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Is Koa Wood Food Safe?

Here at KoaWood Ranch we make lots of Koa wood bowls, platters, and housewares products. Understandably we get the question, “Is Koa wood food safe?” asked a lot. It was one of my first questions when I first got interested in handcrafting these one of kind home decor pieces.

Yes, Koa wood is food safe. It is allergen and toxic free. However, there are some considerations when mixing food with Koa wood. Factors like wood finish, food moisture, and its potential to impart a bad taste, that should be thought through before using Koa in the kitchen.

Whether it’s a Koa wood platter or cutting board, it’s understandable to want to actually use these Hawaiian art pieces to show off your latest cheese display or salad creation. But what makes Koa wood special lies beyond functionality. It’s important to understand what Koa is, what it stands for, and whether it makes sense to mix Koa wood with food.

It is my personal opinion and experience, that you may not want to use Koa with food consumption. Below are some of my reasons for that perspective and the things to consider if you decide to use Koa with food.

Koa Wood is Rare

Chainsawing Koa

It’s important to understand that Koa is not widely available. It only grows in Hawaii, and demand is bigger than the supply. As a result, it is expensive. As with any expensive purchase, most of us want to protect that investment. Food usage will inevitably wear out the wood in ways that will cause discoloring, warping, and erosion. Moisture of any kind will have adverse effects on the wood. Therefore using Koa wood for food may not be practical if you value your expenditure.

If money isn’t an issue, it is essential to consider the effects food will have on the appearance of Koa wood, given that one of the main characteristics of Koa is its beauty. Koa arguably has the prettiest wood grain curls, colors, and figuring. All of that will be lost to the effects of moisture, knife scratches, and food stains. Chatoyancy and the allure of Koa’s holographic grain pattern will have no meaning and disappear.

If the potential of losing monetary value or wood qualities aren’t a factor, then perhaps its historic relevance is reason enough to avoid mixing Koa with food? Koa appeals to many people because of its symbolic meaning. In fact, many people pass down Koa heirlooms over generations as a memento and reverence for the culture that Koa represents. As a Koa degrades, so does its historic value.

Koa is Food Safe, But What About the Finish?

Perhaps you’ve weighed the pros and cons of whether or not to use your Koa art for food, and decided that you still want to use your decor piece for food consumption. Although Koa wood IS safe for food, you’ll want to make sure that the finish used on your wood bowl is safe too.

Many finishes used to seal and polish woods are not food safe. Unsafe finishes to avoid are lacquers, and some vegetable oils. Lacquer can harden and chip, and ultimately end up being digested. Vegetable oils can become rancid and give off an unpleasant smell.

Finishes that you'll want to look for include mineral oils and beeswax. Mineral oils don't smell and won't impart an odor. Refined mineral oils are preferred over crude mineral oil which is used for industrial use. Other oils that are acceptable include Walnut, Linseed, and Danish (these oils are deemed safe only after they have been properly cured.)

Acceptable waxes include Beeswax and Carnauba. Beeswax is natural and does't have harsh chemicals. Derived from the Brazilian palm tree, Carnauba Wax is vegetable based and offers a food safe option.

Wood Turner

If your desire to eat out of your Koa bowl is strong, my best advise is to get to know your Koa bowl maker. Have a discussion about your intended use so that you can ensure not only that he or she uses food safe products, but that the finish drying time is appropriate. Some oils are perfectly safe only when they have had enough time to cure. Having a known artist custom make your food safe decor item will ensure it has been finished properly and that you don’t have unexpected problems with the piece later.

Will Koa Alter the Taste of Food?

Bad Food Taste

Yes, Koa wood used with food will impart a bitter taste. Although ancient Hawaiian’s used calabashes for food, (e.g. ‘umeke) they were typically made from other local woods. If for no other reason, you don’t want to use Koa with food because it will adversely effect the flavor of your meal.

How to Keep Your Koa Decor Functional?

When I share my thoughts and insights with those who want to use Koa for food, they are sometimes disappointed. What’s the point of owning an expensive salad bowl if you can’t serve salad in it? But in reality there are many other ways for which your Koa investment can serve as functional decor. Here are just a few ideas:

  • For starters, Koa wood decor can serve as a conversation piece. Koa has a lengthy heritage full of lively story telling and education.

Wood Bowl with Nuts

  • Dry items like shelled nuts, skinned fruit, and wrapped candy can be placed in a Koa bowl or dish without issue. I think green apples create a nice contrast with the wood.
  • If you want to use your Koa cutting board to display your horderves, consider using wax paper underneath the food placement…but to the best or your ability, minimize cutting on the board to reduce scratching.

Koa Bowl with Ornaments

  • If the holiday season inspires you, you can use your bowl to house holiday ornaments.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of how you choose to use your Koa furnishing, you can rest assured the wood is food safe. That said, the ultimate threat to your wood piece is going to be moisture. Whatever you put in or on Koa wood, take precaution to make sure it is as dry as possible. And if you value the taste of your food, know that Koa will alter it...you've been warned.

For information on how to care for Koa wood read this.

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