Away From the Bench

The world outside of the lab

Archive for the tag “Government”

Eat Your Nerd Grenades

There is an obesity problem in America.  Educating children about eating a balanced diet is the most important thing we can do to prevent further increases in obesity.  As a child, I had to stay at the dinner table until I ate all my vegetables.  I remember one time that I sat at the kitchen table at least an hour after dinner was over, pouting over my turned-cold broccoli.  I eventually choked it down.  I learned that it’s important to eat a balanced diet, and now I choose to eat my broccoli.  Thanks Mom and Dad.  If children eat fresh fruits and vegetables from an early age, they will actually like to eat some of them.  Just ask my 7-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew if they like beets and brussel sprouts.  (They do).  Any headway made on reducing childhood obesity depends on parents taking responsibility for their children’s diet and educating them about it.

Courtesy of eatnearrockford.blogspot.com

Several studies based on exposing children to healthy foods by their parents increase children’s acceptance of that food.   Giving a bite of vegetable to a child every day for 2 weeks exposes them to that food and increases the consumption and likability of that food.  Dr. Lucy Cooke of the University College of London recently demonstrated that exposure to a healthy food followed by a tangible reward of a sticker increased their intake and liking of that food as well.  (Not to brag, but I had a pretty big sticker box as a kid – and I never got any for eating vegetables!)  There has been a lot of media coverage lately on a study claiming that children’s food choices were affected when silly names were associated with vegetables. Although the authors conclude that the silly names increased vegetable intake, I don’t think the experiment was well-controlled.  The baseline vegetable consumption of the control group before the intervention was 1.8-23.5-fold higher than that of the treatment group, depending on the vegetable.  That means, the children who were served the silly-named vegetables were eating a lot less vegetables at the beginning of the study (and intake at the end of the study was still less, for 3-out-of-4 vegetables, in the treatment group than the control group without the silly names).  For example, if Paul in the control group ate 4 carrots at the beginning of the study, and he ate 5 carrots at the end, that would be a 1.25-fold increase.  If Sally ate 1 carrot at the beginning of the study, and then they called carrots “X-ray Vision Carrots” and she ate 3 carrots, that’s a 3-fold increase.  Look what happened when you gave carrots a silly name!  You just can’t compare these groups well with the simple statistics they used.  Perhaps these conclusions were made because the people who performed the study were marketing guys (and I believe, marketed loose data to the public).  Nevertheless, children are influenced to some extent by marketing, but they are influenced more by what those around them (parents and peers) are doing.  It’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure their children are eating a healthy diet.

Along the same lines, there is an uproar over the new government regulations for subsidized school lunches.  I found the clip below from The Daily Show to be humorous (and fairly accurate) – it spawned this post (and the title).  Children need to learn to eat healthier, but if parents and schools don’t teach them that, then the obesity rate will keep on rising.  Advice to children in the immortal words of John Stewart: Eat your motherf*cking lunch.

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Not Signed, but Sealed

The 2012 Farm Bill has seen twists and turns in the legislature over the last couple of months.  Although it has turned into a bipartisan standoff over money, many of the programs from the 2008 Farm Bill have expired or will expire in September.  Several ‘food and health leaders’ have signed an open letter to Congress asking them to reject the Farm Bill in its current form because they believe the bill gives the most money to the largest commodity crop growers while underfunding conservation and nutrition assistance programs.  I agree that most fruit and vegetable growers for human consumption are currently overlooked in the Farm Bill.  I won’t get into politics here, but I think most bills that come through our government are bloated and need revision because politicians are attempting to help out their constituents.  I also believe the 2012 Farm Bill should be revised in several areas…but why does it seem like everyone waited too long to voice their opinion?  Any really beneficial programs that are supported by the Farm Bill will be terminated if it is completely rejected.  Will everyone be able to compromise and revise the Farm Bill before it’s too late?  What makes the bill especially important right now is the drought that has taken over the Midwest.  How will the government respond when those harvests – which will affect food, animal feed, and ethanol supplies – are lost?  I just got back from a road trip and the brown fields in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas were a bit depressing.

