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Aspartame Debate: Are Economic Interests Clouding the Truth?

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Aspartame Debate: Are Economic Interests Clouding the Truth?

*** This article explores the recent reclassification of aspartame, a widely used artificial sweetener, by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans.” The move has stirred varying responses from regulatory bodies, companies, and media outlets, highlighting the complexities that consumers face in discerning fact from opinion in matters of public health. The United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has openly disagreed with WHO’s assessment, while major beverage corporations have shown little inclination to alter their product formulas. Media coverage has further exacerbated the issue by adopting disparate approaches to communicating scientific uncertainty. Beyond the question of the actual toxicity of aspartame, the article underscores the ethical principle surrounding the difficult “predictability” of the harmfulness of certain chemicals. Amid this climate of uncertainty and its potential impact on global health, the article argues for the pressing need for greater transparency, ethical conduct, and responsibility from all parties involved—regulatory agencies, corporations, and the media. It serves as a call for a collective commitment to navigate scientific ambiguities in a manner that prioritizes public welfare. ***

Aspartame (sweetener) chemical composition

Aspartame is a well-known artificial (chemical) sweetener widely used in various food and beverage products since the 1980s, including diet drinks, chewing gum, gelatin, ice cream, dairy products such as yogurt, breakfast cereal, toothpaste, and medications such as cough drops and chewable vitamins (Word Health Organization 2023b).

On July 14, 2023, a group of 25 scientists from 12 different nations convened at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France. Their primary agenda was to conclude their assessment of the carcinogenic potential of aspartame (along with methyleugenol[1] and isoeugenol[2]).

Following extensive deliberations, the IARC together with the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)[3] classified aspartame as a substance that is “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Riboli 2023). For many years, aspartame has remained at the center of debates concerning its possible cancer-inducing effects. Consumers have often found themselves at a crossroads, choosing between food and drinks sweetened with traditional sugar and those that are low-sugar or sugar-free. These sugar-free options commonly make use of artificial sweeteners, usually aspartame. The decision to opt for sugar-free products stems from the purpose of reducing daily caloric consumption and combating obesity, a condition that may be itself a health hazard and can increase the risk of cancer.

The Early 2000s Controversy: Ramazzini Institute’s Alarming Findings and the UK Political Debate

Questions surrounding the safety of consuming products that contain aspartame have persisted for over two decades. In 2005, scholars from the Ramazzini Institute for Cancer Research in Italy argued that their investigation revealed a link between aspartame and the development of lymphomas and leukemia in female lab animals. The doses used in their study were notably similar to the acceptable daily intake levels designated for humans. Consequently, the researchers advocated for a comprehensive reassessment of the existing guidelines concerning the utilization and consumption of this artificial sweetener (Lawrence 2005a).

After reviewing the relevant research, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opted to maintain the existing recommended daily intake for aspartame, under which the substance is deemed non-harmful. This recommended dosage is established at 40 mg per kilogram of body weight, while typical aspartame consumption levels in Europe generally hover around 10 mg per kilogram of body weight per day (EFSA 2006).

In 2005, concerns about the dangers of aspartame were raised also before the English Parliament by Roger Williams, MP for the constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire with a degree in Natural Sciences. He asserted that “the history of the approval of aspartame puts public health regulators and politicians to shame” (Lawrence 2005b).

These remarks appear to highlight potential irregularities in the American political decision-making process followed in the late 1970s to allow the commercial use of aspartame, possibly implicating the role of strategic lobbying efforts. In order to appreciate them it is necessary to briefly look at the history of aspartame, how it was discovered, and its use legalized.

In 1965, chemist James M. Schlatter, employed by G.D. Searle & Company, inadvertently discovered aspartame. Intriguingly, Schlatter was not aiming to create a sweetener; his focus was on developing medications for ulcer treatment. The unexpected discovery of aspartame’s sweetness occurred when Schlatter tasted some residue on his finger, a practice that violated standard safety protocols in the lab (Czarnecka 2021).

