fat america
March 26, 2004 12:14 AM   Subscribe

When shopping, many of my friends have had very strange looks for me when I look at the sides of packages. "I'm looking for Sugar" I tell them. My concern is first, the amount of sugar, and secondly, the type of sugar.

I will purchase a product that uses sugar over a product using high fructose corn syrup. I leared this about a year ago, when I started a fitness routine.

The fact is, high fructose corn syrup is a lot cheaper than standard sugar, so companies will continue to use it. But Americans need to make better choices about their food purchases, and that includes sugar, as well as portion sizes. Until that happens, obesity will continue to be a major problem in the US.
posted by benjh at 4:04 AM on March 26, 2004

a friend of mine has been doing the same for years. It's hard to find pasta sauce without corn syrup, that surprised me a lot.
posted by dabitch at 4:13 AM on March 26, 2004

My one concession to the Atkins trend has been to cut out all soft drinks and fruit drinks. I started nearly two years ago, and I really think it's been a good choice. I've taken a sip of soda here and there, and it doesn't taste interesting to me anymore. It seems to stop the annual pound I added the previous years.

My dad never touches soft drinks, and when I told him I stopped, he told me that years ago he read something about a glass of Coke having as much sugar as 12 apples, and the mental image of eating 12 apples made him never want to touch the stuff.

For a dollar, I'd rather have a bottle of beer or a decent cup of coffee.

Now that's healthy!
posted by bendybendy at 4:19 AM on March 26, 2004

yes, next time you're shopping for condiments look for the syrup. I hadn't bought BBQ sauce in years so I wasn't particularly attached to a brand or flavor. So I started looking at the ingredients. Pretty much all the regular brands had syrup right up there in the ingredients. It's quite scary to see what's in our food.

And juice isn't really juice for most brands. I remember looking once and only finding one major brand that was 100% juice, most others were only about 10-20%.

It's the little things that get you.
posted by evening at 4:57 AM on March 26, 2004

The food industry is one of the most disgusting, exploitational, huckster industries around. They need regulation more than just about anything in my opinion.

First of all, they benefit from BILLIONS in subsidies to farmers every year paid for by our tax dollars so they can produce this crap like corn syrup.

Then they turn around and put billions into research on how they can make the food as cheap as possible and billions more on marketing to make it look appealing.

Americans may think they're getting cheap food at the checkout, but what they don't realize is that they've already paid for it in their taxes. The only people who benefit from so-called 'cheap food' are the corporations.

One of my favorite examples is Mrs. Maggie Thatcher herself. Apparently before she got into politics, she was a food scientist at Wall's Ice Cream. Her job was to see how much air they could whip into the ice cream before it collapsed on itself.

I have a friend at Nestle where their current goal is to find a cheap chocolate substitute that they can put into their candy because real chocolate is so expensive. Do you think the price of the candy will go down when they discover it? I don't think so. Will this chocolate substitute be healthier than real cocoa, or even natural at all? I don't think so. Will people continue to buy it? I think so. Why? Because of billions of dollars in marketing to make it look fabulous and appealing.
posted by PigAlien at 5:09 AM on March 26, 2004

Besides making you fat, eating stuff with HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) is most likely helping to fill the coffers of this fine company who, not too long ago, were accused of fixing the prices of Lysine and citric acid (two other corn products). They eventually made a deal, though.
posted by contessa at 5:29 AM on March 26, 2004

In one of my molecular biology/microbiology classes we were told that the molecular structure of HFCS was something that the body didn't know how to deal with. It couldn't synthesize it. Can't vouch for the data; I'm not a doctor. But I found the concept intriguing.
posted by Beansidhe at 5:47 AM on March 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

About a year or two ago I began looking at labels specifically to avoid two things: High Fructose Corn Syrup and MSG. Trying to find food with neither of these ingredients can be trying.

Avoiding monosodium glutamate is especially hard because there are no laws requiring that MSG be labeled as such. It can legally be hidden as "spices","natural flavors","yeast extract" or any number of other equally helpful designators.

Thing is, most americans don't really care what is in their food. If you ever try to tell someone about what is going on in the food industry it falls on deaf ears. They will tell you that they don't want to know, and don't tell them because then they might be grossed out by their favorite foods.