Sad Corn

The Farm Bill is huge.  You can read the 2008 bill here.  It includes commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, farming credit and loans, rural development, research , forestry, energy, horticulture, livestock, crop insurance and disaster assistance, commodity futures, and even a section of ‘miscellaneous’.  What actually caught my eye was the research part of the bill.  I earned my undergraduate degree from a land-grant university, so I was well-acquainted with that part.  This section of the bill also sets aside funds specifically for nutrition and agriculture research.  You are probably familiar with many innovations to come out of this bill but you would never really know it.  Ever wonder how those cut apples from McDonald’s stay white and crisp?  You can partially thank the U.S. government for that.

The USDA Agricultural Research Service teamed up with Mantrose-Haeuser, an edible coating company, to create and patent a product that would keep fresh-cut fruit and vegetables from browning.  The result is NatureSeal AS-1.  For years prior, scientists attempted to come up with a solution to prevent fresh food browning without harsh chemicals, flavors, or reduction in nutrition.  They finally did it with the help of the USDA.  NatureSeal AS-1 is a mixture of vitamins and minerals that will keep some fresh fruits from browning for at least 21 days.  That sure beats the couple hours it took last time I left an apple core out on the counter!

Apples to Apples

The calcium citrate-based coating is applied to freshly cut produce to maintain color, crispness, and water content.  Originally developed for apples and pears, AS-1 also retains the freshness of pineapples, melons, avocados, limes, nectarines, plums, starfruit, and coconut.  NatureSeal has developed formulas for many other fruits and vegetables as well as for frozen and dried fruits.  Which makes me happy – I love dried apricots, but the sulfites used to preserve them would always make me wheeze and cough.  NatureSeal products are sulfite-free.  My husband loves the baby carrots that come ready-to-eat (well, not technically baby carrots, they are just big carrots that have been shaved down, or ‘baby-cut’).  NatureSeal is used to prevent whitening and carotene loss from those little guys too.  The company has expanded their product line to include pre-washes that kill bacteria on fresh fruits and vegetables without the harsh chlorine.

Even though I am a proponent of buying fresh, whole foods at the market or grocery store, I am glad that grocery stores and restaurants are able to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables to people who will reach for the baby-cut carrots or a fruit cup instead of a bag of chips.  Fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s are able to add fresher foods to their menu too.  No matter how you feel about fast food restaurants, they aren’t going away any time soon.  It’s nice to have the ability to order apple slices instead of french fries when your sandwich just doesn’t quite fill you up.  Switching from a small fry to a packet of apples saves you 215 calories and 11 grams of fat – and will even give you 160% of your daily allowance of vitamin C.  You just have to make the switch.  And keep an eye on that Farm Bill – it’s not all bad, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum.

Some things still grow in Kansas

Shape-ups Ship Out

News broke yesterday about Sketchers settling charges against them from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for $40 million.  The FTC claims the company “deceived consumers  by making unfounded claims that Shape-ups would help people lose weight, and strengthen and tone their buttocks, legs and abdominal muscles”.

Now, if you’ve ever seen Shape-ups shoes, you might think they would look good with a nice pair of slacks (I’m using slacks as an out-dated term from the 80’s).  I personally would never buy shoes that look like that even if the company claimed it would tone 100 different muscles, and I wear athletic-looking shoes (I even have a different pair of Sketchers!) almost every day.  I apologize to any of my friends or family who bought these shoes (Amy) but they just didn’t do it for me.

Aesthetics aside, Sketchers made false claims about Shape-ups, Resistance Runner, Toners, and Tone-ups shoes.  Just the names are enough to get a person excited (good marketing!), but telling consumers they will perform miracles such as losing weight (without changing your lifestyle) and falsifying clinical study data is just stupid.  Great marketing always puts a shine on products, but you still “can’t polish a turd”.  (No matter what the Mythbusters say).

There will never be a miracle pill (or shoe) that will make you lose weight, get in shape, and tone your muscles without any effort from you.  The human body is an amazing organism and if you treat yours right, it will reward you.  There are so many complicated systems at work inside your body that scientists working on a ‘miracle weight loss pill’ are discovering that there may not be such a thing.  I think the best story about finding an ‘obesity cure’ begins back in the 1950’s.  A company that breeds new animal strains for scientific research, Jackson Laboratories, discovered a strain of mice that was constantly feeding, lethargic, and obese.  These mice could not get enough food and would eat until they couldn’t move.  (The blob on the right is one of those mice).