Initially, the path toward the legalization of aspartame as a food additive was fraught with obstacles. The Delaney Amendment to the Pure Food and Drug Act stipulated that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could not approve any food additive that could potentially cause cancer (Merrill 1988). Consequently, in 1977, the FDA proceeded to ban saccharin, a decision influenced by a Canadian study that demonstrated a link between the artificial sweetener and bladder cancer in lab rats (Nill 2000).

The Food and Drug Administration’s ban on the artificial sweetener saccharin produced widespread reverberations, largely because there were no immediate alternatives for artificial sugar available in the market. The move encountered resistance from the commercial sector, notably from Coca-Cola Co., Inc., which expressed its disappointment with the FDA’s stance, as they produced multiple beverages labeled as “sugar-free” (Egan 1977).

Paradoxically, the ban on saccharine translated into a golden opportunity for the introduction of aspartame and its large-scale production. The thorny issue, however, concerns the political decision-making process that led to the approval of the use of the chemical sweetener. Specifically, in 1977, Donald Rumsfeld, who would later become the defense secretary under President George Bush, was the CEO of the pharmaceutical company GD Searle, the manufacturer and patent owner of aspartame. Rumsfeld was candid about his intent to leverage his political ties to gain approval for this artificial sweetener. Later, in 1981, Ronald Reagan took office as the President of the United States. Rumsfeld, who served on Reagan’s transition team, was instrumental in letting the president issue an executive order that temporarily stripped the FDA’s head of authority to make any decisions regarding aspartame. It appears that, just a month after that, Reagan appointed Arthur Hayes as the new head of the FDA, who eventually approved the use of aspartame (Gabirro 2023, p. 460).

During the debate ignited in 2005, it is possible to identify the industry’s clear effort to deploy scientific arguments as a means to downplay the problematic aspects related to the consumption of aspartame. Specifically, the debate revolved around the chemical composition of the sweetener, which breaks down into three components: a methyl ester and two amino acids, phenylalanine, and aspartic acid. The industry consistently stressed that these substances naturally appear in food and beverages, implying no additional health risks. However, as UK MP Roger Williams noted, this assertion disregarded the intricate science that renders each component harmful to humans when present in aspartame. In natural foods, phenylalanine and aspartic acid are bound to other amino acids in long, complex chains of proteins, preventing them from being absorbed in a manner that could be damaging. In aspartame, however, they are not bound in this way, and enzymes in the gut can easily separate them (Lawrence 2005b).

Renewed Concerns in 2022: NutriNet-Santé Study and Cancer Risk

In any case, despite doubts about the approval process of aspartame and the emerging scientific concerns, aspartame continues to be used to this day. The aspartame market is global and extremely expansive, and the economic interests tied to its use are significant. This economic situation would make it complicated the removal of the artificial sweetener from the market. Key players in the aspartame market are powerful chemical and pharmaceutical industries, which currently include The Holland Sweetener Company, Taj Pharmaceuticals Ltd, Niutang Chemical Ltd, Sinoway International (Jiangsu), and The Nutrasweet Company (Monsanto). To fully assess the economic impact of the production and use of aspartame, it is also necessary to consider huge multinational enterprises that use aspartame in their products, particularly in the area of food and beverage products (e.g., The Coca Cola Company and PepsiCo). Globally, the most important markets for aspartame are North America, the Asia-Pacific region—which is anticipated to experience significant growth in the coming years due to the approval of governing authorities on the use of intense sweeteners—and Europe, which was recorded as the third-largest aspartame market in 2015 (Market Data Forecast 2023).

In 2022, concerns resurfaced about the possible carcinogenic properties of aspartame. The NutriNet-Santé research group conducted an extensive analysis of cancer incidence in more than 100,000 French adults. The study relied on meticulous 24-hour dietary logs that participants completed multiple times. These detailed records, which included the names and brands of all consumed commercial food items, facilitated the calculation of total intake of artificial sweeteners. After a median monitoring period of approximately eight years, the study revealed a marginally increased risk of developing cancer among individuals who consumed artificial sweeteners compared to those who did not. Specifically, individuals with higher levels of artificial sweetener consumption faced a 1.13 times greater likelihood of being diagnosed with cancer (National Cancer Institute 2023).