I wish people cared more, it would make it much easier for me to shop.
posted by jester69 at 5:56 AM on March 26, 2004

US quotas on sugar have caused its price in the US to be about 350% higher than the world market price of sugar. This may account for some of the heavy use of high fructose corn syrup in Us food manufacturing. (In addition to driving most US candy manufacturers abroad where they can buy much cheaper sugar.)
posted by Quinn at 6:00 AM on March 26, 2004

BBQ sauce -- spaghetti sauce -- etc., -- did you know that almost all these sauces, you can make at home, and thereby control the ingredients? They're stupidly easy. For the spaghetti sauces (and pizza sauce, etc.), I recommend Lynne Rosetto-Kasper's The Italian Country Table.

Anyway --- for the past year, I've been moving away from commercially produced foods. I have even gone so far as to buy and use a grain mill for milling my own flours (not really necessary, since there are high-quality flours available at most supermarkets, without additives). I'm even raising my own poultry and pork (all free-range, organic), and starting again on a garden.

The change is amazing. When food is prepared with wholesome ingredients, you really can eat as much as you want. Further, the more you reduce the meat and increase the use of raw foods, the less you actually do eat, even without trying. It's because the food tastes so much better, and is much more fulfilling.

So the converse of my (admittedly limited) observation: modern commercial food lacks flavor and nutrition, and it has engineered additives that increase its calories, sugars and fats; hence, we eat more of it than we would real food.

I also think that there's a connection between junky commercial food and some forms of depression. I can't prove it, of course, but it fits with my observations (not just with myself, but with others).

[disclosure: I'm also developing and implementing a business plan around free-range/organic ideals, including a network of small producers, fair-labor processing/packaging, etc. -- so I may be biased!]
posted by yesster at 6:04 AM on March 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

PigAlien: "First of all, they benefit from BILLIONS in subsidies to farmers every year paid for by our tax dollars so they can produce this crap like corn syrup."

Isn't the primary reason behind the use of HFCS the fact that the U.S. has maintained a combination of import quotas, high tariffs on sugar imports, and/or price supports for the domestic sugar market for at least the last 20 years (if not the last 50 or more)?

Wasn't in the early 1980s that Coke switched from glucose to fructose? All I know if I generally avoid "high fructose" anything--I noticed about 10 years ago how much more it affected me than glucose-sweetened or unsweetened drinks. Now I just consume way to much NutraSweet.
posted by bafflegab at 6:18 AM on March 26, 2004

Thing is, most americans don't really care what is in their food. If you ever try to tell someone about what is going on in the food industry it falls on deaf ears. They will tell you that they don't want to know, and don't tell them because then they might be grossed out by their favorite foods.

Even given the willful blindless angle, I think it's telling that Congress thought they had to give the fast-food industry immunity from obesity-related lawsuits. Frivolous lawsuits [FN1] will generally not lead to a judgment, no matter what the tort-reform/insurance industry tells you. In terms of how the food industry makes use of its understanding of consumption impulses, there are enough parallels to the tobacco industry cases to at least support a day in court for a plaintiff or two.

FN1. E.g., some poor, disabled-by-his-own-girth tub arguing, "I knew eating 5 McDonald's cheeseburgers every day for the last 15 years was unhealthy, but now McD must pay."
posted by bafflegab at 6:27 AM on March 26, 2004

For those of you who've switched from HFCS to nutrasweet or it's nearest equivalent....you might want to consider who your sweetness pusher is....HFCS is probably better for you than nutrasweet....

(try to ignore the bad design...)
posted by jaded at 6:36 AM on March 26, 2004

Sugars aliases for beginning label lookers:

