I tried canned kava, a beverage marketed as an alcohol alternative with a calming effect. It relaxed me, but I couldn't get past the sugary taste.

Advertisement
I tried canned kava, a beverage marketed as an alcohol alternative with a calming effect. It relaxed me, but I couldn't get past the sugary taste.
  • Kava is a beverage common in many Pacific island nations that can help numb and relax you.
  • Small direct-to-conumer brands have started selling their own versions of the beverage.

Drinks with added adaptogens or other ingredients that claim to benefit well-being are growing in popularity. But it's not always clear if they're effective.

One such category of beverages is those that include kava, a drink that is commonly consumed across the Pacific, from Hawaii to the Solomon Islands. It's made from the root of the kava plant, known by the scientific name Piper methysticum, and is supposed to help you relax and improve your mood.

It's those effects that caught the attention of some startup founders. Several brands of kava beverages have popped up over the last several years, often marketing themselves as alternatives to alcohol.

But kava has also been flagged by health authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, as having negative effects for some people, including liver damage.

Having grown up in Hawaii and been an occasional kava drinker during college, these brands caught my eye. And, knowing that mainlanders often get things wrong about food from Hawaii — and tons of other cultures, for that matter — I was curious to see whether these beverages were as effective as the kava you can find in Hawaii.

So, I decided to buy some of these canned versions of kava to try them. I picked Leilo and Mitra-9, two of the most widely-distributed kava brands that come in ready-to-drink forms. I also recruited my wife and a couple of friends, all of whom had also grown up in Hawaii and tried kava there, to provide their perspectives.

Advertisement

I started by looking for both brands of kava beverages at stores near me in Washington, DC. Both brands have tools that direct you to nearby stores.

I started by looking for both brands of kava beverages at stores near me in Washington, DC. Both brands have tools that direct you to nearby stores.
Alex Bitter/Insider

But I ended up ordering them online when I found that none of the locations near me had any cans.

But I ended up ordering them online when I found that none of the locations near me had any cans.
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

A few days later, the cans of kava arrived, and it was time to put them to the test.

A few days later, the cans of kava arrived, and it was time to put them to the test.
Alex Bitter/Insider

We started with a variety pack from Leilo, which calls itself "America's #1 kava brand."

We started with a variety pack from Leilo, which calls itself "America's #1 kava brand."
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

The beverages came in multiple flavors, such as raspberry, and promised "calm in a can."

The beverages came in multiple flavors, such as raspberry, and promised "calm in a can."
Alex Bitter/Insider

There was also a "lite" sugar-free version that tasted like pineapple.

There was also a "lite" sugar-free version that tasted like pineapple.
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

The label explained that the beverage is best served chilled. In smaller font, it also contained warnings about liver damage and not driving after drinking Leilo.

The label explained that the beverage is best served chilled. In smaller font, it also contained warnings about liver damage and not driving after drinking Leilo.
Alex Bitter/Insider

Unfazed, we poured some out to try.

Unfazed, we poured some out to try.
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

At first, the beverages tasted fruity. But after a second, the familiar, earthy taste of kava hit my palate.

At first, the beverages tasted fruity. But after a second, the familiar, earthy taste of kava hit my palate.
Alex Bitter/Insider

In the Pacific, kava isn't mixed with fruit flavors. It's consumed on its own, often out of a big bowl, and has a dirt-like flavor.

In the Pacific, kava isn't mixed with fruit flavors. It's consumed on its own, often out of a big bowl, and has a dirt-like flavor.
Prince Harry drinking Kava.Dominic Lipinski/Pool/Getty Images
Advertisement

The taste isn't for everyone, especially first-time kava drinkers. That's probably why Leilo felt the need to add other flavors.

The taste isn't for everyone, especially first-time kava drinkers. That's probably why Leilo felt the need to add other flavors.
Alex Bitter/Insider

Checking the label again, I noticed that one can only had nine grams of sugar — not so bad for a 12-ounce beverage.

Checking the label again, I noticed that one can only had nine grams of sugar — not so bad for a 12-ounce beverage.
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

Another fact that stood out to me on the label: One can of Leilo contained 750 milligrams of kava extract.

