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Nearly everyone in modern society eats food containing artificial or highly processed additives. Many people consume dozens of food additives daily, and even devout whole-food enthusiasts may consume more of them than they realize. However, few consumers understand what additives really are or how they are made.
Most premade foods, even those labeled “natural” and “organic,” contain ingredients manufactured using industrial chemicals and processes that few of us would knowingly choose for our food. A great many additives (even many “natural” ones) are made from petrochemicals - something no human is meant to ingest - and contain trace amounts of toxic chemical solvents. Some are hidden sources of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
By Jennifer Handy, PhD
Nearly everyone in modern society eats food containing artificial or highly processed additives. Many people consume dozens of food additives daily, and even devout whole-food enthusiasts may consume more of them than they realize. However, few consumers understand what additives really are or how they are made.
Most premade foods, even those labeled “natural” and “organic,” contain ingredients manufactured using industrial chemicals and processes that few of us would knowingly choose for our food. A great many additives (even many “natural” ones) are made from petrochemicals – something no human is meant to ingest – and contain trace amounts of toxic chemical solvents. Some are hidden sources of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The two main concerns with additives are that they may cause or contribute to health problems, such as allergies and cancer, and they may induce or aggravate hyperactivity in children. By learning about just a few of the most common additives, we can become better able to protect the health of our families.
A brief history of the additive and flavor industries
Isolated chemical additives began appearing in food in the 1800s, as chemistry blossomed into a modern scientific discipline. As food production became increasingly industrialized in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the public became more concerned with adulteration. Harvey W. Wiley, a chemist and an early advocate of food safety, exposed many dangerous chemicals and mislabeled foods during that time period. He showed the dangers of various chemical preservatives, most notably formaldehyde, by doing experiments on human volunteers, who became known as the Poison Squad. These experiments provoked the outrage needed to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, and Wiley was appointed the head of what would eventually become the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 1938, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) established most of the FDA’s current powers.
Prior to World War II, food additives used in the U.S. consisted primarily of preservatives and coloring agents, and flavorings were largely essential oils and extracts made entirely from ethyl alcohol and the herb or spice named (e.g., almond extract). During the war, American soldiers discovered that the Japanese rations were far more palatable than their own. This was due to the inclusion of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a chemical that dramatically enhanced the flavor of food.(pp21-29) In the post-war years, the flavor industry began to develop rapidly.
Modern-day flavorists have built an entire industry on the manufacturing of food flavors through chemical means. They isolate the chemicals responsible for the aroma (and, to a lesser extent, the taste) associated with a food, such as vanilla or roast chicken, and then produce these chemicals from either natural or artificial sources. Between 2,000 and 3,000 flavor chemicals are commonly used today.(p132)
The purpose of additives and flavors
Additives serve several key functions. Preservatives and antimicrobials inhibit the growth of microorganisms (particularly fungi and bacteria) that cause food to spoil. Color additives and texturizers improve the look and mouthfeel of foods. Emulsifiers are texturizers that allow oil-based and water-based ingredients to be mixed together without separating.
Flavors include taste enhancers, such as MSG, which do not have a strong taste themselves but are used to intensify that of other ingredients in the food. Other chemical flavors are used to replace real ingredients more cheaply or for supposed nutritional benefits. For example, artificial sweeteners may replace natural sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup both because they are cheaper and because they are low in calories. Flavors also may replace whole spices and herbs in food. Though seldom acknowledged, two key purposes that flavors serve are to disguise the taste of overly processed food and to give the illusion of variety to the vast array of products essentially based upon soy, corn, and white flour.
Additives are divided into two main types based upon their chemical origin: natural additives from organic (i.e., plant or animal) sources, and artificial additives from inorganic sources. The following discussion is meant to give an overview of some common additives as well as to point out important issues to keep in mind when researching others. There are several helpful consumer guides that rate and discuss the hundreds of additives not included here.[4,5,6] One of the pocket-sized guides can be helpful during grocery shopping to offer quick guidance on ingredients.[5,6]
It is widely accepted that, in general, artificial additives are more dangerous than natural ones. The artificial additives below are listed in order, from the most to the least harmful.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are petroleum-based preservatives used in a myriad of products from chewing gum to cereal, and especially in fats and oils such as margarine and shortening. They have been linked to a wide range of health issues, including skin conditions, behavioral problems, cancer, and reproductive difficulties. Banned in many countries (but legal in the U.S.), these two additives are widely recognized as dangerous.