Moreover, the study took into account existing research that connects artificial sweeteners to obesity, and in turn, obesity to at least 13 different types of cancer. Intriguingly, the risk of obesity-related cancers also surged by a factor of 1.13 among those who consumed higher quantities of artificial sweeteners, echoing the general cancer risk. This aligns the findings with broader inquiries into the health implications of artificial sweetener consumption, adding a nuanced layer to the ongoing debate (National Cancer Institute 2023).

The World Health Organization’s decision: Aspartame Classified as “Possibly Carcinogenic”

It is precisely on the basis of these new studies that scientists have once again turned their attention to the potential harm of aspartame. Following this renewed focus, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its “Aspartame hazard and risk assessment results” on July 14, 2023. As a result of this assessment, aspartame has been classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B) (Word Health Organization 2023b). This classification places aspartame at the third level of hazard on a scale from one to four.

In this scale, the first level (Group 1) is defined as “Carcinogenic to Humans,” representing the most potentially dangerous category. It includes substances for which there is sufficient evidence of causing cancer in humans, such as tobacco smoking and solar radiation.

The second level (Group 2A), defined as “Probably Carcinogenic to Humans,” encompasses elements with limited evidence of causing cancer in humans and sufficient evidence of cancer in experimental animals. Examples include DDT and consumption of raw meat.

The third level (Group 2B), where aspartame has been placed, is defined as “Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans.” It includes elements with limited evidence of causing cancer in humans and limited evidence of cancer in experimental animals. This is the same category in which gasoline engine exhaust is included.

Lastly, the fourth level (Group 3), defined as “Not Classifiable as to its Carcinogenicity to Humans,” pertains to elements with inadequate evidence for causing cancer in both humans and experimental animals.

See the Word Health Organization graph here https://perma.cc/V7DW-97AM

Hence, the categorization of aspartame within the group of substances labeled as “Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans” does little to instill confidence among consumers regarding the safety of this chemical sweetener. Instead, it overtly highlights the World Health Organization’s (WHO) reservations about the potential carcinogenic effects of aspartame, based on the existing albeit limited scientific evidence.

In essence, the inclusion of aspartame in the “Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans” category suggests that doubts persist about its carcinogenicity according to the WHO’s assessment. If there were no doubts or uncertainties about the safety of aspartame in terms of its lack of toxicity, it would have been categorized as a fourth-level (Group 3)  substance. Moreover, it’s important to highlight that there is a substantial debate surrounding the extent to which chemical sweeteners effectively contribute to managing obesity. This is made more prominent by the recent guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO), which advises against the utilization of non-sugar sweeteners for the purpose of weight management (Word Health Organization 2023a).

In the United States, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has promptly issued a response. The agency has conveyed that although it is “aware of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) conclusions about aspartame issued July 14, 2023, […] the FDA disagrees with IARC’s conclusion that these studies support classifying aspartame as a possible carcinogen to humans […] FDA scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions” (Food & Drug Administration 2023).

The fact that a prominent national agency responsible for protecting public health did not handle a situation with more careful consideration and issued a sudden and definitive response raises questions that merit further exploration and debate. One possible reason could be the agency might have intended to reassure American consumers in an attempt to prevent any major disruptions to the business activities of large economic players who are involved in producing and using aspartame. Even though there are many new types of artificial sweeteners available, including those that are made from plants and fruits, large food companies are not ready to abandon aspartame. This is because aspartame is one of the cheapest sugar alternatives, and people seem to enjoy its taste (Creswell 2023).  

The Industry Reaction: Big Food’s Defiance Against the World Health Organization’s Decision.

Delving into the comprehensive scientific analysis of aspartame’s safety goes beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, the emergence of uncertainties regarding the potential toxicity of aspartame, as highlighted by multiple researchers and supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), brings forth two significant considerations within the realm of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Concerning the initial point, regrettably, a common trend emerges wherein the relevant industry tends to diminish the significance of the matter at hand. This occurs without a display of conduct that places consumer safety at the forefront, especially within a context involving what can be termed as the “predictability issue.” In other words, in a scenario where the unequivocal safety of aspartame for consumption has not yet been definitively established.