Leibel, RL (2008) International Journal of Obesity, 32:S98–S108.

When molecular biology and DNA genotyping finally caught up in the mid-1990’s, Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, Dr. Rudy Leibel, and their colleagues discovered that this mouse strain, named ob/ob (due to its obesity) had a mutation in a hormone called leptin.  They gave these obese mice leptin, and amazingly they stopped constantly eating and lost weight.  The miracle drug was found!  Even the name leptin was derived from the Greek word leptós, or thin.  Clinical leptin trials began…and ended…because people were not losing weight.  The problem was, most obese people are not obese because they have low levels of leptin.  Turns out, this hormone is made by your fat cells, or adipocytes.  The adipocytes secrete leptin into the blood stream, where it travels to your brain, finds the leptin receptors, and basically says, “hey, you, stop eating.”  So what do obese people have?  Lots and lots of leptin circulating in their blood from all of their adipocytes secreting the hormone.  Many obese people have leptin resistance, which means their brain cannot use the leptin signals they are receiving to tell you to stop eating.  So giving these people more leptin makes no difference.  This research did help some people who have similar mutations to the ob/ob mice or those that actually have a deficiency in leptin production.  However, for the majority of obese people, it could not help them.

The human body is great at adapting to its environment and working to survive.  If you help it along a little, you might be surprised at what it can do.  Don’t look for a magic pill or a magic shoe.  They just don’t exist.  So instead of buying these shoes and waiting for your calves to be toned while walking a block to your car, put on real sneakers and walk a little faster and a little farther, and then you may see some results.

Beetle Juice: the next protein shake?

Michiel den Hartogh is in the kitchen assembling a “crispy cricket” concoction — complete with curried mayonnaise, crocodile pie and fried crickets — with the special care due any delicacy.

This isn’t a chef preparing for the next episode of Fear Factor.  This quote is from an article by Teri Schultz on the Netherlands restaurant Spacktakel and their chef experimenting with insects and worms in their recipes.  More of these kind of restaurants may not be that far off, with the European Union spending 3 million euros on insects-as-food research and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations assessing the potential of edible insects.

People have been eating bugs gathered from the wild for centuries.  There are thousands of insect species known to be safe for human consumption found throughout the world.  I think insects have turned up as a delicacy in some restaurants because it’s something different and could be the ‘next big thing.’  There seemed to be a trend with Kobe beef or local farm-fresh foods in many expensive restaurants over the past several years.  As local foods and Kobe beef become more and more common, chefs are looking for the next thing to tantalize customers.  Insects could be it.  If eating insects makes you shudder, how about the age-old luxury foods such as caviar and pâté?  Caviar are sturgeon eggs treated with salt to give them flavor and pâté is ground meat and fat blended to a spreadable paste.  Not that appetizing either, huh?

The biggest obstacles to eating bugs for most people are taste and consistency. The taste can always be altered by adding other foods to it, stewing it in a soup or sauce, or even frying it.  Preparing insects in these ways can also change the consistency, although some insects have exoskeletons that might have to be removed to avoid crunchiness.  In Japan, inago (grasshoppers) fried or boiled in sweetened soy sauce have been eaten for centuries.  Most likely, insects will be introduced for mass public consumption in the Western world through insect protein in powdered form and added into other foods.  (Insert joke about Jessica Seinfeld hiding spinach in her kid’s brownies here).  Unless they read the label in the grocery store, people might not even realize they are eating protein from insects.  Bear Grylls wishes he could be that lucky.