Polysorbates are emulsifiers used in cakes, ice cream, custards, and bakery items. They are numbered 1 through 85, but polysorbates 60, 65, and 80 are the ones most commonly used in food. Many of them are petroleum derived, though polysorbate 80 can come from sources such as sorbitol, an organic sugar alcohol. Whatever their source, polysorbates are considered some of the most harmful food additives. They have caused skin tumors in laboratory animals, and they are often contaminated by the industrial solvent ,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen.[8,9] Polysorbates have also been linked to anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction) and reproductive problems. They are sometimes listed on labels by their full names, but if you look carefully, you can see the word polysorbate concealed in each one:
- polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monostearate
- polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan tristearate
- polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monooleate
Sulfites are antimicrobial compounds used to inhibit enzymatic reactions in food and wine. Elemental sulfur can be mined from the earth, but today much of it is produced as a byproduct of the petroleum industry. Even very small amounts of sulfites have been known to cause allergic reactions (immune system responses) and pseudoallergic reactions or intolerances (responses with symptoms similar to allergies but not produced by the immune system) in sensitive individuals.(p106) Although the most common symptom is difficulty in breathing, sulfites can also provoke other reactions, including hives and anaphylactic shock.(pp283-84) Some sulfites occur naturally in wine, but for hundreds of years, additional sulfur has been added to nearly all wines to prevent acetic acid formation (the production of vinegar). Sulfites are also commonly added to fruit juices, dried fruit, and other fruit products (particularly apple products), where they protect against spoilage and enzymatic browning. Six sulfites may be legally used in processed foods:
- sulfur dioxide
- sodium sulfite
- sodium bisulfite
- potassium bisulfite
- sodium metabisulfite
- potassium metabisulfite
Sulfites must be listed as ingredients on food labels if they are used as preservatives, but not if they are used only in processing and do not exceed 10 ppm in the finished product.(p284) Because of this, sensitive individuals may want to avoid all wine and processed fruit products.
Nitrites and nitrates are antimicrobials that have been used for centuries to cure meat (such as bacon and sausage) and preserve fish. They are also used in cheese production abroad, but are not currently cleared for this use by the FDA. Potassium and sodium nitrates are naturally occurring mineral salts, though today they are also produced in laboratories. Nitrates can cause intestinal problems even at low doses because they result in dehydration of the intestines, and nitrites have effected changes in the liver, spleen, kidneys, and heart of experimental animals.(pp85,90) Both nitrates and nitrites can induce the production of carcinogenic nitrosamines in food as well as in the human stomach.(p91) However, nitrosation, the process that produces nitrosamines, can be inhibited by vitamins C and E. Nitrites and nitrates can be particularly harmful to infants.(p86) They are allowed to be used in spice mixes for curing meat and poultry products as long as the mixes have passed FDA safety requirements for additives, thus they may be present in any cured meat product that lists “spices” as an ingredient.
The following additives are generally considered natural (i.e., made from food), although many of them are often produced synthetically. Several common organic acids, including acetic acid and sorbic acid, can be extracted from food, but the versions used today are often synthesized from petrochemicals. This makes it difficult to identify whether any particular additive is natural by looking at its name on an ingredient list.
Sometimes, people assume that organic acids are natural because their structure is organic (i.e., carbon-based). However, it is important to keep in mind that organic means something different to consumers than to chemists. Nearly all discussions of additives use organic in the chemical sense of the term. The confusion about what makes something “natural” sometimes causes an additive to be classified differently in various consumer guides.