In a statement released on July 14, 2023, Coca-Cola Co. affirmed “After the recent comprehensive and rigorous review by global health organizations confirming the position of food safety agencies from more than 90 countries that approve aspartame’s safety, we are not planning to change our recipes containing this ingredient.”

The approach taken by PepsiCo also appears emblematic. In 2015 PepsiCo declared its intent to cease employing aspartame as an artificial sweetener in its Diet Pepsi beverages (Gage 2015). However, in 2016, Pepsi relaunched Diet Pepsi with aspartame following a sharp decline in sales (Whitten 2016). Similar to Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo affirmed it does not intend to change its product portfolio in response to the WHO’s decision to list aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Rajesh 2023).

The Media Conundrum: Divergent Narratives on Aspartame’s Risk Profile

The second aspect, which is particularly disconcerting, pertains to the potential spread of misinformation facilitated by mass media while discussing this matter.[4] In this regard, the primary concern revolves around the manner in which mass media outlets communicate information to the public. The potential for misinformation is alarming, as it can significantly impact public perception and understanding. Specifically, when scrutinizing some of the prominent sources of journalism, it becomes evident that two divergent approaches are at play.

The first approach is characterized by the newspapers that not only discuss the problematic aspect of aspartame potential toxicity within the body of the text but also let the present state of uncertainty concerning the safety of its use emerge in the title of their article. An illustrative instance of this approach can be observed in an article published in The Washington Post, titled “Ditching Diet Coke? We tasted 5 aspartame-free alternatives” (Heil 2023). This article seems to interpret the facts accurately, as the opening lines convey the idea that “The World Health Organization’s cancer-research arm delivered an unwelcome message to the legions of people who enthusiastically rely on a boost from the zero-calorie soda, calling aspartame — the sweetener used in their favorite drink — a ‘possible carcinogen’.”

It’s noteworthy that major European newspapers such as Le Monde,[5] El País,[6] and La Repubblica[7] have also adopted a neutral tone in their headlines, which unambiguously conveys the issue of including aspartame among potential carcinogenic substances. This naturally raises the question of whether their distance from the commercial interests associated with the production and utilization of aspartame has contributed to such a choice.

The second approach involves presenting the facts in a manner where, despite the World Health Organization’s emphasis on the potential carcinogenic nature of aspartame, the limited evidence regarding its risk is portrayed to the public as a positive aspect, rather than conveying a neutral or negative standpoint. An illustrative instance emerges from the title of an article published in The Guardian entitled “Aspartame is safe in limited amounts, say experts after cancer warning” (Davies 2023). Such a headline conjures an impression of the facts that fails to accurately reflect reality. As previously discussed, the WHO’s decision effectively places aspartame in a substantially more adverse position than before, classifying it as “possibly carcinogenic” in products. This reclassification significantly deteriorates the substance’s standing, contradicting the positive message that the article’s title conveys.

Within the articles that have embraced this approach, there can be identified some that have gone even further, such as the piece published by The Economist titled “Why a cancer scare around aspartame is mostly unfounded: Lovers of Diet Coke have little to fear.”

What seems questionable is the inclusion of a headline that has chosen its wording in a way that seeks to downplay, almost nullify, this state of uncertainty.[8] An inattentive reader or someone lacking the ability or time to delve into the subject matter could easily be led to believe from the title alone that aspartame is, in reality, a safe substance. Only a careful analysis of the title and a reflection on the use of the adverb “mostly” and the adjective “little” allow for an appreciation of the current state of doubt concerning its use.

Moreover, the article’s direct reference to “lovers of Diet Coke” and the use of images of the Coca-Cola Co.’s product at the beginning of the piece represents a clear indirect advertisement that the Economist has made in favor of the corporation. One might wonder whether such a prominent media outlet should refrain from advertising in such a way a product of a major multinational corporation, especially when under discussion is the potential toxicity of a fundamental ingredient in its products. Such an argument is also grounded in the historical experience of how the sugar industry lobby has historically attempted to manipulate scientific research regarding the risks of sugar consumption (Domonoske 2016).

