Food Babe Investigates: Sabotaged at Starbucks

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Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe) is a regular contributor on 100 Days of Real Food. To learn more about Vani check her out on “Our Team” page.

Trying to get through the maze of what is offered at Starbucks can be pretty daunting – hopefully this information will clear up any nagging thoughts about what’s REALLY in their food and drinks. I couldn’t help but shake my head at the things I uncovered, which had me asking – how many times have people unknowingly gotten sabotaged at Starbucks?

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Starbucks was using crushed up bugs to color their Strawberry Frappuccinos. Luckily, they responded to the public outcry and eliminated that beetle juice. You’d think they would have taken the time to clean up the rest of their menu, but no such luck. Did you know that Starbucks uses ingredients that are scarier than bugs and could even be harmful to your health? That’s where the real sabotage begins…

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Top 5 Ways To Get Sabotaged At Starbucks:

1. Coffee

You might think it is a bit radical to suggest not drinking their most prized ingredient that makes over 85,000 different combination of drinks, but it’s also radical drinking and paying a premium for coffee that’s ridden with potential toxins. Let’s get real here, they do not actually serve organic coffee at most Starbucks locations, which means (like all brands of conventional coffee) it’s been sprayed with pesticides. We all know Starbucks coffee ain’t cheap, but most people don’t know that regular consumption of conventional coffee can be a serious source of pesticide exposure.

Starbucks coffee is grown all over the world in developing nations. The United States doesn’t regulate the type and amount of pesticides foreign countries use in their production of coffee beans, which makes consuming non-organic coffee on a regular basis pretty risky. You could be drinking toxins from pesticides that are in fact banned here in the United States but not else where, like the pesticide Chlorpyrifos that is a contact poison. It has caused human deaths, and has been linked to birth defects. It is extremely toxic to birds, freshwater and marine organisms, bees, and other wildlife.

Furthermore, we know that increased exposure to pesticides are linked to birth defects, nerve damage and cancer. The President’s Cancer Panel has urged us not to consume food sprayed with pesticides and doesn’t believe any amount is safe.

And in regards to their decaf… did you know that conventional decaffeinated coffees are made decaf by soaking the beans with a chemical called ethyl acetate used in nail polish and glues and a carcinogen called methylene chloride?

2. Soy Latte (or anything else with Starbucks organic soy milk)

Logically, it makes sense to choose organic soy milk, since Starbucks decided to eliminate organic cow’s milk as an option a few years ago. But not so fast. Starbucks organic soy milk has one ingredient they would rather you not know about. This ingredient was recently highlighted in a report generated by the Cornucopia Institute and echoed in a recent NYTimes article about non-organic ingredients allowed in organic food. One of those questionable ingredients is carrageenan, which is derived from seaweed and is in Starbucks branded organic soy milk. This substance is reported to cause intestinal inflammation and can be become a carcinogen once it is digested.

How such an ingredient became allowed in organic food is bigger than just Starbucks. However, companies ultimately make the decision to use or not to use these harmful ingredients.

Carrageenan can also be found in other Starbucks food and drink products including their cakes, scones, yogurt and Light Frappuccinos.

3. Baked Goods & Other Food Offerings

Sure, Starbucks made a commitment a couple of years ago to eliminate transfat, artificial colors, and high fructose corn syrup from their food products. They said they listened to us and responded. However, I think Starbucks may need a hearing aid. Just because a company gets rid of certain ingredients doesn’t automatically make the food completely natural or “real”.  For instance, the Reduced Fat Cinnamon Swirl Coffee Cake has over 75 ingredients!

Ingredients in Starbucks food products still include:

  • Refined FloursWhite flour that has been stripped of its nutrients and provides nothing but empty calories that contribute to chronic disease & obesity.
  • Chemically Derived Sugars – Some products like the lemon pound cake contain 6 different types of processed sugars (e.g. powdered sugar, glycose syrup, corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose, etc.).
  • Preservatives – The Mayo Clinic reported that the preservative sodium benzoate (an ingredient found in the Iced Lemon Pound Cake) may increase hyperactivity in children. Also, when sodium benzoate combines with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) benzene can form a carcinogen and kill DNA cells, accelerating aging.
  • Growth Hormone - Starbucks has eliminated growth hormone milk in their core dairy products, but not in their food products. That means you could be still be ingesting a substance that has been reported to cause breast, colon and prostate cancers.
  • Cellulose Gum – This a filler made from wood pulp your body can’t even digest.
  • Proplyene Glycol – This is an ingredient in the Apple Fritter and Reduced Fat Cinnamon Swirl Cake, which is derived from petroleum and a key chemical that is used to make anti-freeze.
  • Azodicarbonamide – This substance, found in Starbucks croissants, is banned in the U.K., Europe and Australia, and if used in Singapore can result in fines up to $450,000 and a 15 year prison sentence! This ingredient has been reported to cause asthmatic symptoms in people who inhale it and can also increase certain food sensitivities.
  • Genetically Modified Ingredients (GMOs) - Several of the listed ingredients are likely genetically modified. We’ll never know for sure how much of Starbucks products are genetically modified since they are currently not required to be labeled in this country. But we do know that the consumption of GMO foods poses a serious threat to our health and have been linked to toxicity, allergic reactions and fertility issues.
  • Cheap Oils -  Soy, canola or corn oil can be found in almost all of Starbucks’ products. Over-consumption of these cheap oils are causing an abundance of Omega 6 fatty acids in our diets. The imbalance of Omega 6 fatty acids increases the risk of inflammation, heart disease, obesity, and prostate and bone cancer.