Propionates are preservatives used to inhibit mold, particularly in bread. They are organic acids and may be listed by these names:
- propionic acid
- propanoic acid
- sodium propionate
- calcium propionate
Propionic acid is a byproduct of acetic acid production and is usually created through chemical synthesis for use as a food additive. Although it is also naturally produced by the human body during digestion, its safety when used as an additive is disputed. Several researchers have found that it causes neurological, behavioral, and other problems in rats. Similar neurotoxicity effects are found in humans with propionic acidemia, a metabolic disorder in which propionic acid builds up in the bloodstream and often damages organs, particularly the brain. One study found that ingestion of propionates can cause behavioral and sleep problems in children. This illustrates an important principle: the “naturalness” or biological basis of a food additive is no guarantee of its safety.
Monosodium glutamate is a natural flavor enhan-cer that can be extracted from seaweed or made by fermenting starch or sugar. It is used extensively in soups, salad dressings, sauces, gravies, seasoning packets, seasoning salts, and prepared foods. Like propionic acid, glutamate is a chemical that occurs naturally in the human body, but ingesting MSG should be avoided. In his 1988 book In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome, George R. Schwartz brought attention to several conditions that can be triggered or aggravated by MSG, including headaches, dizziness, asthma, depression, and behavioral problems in children. Since then, Russell L. Blaylock, MD, has written about the entire class of chemicals known as excitotoxins (which includes MSG as well as others, such as aspartame). Excitotoxins can overstimulate neurons, eventually damaging and killing them, and can contribute to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The labeling regulations concerning MSG make it difficult to identify in ingredient lists. The FDA requires that it be listed by its common name, monosodium glutamate, but this rule applies only when it is used in its pure chemical form. Its key component, glutamic acid, is also found in the additives monopotassium glutamate and monoammonium glutamate. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (e.g., hydrolyzed soy protein, also called soy protein hydrolysate), which is manufactured by treating proteins with either acids or enzymes, can contain up to 20 percent MSG. Although Schwartz warned in his book that hydrolyzed vegetable protein may be listed under the general term spices or seasoning, the FDA guidelines have been updated since then and all protein hydrolysates must now be listed separately on labels. It is still possible for other sources of MSG to be concealed under terms such as flavor or spice, but it is much less likely. Nearly all commercial broth includes a significant amount of MSG. When broth is sold by itself, the label must list all the ingredients used to make it. When broth is a component of another food, however, its ingredients do not have to be disclosed. Other hidden sources of MSG include autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, textured vegetable protein, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, carrageenan, and malt extract.[2,16,17]
Citric acid is an organic acid that is used as an antioxidant, emulsifier, flavoring agent, and flavor enhancer.
About a third of the citric acid produced today comes from lemons, but the rest of it is typically synthesized by fermenting sugar using either Aspergillus niger (a fungus) or Yarrowia lipolytica (a yeast). It can also be produced from bacteria (often genetically modified). There are many different salts of citric acid, such as disodium citrate and monocalcium citrate, which are themselves used as food additives. By far, the most common use of citric acid is in beverages, but it is also added to many other foods, such as ice cream, jams, and hummus. Citric acid is considered safe, and the FDA has no limitations on its use as a food additive. However, excessive citric acid consumption can erode tooth enamel.
Acetic acid, another organic acid, is used as a preservative, and works by lowering the pH value of a food. Natural acetic acid is the active component of vinegar and can be produced by fermentation, but most acetic acid is produced synthetically from petroleum-based chemicals such as acetaldehyde. Sodium acetate and sodium diacetate are two common additives that are salts of acetic acid. Acetic acid is considered safe when diluted at the level used in food, though at higher concentrations, it irritates the skin and digestive tract and can damage tooth enamel. It is commonly added to salad dressings and pickles, and sodium diacetate is routinely used in baked goods. Acetic acid also functions as a flavor enhancer in processed foods; when used in food containing animal proteins, it can partially hydrolyse the protein and form glutamate.(p143)
Sorbic acid and sorbates: Sorbic acid is another organic acid that functions as an antimicrobial. It was once distilled from unripe rowan berries but is now produced commercially from ketene and crotonaldehyde, which are derived from petroleum. The salts of sorbic acid are called sorbates, and potassium sorbate and calcium sorbate are the most commonly used of these. Sorbic acid and its salts are generally considered to be some of the safest additives available. It has been extensively tested and has been used widely as a food additive since the 1950s in fruit and vegetable products, cheese, baked goods, meat, and fish.(pp7-8) Although long-term mammalian studies have found that sorbic acid can be ingested in amounts up to 10 percent of the diet without significant effects, some pseudoallergic reactions have been reported in humans from ordinary use.