Another fact that stood out to me on the label: One can of Leilo contained 750 milligrams of kava extract.
Alex Bitter/Insider

While there's no agreed-upon "safe" amount of kava to consume, a single cup of kava in many Pacific nations contains far less than this — around 250 milligrams. (It's common to consume several cups in one sitting, though.)

While there's no agreed-upon "safe" amount of kava to consume, a single cup of kava in many Pacific nations contains far less than this — around 250 milligrams. (It's common to consume several cups in one sitting, though.)
REUTERS/Edgar Su
Advertisement

While cases of liver damage after consuming kava have been documented in the US and Europe, surveys of aboriginal kava drinkers in Australia haven't found evidence for liver damage there, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

While cases of liver damage after consuming kava have been documented in the US and Europe, surveys of aboriginal kava drinkers in Australia haven't found evidence for liver damage there, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Joshua Prieto/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

After about 20 minutes and consuming about a can, I started feeling the hallmark effects of kava, including numbness in my tongue and a generally relaxed attitude.

After about 20 minutes and consuming about a can, I started feeling the hallmark effects of kava, including numbness in my tongue and a generally relaxed attitude.
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

And while it was clear that Leilo was trying to sugar-coat (literally) the natural taste of kava, it wasn't obnoxious. "I'm less mad than I thought I would be," my wife said.

And while it was clear that Leilo was trying to sugar-coat (literally) the natural taste of kava, it wasn't obnoxious. "I'm less mad than I thought I would be," my wife said.
Alex Bitter/Insider

Given the seemingly high dosage, we took a walk before returning to break into the next variety pack, this one from Mitra-9.

Given the seemingly high dosage, we took a walk before returning to break into the next variety pack, this one from Mitra-9.
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

This time around, the flavors' names seemed to imply that they would be much sweeter, from one called "sparkling lemonade"...

This time around, the flavors' names seemed to imply that they would be much sweeter, from one called "sparkling lemonade"...
Alex Bitter/Insider

...to another called "sparkling candy."

...to another called "sparkling candy."
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

Like Leilo's labels, Mitra's also contained warnings about potential liver damage. There was also a misspelling of "dietary."

Like Leilo's labels, Mitra's also contained warnings about potential liver damage. There was also a misspelling of "dietary."
Alex Bitter/Insider

I also didn't understand the Buddha logo on the label since kava traces its origins to the Pacific, which isn't an area with a dominant Buddhist presence.

I also didn't understand the Buddha logo on the label since kava traces its origins to the Pacific, which isn't an area with a dominant Buddhist presence.
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

While the colors of these drinks were cool, they tasted more sugary and artificial than Leilo's beverages. "It's like they're trying to cover up the kava taste," one of my friends said.

While the colors of these drinks were cool, they tasted more sugary and artificial than Leilo's beverages. "It's like they're trying to cover up the kava taste," one of my friends said.
Alex Bitter/Insider

But the amount of sugar in each can was almost the same. There was also much less kava extract in Mitra's drinks — just 330 milligrams.

But the amount of sugar in each can was almost the same. There was also much less kava extract in Mitra's drinks — just 330 milligrams.
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

Overall, we didn't enjoy Mitra-9's flavors, though we did still get the relaxing feeling while drinking them.

Overall, we didn't enjoy Mitra-9's flavors, though we did still get the relaxing feeling while drinking them.
Alex Bitter/Insider

But we couldn't quite bring ourselves to finish all of them.

But we couldn't quite bring ourselves to finish all of them.
Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement

Overall, I'm not sure these beverages are an exact substitute for alcohol. I'm also weary of beverages that pack three cups' worth of kava into a single can.

Overall, I'm not sure these beverages are an exact substitute for alcohol. I'm also weary of beverages that pack three cups' worth of kava into a single can.
Kim Renfro/Tech Insider

The next time I consume kava, it will probably be in Hilo, my hometown, at a bar that serves it the traditional way.

The next time I consume kava, it will probably be in Hilo, my hometown, at a bar that serves it the traditional way.
Kava has gained popularity over the last several years as an alternative to alcohol. Insider tried some kava drinks from DTC brands to see if they're worth it.Alex Bitter/Insider
Advertisement