Photo copyright simplemathbakery.com

Insects have been known to be a good food source for years.  I found what appears to be a web 1.0 site from the late 1990’s/early 2000’s (complete with visitor counter!) at www.food-insects.com, which was created by Dr. Gene DeFoliart, now Professor Emeritus at UW-Madison.  Studies from his lab (and others) have measured high levels of digestable protein in insects (46-96% protein depending on the species, with digestability at 77-96%) including many essential amino acids (remember, those are the ones you must get from food sources).  Insect conversion of plant protein to body protein mass is much higher than cows (crickets are five times more efficient) and the protein content is comparable to vertebrate animals if the exoskeleton is removed.  The exoskeleton, which contains chitin, could then be used for other agricultural (fertilizer) or industrial (thickener, binder) uses.  Many different insect species (caterpillars, termites, grasshoppers) have high levels of minerals such as iron, copper, and zinc, as well as A and B  vitamins.

Insects as edible protein for humans could help the food industry end their battles with pink slime, feces contamination, hormone use, and animal housing conditions.  It would also make the FDA’s new ‘suggestion’ to reduce antibiotic use in farm animals moot.  Even though I am a meat-eater, I am concerned about the sustainability of large-mammal farming and how it affects the environment (methane gas, clear-cutting forests, etc.)  I don’t think beef, poultry, or pork will completely disappear, but the availability may decrease drastically in the future.

For now, I think the best way to use insects is for animal (non-human) feed.  There is a nice TEDx talk by Jason Drew in which he describes the forces behind his company’s plan (AgriProtein) to use fly larvae as animal feed, instead of feeding chickens and fish old chicken and fish parts.  This return to a more natural, mass-produced food for animals is a great idea.  Although free-range animals are best, the majority of our meat does not come from these animals.  Drew calculates that one kilogram of fly eggs can create 318 kilograms of protein in 72 hours by feeding off of blood waste from slaughterhouses.  The resulting larvae can be dried and powdered to add protein to any type of animal feed.  If this type of animal feed can be used for large-scale farm operations, it could drastically improve feed quality and pathogen transmission that we now have with animal ‘cannibalism’.

Currently, insects are an expensive delicacy for the Western world because there are not many companies producing insects for human consumption (although there are 20,000 insect ‘farmers’ in Thailand), but if mass production of ‘human-grade’ insects begins, they will become much cheaper than other animal meat.  In addition, I doubt there will be any movement to up-charge for healthier ‘organic’ or ‘free-range’ insects, which is a problem we currently have with other meat.  I’m interested to see if edible insects catch on in Europe and the U.S.  Perhaps in the future your spider roll at the sushi restaurant will actually be made of spider instead of soft-shell crab…but I’m also betting my mother will still not eat it.

You Can’t Do That…to Beef

I wasn’t planning on commenting on the pink slime issue because it’s all over the news, but my husband asked me last night, “What is this ‘pink slime’ they are talking about?”  So I guess that means not everyone knows what’s going on with this stuff.  The word ‘slime’ always reminds me of You Can’t Do That on Television, which I thoroughly enjoyed watching as a kid.  Who wouldn’t want to get slimed every time they said, “I don’t know?”  Double Dare also had some great slime activities.  And Ghostbusters – they actually had PINK SLIME in the second movie!  I guess the 1980’s was the decade of slime (pun intended?).

Ok, let’s get back on track.  ‘Pink slime’ in reference to foodstuffs came into the public consciousness last year when Chef Jamie Oliver made it his mission for Americans to eat healthier on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  Yet, it was back in 2002 when USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein toured a beef production facility and saw the meat filler being produced, which looked like pink slime to him.  So he called it ‘pink slime’, even though the USDA refers to it as ‘Lean Finely Textured Beef’.  Pink slime is used as a lower-cost filler for processed meat products, usually ground beef.  The official USDA term sounds more appetizing, although it’s production may not be so palatable.  The outermost part of the cow is mostly fat, but when it is heated and spun really fast in a centrifuge, any protein left in the tissue separates from the fat.  This protein is mostly connective tissue, which is composed of different amino acids (the building blocks of protein) than those found in muscle tissue (the meat you usually eat).  Essential amino acids are those you must get from your diet because your body cannot produce them.  Connective tissue contains very little of these essential amino acids, which decreases the quality and nutritive value of the meat.