Benzoic acid and benzoates: Gum benzoin is a resin found in the bark of several tropical trees. It is lso called benzoin resin, styrax resin, and sometimes just benzoin (this term can also refer to an organic compound synthesized from benzaldehyde). Gum benzoin is used as a glazing agent in candies and is considered safe. Its main component, benzoic acid, which is used as a food preservative, was originally isolated from the natural resin but is produced today almost exclusively from the petrochemical toluene.
The salts and esters of benzoic acid are called benzoates. Sodium benzoate is used in some soft drinks and fruit juices, where it can react with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to produce benzene, a known carcinogen. Other food products that may contain benzoic acid or benzoates are ketchup, jams, and chewing gum.
Lecithins are widely used emulsifiers that may be derived from various foods, including milk, eggs, corn, and sunflower seeds, but they are most frequently extracted from genetically modified soybeans. Lecithin is an important component of egg yolks and is considered by food manufacturers to be a harmless and possibly even beneficial additive. It can be mechanically extracted from food, but is usually extracted using toxic chemicals such as hexane, and may be chemically bleached. Almost all lecithin is highly processed. Lecithin is used in many foods, especially chocolate and baked goods. There are no particular health concerns linked to lecithin, but people with allergies to soy should be alert to its presence.
Artificial sweeteners and colors
Two other classes of additives are particularly hazardous: artificial sweeteners and artificial colors. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to headaches, gut tissue damage, diabetes, and obesity. A link between these sweeteners and cancer has also been proposed and, although this association is controversial, a 2012 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that it should not be ruled out. The most common artificial sweeteners are acesulfame-potassium (sold as Sweet One), aspartame (NutraSweet and AminoSweet), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda), and neotame. Coloring agents are not classified as food additives by the FDA, but most people think of them as such. What many consumers refer to as “artificial colors” are more precisely called “synthetic colors.” They have been linked to hyperactivity and allergic reactions. Seven synthetic colors may be used in foods in the U.S., and all of them may be easily recognized on labels because their names start with the acronym FD&C (FD&C Yellow No. 6, for example).
“Natural flavor” or “natural flavoring” (the terms are used interchangeably) is a broad category, and few people outside the food industry understand what it really means. In short, it can be nearly anything used in very small amounts, as long as it was produced from a naturally occurring source.
A couple of important points should be mentioned here. First, natural flavors can be extracted using chemical solvents, and second, nearly all of them are highly processed. They can go through not only mechanical processing (such as grinding or drying) but also chemical processing. High-temperature and high-pressure technologies can be applied to natural ingredients to change their chemical structure significantly. An example is provided by process flavors (also called reaction flavors), which are usually produced by a complex series of chemical reactions called the Maillard reaction. Some of the flavors produced by the Maillard reaction are used to simulate the taste of grilled meat in products such as frozen chicken with faux grill marks. In the European Union, process flavors such as these are considered non-natural, but in the U.S., they are designated as natural.
Some natural flavors may be a source of hidden allergens. Although all food companies are required to disclose to consumers the presence of the eight major allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soy), most food manufacturers do not actually make the flavors used in their products, and flavor manufacturers do not have to disclose ingredients to them. It is therefore possible for small amounts of allergens to enter food through natural flavors.