Barbados Sugar
Barley Malt
Beet Juice
Beet Sugar
Black Strap Molasses
Brown Rice Syrup (In Most Soy Milks)
Brown Sugar
Cane Sugar
Cane Syrup
Carob Powder
Confectioner's Sugar
Cooked Honey
Corn Starch
Corn Sugar
Corn Sweetener
Corn Syrup
Crystalline Carbohydrate
Crystalline Fructose
Dark Brown Sugar
Date Sugar
Date Syrup
Demerara (British)
Evaporated/Crystallized Cane Juice
Fig Syrup
Filtered Honey
Fruit Juice Concentrate (All Types)
Fruit Nectars
Fruit Sugar
Fruit Sweetener
Golden Brown Sugar
Granulated Sugar
Grape Sugar
Grape Sweetener
Heavy Syrup
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Hydrogenated Glucose Syrup
Invert Sugar
Juice Concentrate
Lactose (Milk Sugar)
Levulose (Fruit Sugar)
Light Brown Sugar
Light Sugar
Light Syrup
Lite Syrup
Low Sugar
Malt Syrup
Malted Barley
Malted Syrup
Malto-(Anything Else)
Maltose (Malt Sugar)
Maple Sugar
Maple Syrup
Muscavado (Barbados Sugar)
Natural Sweeteners
Natural Syrup
Powdered Sugar
Raisin Syrup
Raw Honey
Raw Sugar
Raw Sugar or Turbinado Sugar
Ribbon Cane Syrup
Rice Malts
Rice Syrup
Sorghum Molasses
Sorghum Syrup
Starch Syrup
Sucrose (Table Sugar)
Sugar Alcohols (Ex. Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol)
Sugar Cane Syrup
Syrups (Ex. Maple, Sorghum)
Table Sugar
Uncooked Honey
White Sugar

This list doesn't include the man killing artificial sweetners. Try Stevia instead.
posted by oh posey at 6:42 AM on March 26, 2004 [3 favorites]

My SO is skinny (mountain biker physique) but he has very high triglycerides. After reading Fast Food Nation I suggested he cut back on the soda. I also cook everything from scratch. When he can stay off the Mountain Dew, his levels are always much lower, but it is an on-going battle for him. He never developed a coffee habit and The Dew is his morning starter.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:44 AM on March 26, 2004

I gave up most HFCS products at the beginning of this month, and the weight's falling off me as a result. My beverage of choice these days is iced tea, with lemon juice and just a bit of sugar.

When he can stay off the Mountain Dew, his levels are always much lower, but it is an on-going battle for him. He never developed a coffee habit and The Dew is his morning starter.

A twelve-ounce cup of black coffee has about two calories, and gives you about as much caffeine as a can of Mountain Dew. Once your SO learns to start his day with coffee, he'll never go back.
posted by Prospero at 6:54 AM on March 26, 2004

What's fun is to read the ingredients to different American fruit juices (Welch's, for example,) and see there is high fructose corn syrup listed in addition to water, juice from concentrate, and absorbic acid. Ack.
posted by the fire you left me at 7:01 AM on March 26, 2004

Avoiding monosodium glutamate is especially hard because there are no laws requiring that MSG be labeled as such. It can legally be hidden as "spices","natural flavors","yeast extract" or any number of other equally helpful designators.

This also is why it is difficult for my to eat chips in the States, I always get a chemical burn from all the "flavor."
posted by the fire you left me at 7:05 AM on March 26, 2004

must...wean self...from coca cola addiction....
posted by contessa at 7:06 AM on March 26, 2004

does anyone know of any brands of ketchup that don't use hfcs? it seems like even the ones i see at the high-end supermarkets use it.

or are there any recipes for homemade ketchup anyone can recommend?
posted by lord_wolf at 7:12 AM on March 26, 2004

Yes - ketchup recipe:

Buy 28 oz can Contadina crushed tomatos (Look at the ingredients list; it says "INGREDIENTS: TOMATOS").

Put entire contents of can in blender. Add 2 tbsp honey, 1 tbsp salt, more or less to taste. Blend on high for 5 minutes (less for lumpy ketchup). Viola!

But you'd be better off just using the plain crushed tomatos, optionally pureed, without the honey or salt added. Most so-called preferences are easily retrained, and usually result from availability and habit, rather than actual taste preference.
posted by yesster at 7:20 AM on March 26, 2004

When shopping, many of my friends have had very strange looks for me when I look at the sides of packages.

seriously? that really surprised me. Do other people find that weird?

I don't avoid all sugar, just the highly processed ones like corn syrup; there are brands of spaghetti sauce that don't use that (Classico, I think, is one of them, and it's inexpensive & decent; then there are fancy brands at the gourmet-esque stores). I once made a big batch of homemade tomato sauce - got a crate of tomatoes at a farmer's market and simmered them all day - and it was the best sauce I've ever had, even the portions of it that had been frozen for six months. But it's a project.