Conclusions

In conclusion, the unfolding discourse on aspartame illuminates broader concerns at the crossroads of public health, corporate governance, and media influence. The World Health Organization’s recent reclassification of aspartame as “Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans” adds layers of intricacy to an already multifaceted issue, eliciting varying responses from regulatory agencies and corporate behemoths. These divergent stances, compounded by the media’s inconsistent methods of relaying these updates, accentuate the difficulties consumers encounter in sifting through fact and opinion. Beyond the question of aspartame’s actual toxicity or its absence, the ethical principle surrounding the challenging “predictability” of the harmfulness of certain chemical compounds looms large. The current climate of doubt regarding aspartame’s specific toxicity calls for heightened responsibility, particularly because it could affect human health on a global scale. Within this context, the role of Corporate Social Responsibility becomes even more crucial. It is a shared obligation for all involved parties—scientists, regulatory bodies, companies, and the media—to abide by the most stringent standards of transparency, ethical conduct, and rigorous investigation. In navigating these uncertain scientific waters, a collective commitment to ethical and responsible behavior is not just commendable but essential.  

References

Creswell Julie, Despite Aspartame Warning, Beverage Companies Likely to Stick With It, The New York Times, July 14, 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/07/14/business/aspartame-drinks-reaction.html

Czarnecka Kamila et al., Aspartame—True or False? Narrative Review of Safety Analysis of General Use in Products, 13(6) Nutrients. Jun 7, 2021.

Davies Caroline, Aspartame is safe in limited amounts, say experts after cancer warning, The Guardian, July 14, 2023, www.theguardian.com/society/2023/jul/14/aspartame-is-safe-in-limited-amounts-say-experts-after-cancer-warning

Domonoske Camila, 50 Years Ago, Sugar Industry Quietly Paid Scientists To Point Blame At Fat, NPR – The Two-Way, September 13, 2016, www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/09/13/493739074/50-years-ago-sugar-industry-quietly-paid-scientists-to-point-blame-at-fat

EFSA, EFSA assesses new aspartame study and reconfirms its safety, May 4, 2006, https://perma.cc/4RAZ-PFKU

Egan Jack, How Sweet It Is, Or the Search for a New Formula, The Washington Post, March 11, 1977.

Food & Drug Administration, FDA Removes 7 Synthetic Flavoring Substances from Food Additives List, October 5, 2018, www.fda.gov/food/cfsan-constituent-updates/fda-removes-7-synthetic-flavoring-substances-food-additives-list

Food & Drug Administration, Aspartame and Other Sweeteners in Food, July 14, 2023, https://perma.cc/K46U-PZ6H

Gabirro Rui Alexandre (ed.), Medical Trade Exposed: It’s Lies, Atrocities and Deceit, 2023, p. 460.

Gage Suzi, Diet Pepsi has dropped aspartame in the US, so why not anywhere else?, The Guardian, April 28, 2015, www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2015/apr/28/diet-pepsi-dropped-aspatame-in-us-is-artificial-sweetener-dangerous

Heil Emily, Ditching Diet Coke? We tasted 5 aspartame-free alternatives, The Washington Post, July 27, 2023, www.washingtonpost.com/food/2023/07/27/diet-coke-alternatives-aspartame

Lawrence Felicity (a), Fresh fears raised about aspartame: Manufacturers dispute study into lab rats fed sweetener, The Guardian, July 15, 2005, www.theguardian.com/society/2005/jul/15/health.food

Lawrence Felicity (b), Safety of artificial sweetener called into question by MP: Examples cited in the Commons of the 6,000 products with aspartame, The Guardian, December 15, 2005, www.theguardian.com/politics/2005/dec/15/foodanddrink.immigrationpolicy

Market Data Forecast, Aspartame Market, March, 2023, www.marketdataforecast.com/market-reports/aspartame-market

Merrill Richard A., FDA’s Implementation of the Delaney Clause: Repudiation of Congressional Choice or Reasoned Adaptation to Scientific Progress?, 5(1) Yale Journal on Regulation, 1-88, 1988.