All natural flavors used today are industrially produced in bulk, and even the simplest – such as essential oils and oleoresins manufactured from spices (e.g., rosemary, garlic, and peppermint) – are made using chemical processing. Essential oils, which contain the aroma of a spice but not its taste components or color, may be extracted using petroleum solvents. Those made through steam distillation are the most natural of any flavor additives, but even they may have been treated with synthesized anhydrous sodium sulfate. Citrus oils are processed further, often undergoing vacuum distillation to remove unwanted volatile components. Oleoresins, which contain the color and the taste component of the spice, are produced using a chemical solvent such as acetone, ethanol, hexane, petroleum ether, methanol, or toluene,(p31) and trace amounts of residue may remain after processing.
Most natural flavors are produced by flavorists, who isolate and combine individual molecules in a laboratory to simulate the aroma of a particular food. Others may be made through fermentation reactions, which usually involve the use of laboratory-cultivated strains of bacteria and enzymes to create expensive flavor ingredients (such as vanillin) from cheap ones and to produce fermented products (such as cheese and yogurt) in bulk.
A final important step in the manufacture of many flavors is encapsulation, a process in which flavor chemicals are coated in glassy polymers to protect them from oxidation and to control when they are released during cooking. This process, sometimes called spray-drying, usually involves the use of starch hydrolysates or enzyme-modified starches as well as an artificial emulsifier such as a polysorbate. This sort of encapsulation is used to make flavored teas and instant coffee without having to disclose the starch or polysorbate as ingredients.
Legal standards & the GRAS status
Food laws in the U.S. often seem convoluted and conflicting, partly because food is regulated by several agencies – the USDA, FDA, and EPA – and various legislative statutes. The most commonly discussed legal standard pertaining to food additives is GRAS status. Although GRAS stands for “generally recognized as safe,” the safety of many GRAS additives is disputed, and some, such as BHT and BHA, are often condemned as dangerous.
Part of the confusion exists because there are different levels of GRAS status, allowing some additives to be used with fewer restrictions than others. For example, baking powder and MSG may be used in any food item produced using good manufacturing practice (a term referring to industry standards). Aluminum calcium silicate and magnesium silicate (talc), both anti-caking agents, are considered GRAS specifically when added to table salt.
GRAS status was initially created to allow sugar, salt, vinegar, and other common preservatives to be used without prior regulatory approval.(p267) Substances that had a long history of use before 1958, when the Food Additives Amendment to the FD&C Act was adopted, do not need to petition for GRAS status. All other food additives have to go through one of two similar processes: the GRAS affirmation process or the food additive petition process.
Two sections of the Code of Federal Regulations list additives that have been “affirmed” as GRAS, and many people refer to these sections as “the GRAS list.” It is important to note that these two lists are not comprehensive, both because the FDA does not list all common ingredients in the code and because there are other ways for additives to claim GRAS status than to have the FDA officially review and affirm them. A company can self-determine that an additive is GRAS and notify the FDA of its determination. A list of these notifications filed since 1998 can be found online. As long as the FDA does not object, the additive can be considered GRAS.
Moreover, there is a special FEMA GRAS process for flavors, and those determined to be GRAS through this method are published every two years in the journal Food Technology, rather than in the Code of Federal Regulations. This process has an added advantage for manufacturers: they can get approval for their flavors without publicly disclosing proprietary data (including ingredients).(pp201-02)
The broad nature of GRAS status can be seen in other ways as well. First, there is no distinction in GRAS status between natural and artificial additives. This means that an ingredient such as acetic acid, which can be produced naturally or synthetically, is treated as a single substance regardless of its source. Second, the GRAS list contains not only direct additives but also indirect additives – chemicals that end up in foods in trace amounts due to processing, packaging, or other handling.
Almost all direct additives (those added as ingredients to a food) must be listed on the label in descending order by weight. However, it is possible for some additives to be grouped together under categories such as “artificial color,” “spices,” or “natural flavors.” Although, as noted, any product that contains one or more of the eight major allergens must disclose their presence on the label, it is possible for this information to be left off inadvertently in the case of natural flavors.
The word artificial does not have a single meaning in FDA regulations, and this can lead to a great deal of confusion when reading labels. If an ingredients list contains “artificial flavors,” these additives were made synthetically from non-food materials. However, in certain food items that feature a particular flavor (such as strawberry shortcake or peach punch), artificial flavor on the front panel can simply refer to the fact that the item is flavored with natural materials other than the fruit or seasoning indicated in the product name.