Not only is pink slime lesser of a protein product, but it is removed near the cow’s hide and the likelihood of contamination, especially from E. coli and Salmonella bacteria, is significantly increased.  Every problem has a solution, of course, and the beef industry’s solution is to treat this protein product with ammonia hydroxide gas to attempt to kill the bacteria that can kill you.  The problem is, this doesn’t always work well – these pathogens have been found in 51 batches of meat slated for the federal school lunch program since 2005.  Even though the USDA considers this gassing process safe, it still turns my stomach.  Furthermore, the USDA does not require foods that contain pink slime to be labeled, and it’s possible that last package of ground beef you bought at the grocery store contained this filler, as the USDA still considers this 100% beef.  I’m almost certain that frozen beef burrito you bought at 7-11 had some pink slime in it.

Luckily, there is a movement toward reducing pink slime in the food that we eat.  McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell have already discontinued using pink slime-containing products.  The public outcry over pink slime in school lunches recently persuaded the USDA to offer school districts the option to purchase pink slime-free products.  This story continues to develop, as a major pink slime producer, Beef Products Inc. just suspended operations at 3 of its 4 plants on Monday.

So if we continue to use the pink slime to keep our food costs down, would you rather be eating E. coli or ammonia hydroxide?  If you answered, “I don’t know,” you would have a bucket of slime on your head (if it were 1986).  I think any movement by the food industry towards more natural, whole foods is a good idea.  Let’s look on the bright side of all this:  at least we aren’t making sausage out of children.

Tanners Anonymous?

When I think of addiction, I immediately think of alcohol and drugs.  Yet, addiction can take on many forms and through different psychological and brain chemistry mechanisms.  I recently came upon this article from several months ago that described tanning addiction.  (Insert mandatory Jersey Shore/Snooki reference here).  I was amazed that UV light itself can actually cause the reward system in the brain of excessive tanners (more than 3 times a week) to turn on, measured by increased cerebral blood flow to specific areas in the brain.  When the tanners got the UV light, they were satisfied (at least for a couple of days), but when the UV light was blocked without their knowledge, their desire to tan again remained.

I was trying to come up with an evolutionary reason for addiction and how people can get addicted to what seem to be very weird things.  I don’t know much about neurobiology, but can the brain be trained to reward itself after repeated behaviors?  Perhaps this is a survival mechanism when conditions are harsh, such as times of famine or torture?  I have no idea, but it’s fascinating to me.  There are some good examples of weird addictions on TLC’s My Strange Addiction.  The TV show follows different people who are compelled to eat soap, dryer sheets, and even drywall.  However, there are also psychological issues that may be involved in most of these cases.

What seems to be the most pressing addiction issue for the Surgeon General is tobacco use by children and teenagers.  First, I want to compliment Dr. Benjamin on her sweet uniform.  I know a few hipsters who would love to pair that with some skinny jeans.  Anyway, she calls smoking and tobacco use a ‘pediatric epidemic’.  Wow, that is a strong word, even with a quarter of U.S. high school seniors smoking.  I am all for preventing people from getting addicted tobacco and trying to help them quit.  Not only does this save the individual money from not buy tobacco products, but saves the government and healthcare industry billions of dollars to care for those who have destroyed their body from its use.  The government seems to think fear and shock is the way to change people’s behavior.  They attempted to require new warnings printed on all cigarette packs that include large images of stomas and dead bodies, but this was recently ruled unconstitutional.  In an unscientific poll of late-20s/early-30s smokers that I asked, they claimed these images wouldn’t affect their cigarette use at all.  And, as we learned from my post on hand washing by doctors, people get desensitized to imagery. Starting Monday, you will probably see anti-smoking advertisements on TV and in print, as the government is spending $54 billion on this campaign.  It is possible these graphic ads may deter some younger children from picking up a cigarette…at least for a little while.  I still remember the face of the former baseball player with a swollen face and no lower jaw from mouth cancer on a poster that was hanging in my elementary school.  I applaud the federal government to take up the slack from states who won a $264 billion settlement from the tobacco industry in 1998 and have used this money for things other than tobacco education.  I just hope these ads will make a difference.

Addiction is complicated and involves so many mental and physical processes working together.  How can we change behavior when reward systems in the brain are so strong and addicts don’t fully understand the consequences until much later?  I know there are many people working on figuring that out, and I hope more answers are discovered soon.  In the meantime, take a look at this picture and answer me this: is this the skin of a smoker, the skin of a tanner, or a wallet?