National Cancer Institute, Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer, January 12, 2023, https://perma.cc/KJ5C-U8AV

National Library of Medicine, Toxicology and carcinogenesis studies of isoeugenol (CAS No. 97-54-1) in F344/N rats and B6C3F1 mice (gavage studies), Sep.(551) Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser 1-178, 2010.

Nill Ashley G., The History of Aspartame, Harvard University’s DASH repository, 2000 (Third Year Paper), https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/8846759

Rajesh Ananya Mariam, PepsiCo says it has no plans to change its portfolio as WHO set to warn on aspartame sweeteners, Reuters, July 13, 2023, www.reuters.com/business/retail-consumer/pepsico-says-no-plans-change-portfolio-who-set-warn-aspartame-sweeteners-2023-07-13

Riboli Elio et al., Carcinogenicity of aspartame, methyleugenol, and isoeugenol, The Lancet Oncology, July 13, 2023.

Whitten Sarah, Pepsi relaunches Diet Pepsi with aspartame following sharp decline in sales, CNBC, June 27, 2016, www.cnbc.com/2016/06/27/pepsi-relaunches-diet-pepsi-with-aspartame-following-sharp-decline-in-sales.html

Word Health Organization (a), WHO advises not to use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control in newly released guideline. Departmental news, May 15, 2023, https://www.who.int/news/item/15-05-2023-who-advises-not-to-use-non-sugar-sweeteners-for-weight-control-in-newly-released-guideline

Word Health Organization (b), Aspartame hazard and risk assessment results released. Joint News Release, July 14, 2023, https://perma.cc/C6JJ-G8YP


[1] Methyleugenol is a natural chemical compound, is used as a flavouring agent in jellies, baked goods, non-alcoholic beverages, chewing gum, candy, puddings, relishes and ice cream. It is also widely used as a fragrance ingredient in perfumes, toiletries and detergents. In 2018, the US FDA withdrew authorization for the use of methyleugenol as a synthetic flavoring substance for use in food because it was provided with data demonstrating that these additives induce cancer in laboratory animals (Food & Drug Administration 2018).

[2] Isoeugenol is an essential oil extract and a component of wood smoke, which is used as a flavor component, for example in the nutmeg used for the pumpkin pies. Studies have demonstrated some evidence of carcinogenic activity of isoeugenol in lab animals (National Library of Medicine 2010).

[3] The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) is an international scientific expert committee that is administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Its work includes the evaluation of the safety of food additives, contaminants, naturally occurring toxicants and residues of veterinary drugs in food.

[4] To delve into the intricacies of disinformation, misinformation, and misinformation, see the proceedings of the International Final Conference of the NATO-funded research project “Whistling at the Fake.” The conference’s comprehensive analysis can be witnessed through its online video recordings, which provide valuable insights into these phenomena.https://www.corporatecrime.co.uk/whistling-at-the-fake.

[5] Le Monde artcle published on July 14, 2023, was entitled “Soda sweetener aspartame ‘possibly carcinogenic’, says WHO.” Interestingly the article shows a picture of an unlabeled bottle of soda. The absence of branding in the accompanying photo appears to be an attempt to focus the reader’s attention solely on the substance itself, aspartame, rather than associating it with any particular company or product.

[6] El País article published on July 14, 2023, was entitled “WHO declares aspartame sweetener ‘possibly carcinogenic’ to humans.”

[7] La Repubblica article published on July 14, 2023, was entitled “The WHO: ‘Aspartame possibly carcinogenic but the acceptable dose remains unchanged” (title translated by the author, the original title in Italian was “L’Oms: “Aspartame possibile cancerogeno ma non cambia la dose accettabile””).

[8] Doubts regarding the safety of aspartame do emerge within the article if one has the patience to read through to the end.


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