In discussions of food additives, the term artificial colors usually refers to colors that are produced synthetically. However, when this term is listed on an ingredients panel today, it always refers to natural coloring agents (such as annatto or beet juice). Truly synthetic colors (called “certified colors” by the FDA) must be individually listed by their FD&C number on the ingredients list, with, unfortunately, a few exceptions.
One regulation exempts butter, cheese, and ice cream from having to list color additives, with the exception of FD&C Yellow No. 5. Another exempts “incidental additives” from labeling requirements.
These include processing aids, such as the polysorbates often used in the encapsulation of natural flavors, as well as chemicals that may migrate into food from packaging materials. They also include foods that are ingredients of other foods (for example, the seasonings in tomato sauce that is used to make lasagna). Many additives are concealed in natural foods using this exclusion.
Why and how to avoid additives
Additives affect various people differently, so it is difficult to predict their effects on a specific individual. Although some additives (such as benzoates) have been linked to cancer, the two health concerns that repeatedly show up in scientific literature are hyperactivity and allergies. A 1997 article in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine reviewed the available literature and found that hyperactivity is a serious problem linked to food additives. The author concluded that “most of the empirical studies and all of the official judgements have tended to underestimate rather than overestimate the scale of the problem.”
He estimated the percentage of children in Britain who had acute reactions to additives to be between one percent and twenty percent, the wide range being due to small and nonrepresentative sample sizes used in the empirical studies.(p324) A 2004 study in Allergy found that persistent rhinitis (nasal irritation and congestion) could be triggered by small daily doses of several food additives, particularly monosodium benzoate.
Additives can be avoided by buying whole foods and preparing sauces, soups, dressings, and condiments yourself. The Nourishing Traditions cookbook by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD, provides excellent recipes for all of these items. The Feingold Cookbook for Hyperactive Children is another valuable resource for recipes. The basic principle of the Feingold diet is to avoid synthetic colors, artificial preservatives, artificial flavors, and artificial sweeteners, particularly those made from petroleum.
In addition to avoiding additives, you can learn to use common ingredients and techniques to preserve food in healthful ways. Lactic acid fermentation and vinegar pickling are effective traditional methods of preserving vegetables as well as some fruits. Drying is another traditional method. You can use a dehydrator to make your own beef jerky or dried fruit.
One basic principle used throughout history is to combine preservation methods; particularly, a physical method with a chemical one.(p42) Chemical preservation can be achieved without resorting to additives.
Vinegar, salt, lemon juice and natural sugars (such as honey) can all help preserve foods. Another option is to use spices. One study investigated 43 different spices and found that all of them had some antibacterial properties. Oregano is consistently identified as having some of the strongest antibacterial properties of all common spices.[35,36] Other spices known for their antimicrobial properties include garlic, ginger, onion, cinnamon, cloves, mustard, bay leaf, caraway, coriander, cumin, sage, thyme, rosemary, and pepper. Before using herbs and spices, make sure to clean them well. Add them liberally to recipes for fermented vegetables and preserved fruits and meats.
Various physical preservation techniques, including refrigeration and freezing, can be easily applied in conjunction with these methods by the home chef. First, to make physical preservation methods more effective, the initial microbe level of a food should be as low as possible, so cleaning all food well and removing any impurities or signs of decay are recommended. Second, temperature should be as cold as possible. You can adjust the settings on your refrigerator to keep food just above the freezing point. Third, oxygen levels in food should be minimized. Keeping vegetables and fruits submerged under liquid in home canning is a simple example of this principle.
Food has been seasoned and kept from spoiling in a variety of ways throughout the world for thousands of years. With some patience and care, we should be able to do this even more effectively today, without resorting to potentially dangerous additives.
About the Author
Jennifer Handy has a PhD in English from the University of Tulsa and currently teaches writing in Sacramento, California. She has published work in the journal Style and in the Modernist Journals Project online scholarly database. She can be contacted at: [email protected].
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Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Spring 2013 Volume 37 Number 1
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