Copyright BittBox

The Plant Whisperer

Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.

These words were spoken by Rick Santorum, who is vying for the Republican nomination for President of the United States.  This is not a political blog, so I’m not going to say anything about political views here, but I do have something to say about scientific ignorance.

Before I go further, I have to address the lack of English grammar.  He was probably trying to sound like he was speaking off-the-cuff, but it didn’t work for me, especially during a speech.  ‘Nuff said.  (and that’s my off-the-cuff comment lacking grammar)

I would like to go back to grade school science now and talk about ecosystems.  Ecosystems are a network between organisms and their environment, linked through nutrient cycle and energy flow.  Energy enters the system through photosynthesis (plants convert carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, oxygen, and other compounds with the sun’s light energy).  We, as humans, eat the plants (or eat other animals that ate the plants), breathe the oxygen, and release carbon dioxide into the air and organic compounds into the ground, and the cycle continues.  Santorum was attempting to tell people that carbon dioxide is not dangerous because plants use carbon dioxide, but he failed to mention/realize/understand that humans and plants have opposite roles in the ecosystem.  And what is good for plants is not necessarily good for humans.  For example, sitting outside in the sun all day, every day would most likely result in sun burn and skin cancer – not oxygen production.

I have another pearl of wisdom for you, Santorum:  carbon dioxide CAN be dangerous to plants.  Take volcanic Mammoth Mountain in central California, for instance.  In the early 1990s, trees began dying from high concentrations of carbon dioxide gas seeping into the soil from the adjacent volcano.  The ground fractured during small earthquakes and a most likely, a reservoir of gas trapped beneath the earth’s surface is leaking.  In addition, magma releases gases as it moves toward the surface of the earth.  The problem with too much carbon dioxide in the soil?  It interferes with the plant’s uptake of oxygen and nutrients through its roots.  According to a 2000 report from the U.S. Geological Survey, more than 100 acres of trees have died near Mammoth Mountain from too much carbon dioxide.

If I ever meet Santorum, maybe I’ll inform him of the differences between humans and plants, because he seems to need a refresher.  And next time I talk to a plant, I will let it know how dangerous carbon dioxide can be.

Boston Sugar Party

As a diabetes researcher, I’m well aware of the atrocities that high sugar and fat consumption wreak on the body.  We have an obesity and Type 2 Diabetes problem in this country, there’s no denying that – have you seen the CDC heat maps over the past four years?  Yet, I disagree with those in the field that are calling for a tax on sugar.  Setting age limits and taxes on sugar and sugary foods will not protect Americans from obesity and diabetes.  Have age restrictions and excise taxes on alcohol decreased the number of alcoholics in this country?

First of all, the government is currently keeping production and importation of sugar high.  Domestically, farmers get subsidized for corn production, a portion of which is processed into high fructose corn syrup (although much of it can be used for other things such as ethanol…and…corn).  Internationally, sugar is imported from other countries tax-free.  The U.S. Sugar Program Fact Sheet, yes there is such a thing, states, “Sugars that receive preferential tariff treatment under free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central American/Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA/DR), the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act, the Andean Trade Preference Act, or the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences enter at a zero duty.”  That’s nada, nothing, zilch, zip, in other words, no tax on imported sugar.  If the government were to institute a substantial consumer tax, that would theoretically decrease demand and keep supply high with subsidies and tax-free trade.  This would not be a logical step for the government nor towards reducing America’s dependence on sugar.

You also have to think about consumer habits.  People pay for Starbucks coffee because they enjoy it, they know the quality and consistency of the product, and they can buy it practically anywhere.  People buy Ding Dongs for the same reasons.  They will not change their lifestyle because they have to pay a few cents more.

I do applaud the idea behind encouraging people to eat healthier, but there needs to be proactive changes in communities and families, such as increasing access to healthier food and ease of preparing it, rather than government restriction of unhealthy food.

I know the Boston Tea Party was mainly about taxation without representation, but I can still imagine all the marine life that would die of hyperglycemic complications when all that sugar gets dumped into Boston Harbor in protest of high sugar taxes.

Creative Commons copyright bee wolf ray

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