One thing to look out for is the serving size. A lot of obviously single serving things trick you by listing the number of servings as more than one - e.g., ramen noodles, which are very high in sugar and sodium, and use msg, sometimes list the number of servings as three so that the numbers (esp for sodium) don't look as bad. Also, those natural smoothies like Naked or Odwalla often list the number of servings as two so the sugar numbers look better. And then they cheat and list the beneficial stuff (the vitamins and minerals etc) under the contents of the entire bottle...
posted by mdn at 7:33 AM on March 26, 2004

muir glen has some great ketchup. i love the stuff. and after eating heinz forever, this stuff was a wonderful surprise.
posted by chrisroberts at 7:36 AM on March 26, 2004

"Isn't the primary reason behind the use of HFCS the fact that the U.S. has maintained a combination of import quotas, high tariffs on sugar imports, and/or price supports for the domestic sugar market for at least the last 20 years (if not the last 50 or more)?" - bafflegab

Thanks for asking, bafflegab. A quick google would probably give me the correct answer, but I believe that in addition to these tariffs and quotas on sugar that the US government subsidizes corn production quite heavily, which is why corn syrup is so much cheaper.

Here it is.

An excerpt:

"The United States is the largest producer of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Most of it is produced by corporations which also receive the majority of farm subsidies. [...] There is an overlapping monopoly involving 6 corporations that control nearly 2/3 of the world’s grain trade. They also have important holdings in seed companies (and genetically modified seeds) and are deeply invested in food products. Because they also control large parts of that processed food system in the United States they have introduced HFCS into many foods, from orange juice to spaghetti sauce."

In regards to your post, oh posey, I prefer to avoid any refined sugar (and most definitely corn syrup), but when necessary I will buy products with honey or molasses or brown rice syrup because those are still much more nutritionally rich than white sugar or HFCS.
posted by PigAlien at 8:09 AM on March 26, 2004

Sugar is definitely evil, too, but did you know that around Passover, Coke and Pepsi put out versions of their product with sugar instead of corn syrup since some religious Jews won't eat or drink corn products for the week? They actually taste much better and some people I know stock up. They're usually marked by an "OUP" on the cap or something similar. The ingredient list, IIRC, remains the same: "sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup."
posted by callmejay at 8:51 AM on March 26, 2004

There's a growing and serious misconception at foot in the United States: It's not how much you eat, it's what you eat.

I'm not particularly in favor of HFCS, and I eat very little of it. I'd be fine with the surgeon general putting a 'Eat This, Get Fat' warning on every product containing it -- if it were true... Unfortunately, I don't think it is.

Much, much better to concern yourself with the amount of food your eating.

HFCS is made up of two 'single sugars'. fructose and glucose. These are the same two sugars that make up table sugar (sucrose). The difference between HFCS and table sugar is that the sugars are not bound together into a single molecule in HFCS.

More to the point -- all types of macronutrients; carbohydrates (including sugars), proteins, fats, and alcohol, contain fixed amounts of calories. Equal servings of table sugar and HFCS contain equal calories.

Some may argue that HFCS is metabolized differently than table sugar, and that a minor difference in the metabolism pathway causes people to get fat. The more you know about metabolism the many, many pathways that exist, the more this looks like bullshit.

In the article linked, they mention that fructose doesn't cause the same response as glucose.

The debate over high-fructose sweeteners centers on how the body processes sugar. Unlike glucose, a major component in table sugar, fructose doesn't trigger responses in hormones that regulate energy use and appetite. That means fructose is more likely to be converted into fat, the researchers said.

This also seems like bullshit -- table sugar (sucrose) is 50/50 fructose and glucose. HFCS ranges from 42 to 55% fructose. As far as I know (and I am not a nutritionist, btw) the first step along the metabolic pathway for sucrose is for an enzyme to break it down into fructose and glucose. Given this, it's hard to imagine why HFCS fails to provoke the hormone response in question.

Regarding the studies linked, the link they have is 'coincidental', meaning that the rise in obesity is linked with the beginnings of the use of HFCS. Many, many factors may be at play here, the cheapness of the sweetener and the government subsidies probably play much higher role than any nutritional differences.

