivar. That said, the lateral roots vs. chips or "stump root" (kava does not have true rhizomes) will show different chemotypes for the same cultivar, but should demonstrate noble in both organ areas.) The NIRA will also give you the total lactone content of the plant, which is a measure of quality along with chemotype. Generally, the older the plant, the greater the concentration of lactones.
Mold is usually a problem in the drying process - kava will dry partially and get wet again in the rain, or upon harvest will be kept in conditions that can allow it to grow before proper drying. Our processors have built a completely enclosed drying system where sun-warmed air circulates over the kava on screens, and ensures that not onlt is it virtually impossible for any rain to fall on it, but it is totally enclosed from direct sun as well, which I understand can lower lactone content.
HPLC can show whether or not there are other contaminants in the plant. As far as Vanuatu kava goes, the trouble of getting pesticides or fertilizers to outer islands would most likely not be worth the return for the marginally greater growth of the plants. Additionally, the purity law as written prohibits use of any inorganics in growing kava for drink and export, but it has been tabled, and there are stories of some exporters shipping out tudei kava. From Vanuatu, I'd venture say that getting non-noble kava would be a much bigger concern than contaminants.
With our operation, we know the growers, fields, and we obtain the root-balls delivered in one piece in our processing facility - so we know very well that there are no above ground parts used. Our state-of-the-art drying practices virtually negate the possibility of mold, and we have have never had a test show any contaminants whatsoever. And again, all of our NIRA tests have consistently demonstrated noble kava types."
-Andrew P. (Owner of Vanuatu Kava Bar in Ashville, NC)
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