I feel pretty certain that the critical factor is this: food manufacturers are probably competing less on price and more on portion size. Remember, using a cheaper sweetener means you can bump the portion size for the same price.

Here's another link which is much more to the point: Bigger portions, Bigger Appetite.

Should you avoid HFCS? Sure, as long as it's part of avoiding large portion size, calorie packing, mass produced crap food.
posted by daver at 8:51 AM on March 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Following from what daver said, this recent special report in the Globe & Mail has got me checking labels for trans fats, which strike me as being much more of a health risk than HFCS. (HFCS might cause some weight gain; trans fat looks like it's a leading cause of heart disease).

So to use mdn's example - ramen noodles . . . are very high in sugar and sodium, and use msg - I'd add that perhaps the worst thing about ramen noodles is that they're swimming in trans fat.
posted by gompa at 9:22 AM on March 26, 2004

For the past few years I've been avoiding HFCS, and last year I began avoiding trans fat (look for hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, or fractionated oils in the ingredients). It's utterly amazing how prevalent those ingredients are in mass-produced prepackaged foods, even those that seem simple. Luckily I live in an urban area with natural-food co-ops (even the nearby Safeway has a natural-foods section) so in addition to organic produce, it's possible to find decent bottled drinks (100% fruit juice, or with things like ginseng added) and packaged savory & sweet snacks with simple, natural ingredients. (I generally try to avoid prepackaged foods, but every once in a while when you're running around town you just have to grab something.)

Lately at the grocery I've been getting containers of peanut butter from machines that grind it in front of you out of peanuts and nothing else. It's heavenly, and just a tiny bit is filling. The other day I had a small amount of mass-produced peanut butter loaded with HFCS and tons of other ingredients, and it was totally disgusting. Demand that your supermarket get a peanut grinder! It's just like a big coffee grinder. (Or use a food processor at home.)

As a fruit lover, what gets me about HFCS isn't so much that it's added to sodas and other obviously bad-for-you drinks. It's the "fruit cocktails" with, like, 8% real fruit and tons of HFCS that I find incredible deceptive in their "fruity goodness" packaging and marketing. How many parents out there think stuff like that is healthy for their kids? "You've had enough Coke today, Madison. Have fruit juice instead." Often when you walk into a rural or suburban convenience store or grocery, those are the only fruit-based drinks you can find.

Consumers just need to demand more choices, and stores need to stock a wider variety of alternate brands. (I've found that the smaller the food-product company, the more likely it is that they'll use good ingredients.) Even if HFCS's bad rep is a bit overstated, I'll be happy if its demonization results in more products with simple ingredients.
posted by lisa g at 10:10 AM on March 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

We did this story already (twice, even, from two NYT articles by food writer Michael Pollan) but I still think it's one of the most important things I've learned from MeFi. Incredible that we are bankrupting ourselves paying subsidies to the same people who are destroying our health.

Jump on the obesity bandwagon? Or take personal responsibility?
posted by LeLiLo at 10:32 AM on March 26, 2004

Actually, lisa g, you so hit the nail on the head with the fruity drinks comment. One of the most offensive things I've ever seen is the marketing campaign for Sunny Delight, which claims that it is a 'healthy' drink made from 'real orange juice' (10%, like you said). Every time I see one of those ads I get so upset I think the producers should go to jail.

"Who knew that something that tastes so good can be so good for you?"

Of course, what's most offensive is the fact that "Schools nationwide provide Sunny D for lunch or snack stand sales. Sunny D's mix of great taste and vitamins make it a perfect drink for the hectic school day."

Don't forget - nothing else delights you like Sunny Delight!
posted by PigAlien at 10:42 AM on March 26, 2004

Correct me - 5% fruit juice in Sunny Delight!
posted by PigAlien at 10:47 AM on March 26, 2004

There's a growing and serious misconception at foot in the United States: It's not how much you eat, it's what you eat.

yeah, it's true that people constantly try to avoid the fact that the only way to lose weight is: eat less and exercise. This is nothing new, though... fad diets are ancient news. But some things do have higher nutritional value than other things, and it is certainly intuitive that if you live off of a diet exclusively of coke and potato chips, you will be worse off than if you live off a diet of fresh produce, even if the caloric intake is exactly the same. One thing about corn syrup is that in many food products, it is one of the first or second ingredients - that it makes up a large portion of the product itself. Sugar as such is not a problem, but if three different kinds of sugar are listed as primary ingredients, then it seems like it could have a negative effect.

And I guess the difference between fresh fruit juice and mountain dew just seems viscerally obvious, even if the numbers for sugar aren't that different. Perhaps it's just that the fruit juice comes with lots of vitamins - but would a multi-vitamin and a can of coke really = a glass of fresh fruit juice? Eh, maybe that's not so insane. I just like real juice better. It certainly feels healthier, but it also just tastes so much better. If soda cost as much as fresh juice, I can't imagine the disparity that currently exists would be anywhere near so great. You get used to tastes; if you drink soda all the time, you're more likely to crave it. I haven't had soda for easily ten years (I mean, possibly here or there that I'm forgetting, but I don't buy it) and I never think about it.
posted by mdn at 10:59 AM on March 26, 2004

I should say, never think about it anymore, because I did drink soda regularly in high school and (early) college. But to be fair, I never made a conscious decision to stop drinking soda - I probably just drank it because it was around and when it was up to me to stock the fridge, I didn't generally think to buy it, so - don't drink it. But I did used to crave it when it was around. I dunno. Now that I'm thinking about it, it even sounds good...
posted by mdn at 11:04 AM on March 26, 2004

lisa g - I used the peanut grinder for a long time too but switched over to the almond grinder after reading this article about fresh ground peanut butter having 10X higher amounts of alfatoxins in it than Skippy and Jif.
posted by oh posey at 11:10 AM on March 26, 2004

Mdn -- careful what you wish for, higher nutritional value could easily mean higher calories. Cabs, protien and fats are nutrients just like Vitamin C.

The thing that has me concerned is that focusing on something besides 'eat less' misses the point. Telling people if they avoid the HFCS in coke implies they can still glug down pure fruit juice.

More specifically:
250 Ml of unsweetened Orange Juice contains 117 calories
250 Ml of regular Coca Cola contains 119

If you 'supersize' your Orange juice, you're going to end up just as fat as if you drank coke.

People tend to think the issue is about 'higher nutritional value', which usually means they think this item may have more 'vitamins' than that. I'm pretty sure most people in the United States get all the vitamins they need, and then some.

If you're really worried about getting enough micronutrients, do the following:
* Take a good quality vitamin
* Heed the advice of my college nutrition professor: Moderation and Variety in your diet.
posted by daver at 12:54 PM on March 26, 2004

Interesting page and chart about how US corn crops are used:


Top 4 categories are: livestock feed (60%), exports (20%), ethanol and HFCS.

Corn eaten off the cob doesn't even get a mention.
posted by kurumi at 1:54 PM on March 26, 2004

This is a great thread. I had no idea MSG was hidden. Milling your own flours is ridiculously easy if you get a good grain mill. The taste difference is quite noticeable.

My cholesterol is high, I just found out, so I'm going to become a semi-vegetarian, or Pescatarian (fish only). No, really.

Do polyunsaturated fats really clean out your arteries?
posted by mecran01 at 4:30 PM on March 26, 2004

Processed sugar, grain and fat are the root cause of our modern health problems. HFCS is one example.
posted by stbalbach at 5:58 PM on March 26, 2004

I'm with you label readers. Grocery shopping can take forever...and people just think you're insane...but hey, compulsive label reading is the smallest of my public eccentricities...
posted by dejah420 at 8:36 PM on March 26, 2004

great thread, indeed. I've been label reading for years and it remains a pain-in-theass to find food devoid of HFCS (and transfatty/msg/)

A tip for the motivated:

On any grocier's shelf: seek out imported products. For example- Euro Jams/jellies are made with sugar, I have yet to find a domestic brand without HFCS) This is true for asian products as well... Of course its bad for the trade deficit.

Also, I read once that after 50 years of training americans to have a sweet tooth, the use of HFCS was not only a cost cutting measure. The demand for sweets in the US simply can't be met by the sugar industry. Its just that much larger than max agro sugar production under the best growing circumstances.
posted by BentPenguin at 11:02 AM on March 27, 2004

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