4. “Refreshers” Beverage

This brand new drink that just came out last week gives the allure of fresh and real, but it’s anything but. The ingredients are the same for both flavors of the refresher drinks. What?  How can one taste like “Cool Lime” and the other one taste like “Berry Hibiscus” when they have both have the same base ingredients? Huh?  Looking at the two different boxes these “handcrafted” drinks came out of, the ingredients read:

Starbucks Refreshers Beverage: Water, Sugar, White Grape Juice Concentrate, Natural Flavors, Natural Green Coffee Flavor, Citric Acid, Erythritol, Antioxidant (Ascorbic Acid E300), Rebaudioside A (Stevia)

Starbucks calls white grape juice concentrate (which involves heating the juice to high temperatures and adding some chemicals to get a more condensed product) “real fruit juice.”  The only difference between the two drinks was the addition of freeze dried lime to one drink and freeze dried blackberries to the other. I guess that explains how they “handcraft” it.  McDonalds must also handcraft their burgers when they put the bun on them, huh?

It is interesting that Green Coffee Extract was not actually in the drink like they advertise. It is included in the refresher products they sell packaged in the store, but not in the version baristas make behind the counter. Is this their way of tricking us into buying a cheaper derivative of Green Coffee – just the flavor and not the extract?

When I realized that both drinks contained added sugar as the second ingredient and “natural flavor,” I immediately knew this drink was pure JUNK. Manufactured natural flavor is contributing to what David Kessler (former head of the FDA) calls a “food carnival” in your mouth.  This makes it difficult to stop eating or drinking because the flavors they have synthesized trick your mind into wanting more and more. Starbucks doesn’t give us the full essence of a hibiscus or cucumber mint – just the best 1 millionth part of the taste – so we only want more of that product, which in turns fills Starbucks’ pockets. When companies use manufactured flavor, they literally are “hijacking” your taste buds one-by-one.

Please note, natural flavor is found in almost all of Starbucks products, not just this new drink. Their smoothies are also made with a product that comes from a box and contains juice concentrate with natural flavors and natural color as opposed to 100% real fruit. I should also note that their mocha chocolate sauce, used to flavor many drinks and their chocolate smoothie, still contain high fructose corn syrup, too. They haven’t eliminated high fructose corn syrup in their drinks, only their food. This is yet another marketing trick Starbucks has played on us.

5. Frappuccinos

Did you know the CEO of Starbucks doesn’t even drink Frappuccinos? And I think I’ve figured out why. Frappuccinos are full of refined sugar, natural and artificial flavors, and a substance called caramel coloring. California recently included caramel coloring on its annual list of carcinogens that require warning labels.

This type of caramel isn’t the stuff you make at home by cooking sugar. This caramel color is manufactured by heating ammonia and sulfites under high pressure, which creates carcinogenic compounds. Caramel color is classified into four different classes; Class IV being the worst and the one that is listed on the Starbucks Frappuccino label. Whether you choose the regular or light version of a Frappuccino, you are getting a dose of this known carcinogen proven to cause liver tumors, lung tumors, and thyroid tumorsin rats and mice.

When The Center for Science in the Public Interest studied two different brands of soda earlier this year, they found that both had dangerous levels of caramel coloring and could be contributing to thousands of cancers in the US. This prompted Coke and Pepsi to quickly change their formulas so they didn’t have to include the cancer warning label on their products in California. I wonder what level of carcinogenic compounds a Frappuccino has, don’t you? Maybe someone should test it. I think it should be removed altogether from the FDA’s approved list of additives considering this substance is only added for cosmetic reasons and serves no real purpose!

Frappuccinos aren’t the only products at Starbucks that contain caramel coloring, the “Perfect” Oatmeal even has it! This is alarming to say the least, considering the oatmeal is one of the most popular and “safer” sounding menu items at Starbucks. To quote Starbucks, “The most important meal of the day is the first. So why not make it nutritious and delicious?” I’m not sure if consuming carcinogens first thing in the morning is really nutritious, are you?

Despite all these ways in which Starbucks can sabotage me, I still like to use their free internet. Many of the stores now carry bananas, organic dried fruit, and some quality granola bars without synthetic ingredients that I would buy if I needed a snack. I always read the label no matter what I am buying just to be sure.

My favorite treat to get at Starbucks is absolutely free. They will give a cup of hot water to anyone that asks. Since I always carry a few extra bags of organic tea with me, I know I can always have a healthy beverage on the go from Starbucks for free anytime I like. I also like to use this free hot water option to make my own quick cooking oatmeal without carcinogenic caramel coloring!

But if you aren’t a tea drinker and are still clamoring for a Frappuccino, but don’t want to consume harmful ingredients…I’ve got a couple of recipes for you! Try my Homemade Organic Frappuccino with no refined sugars, artificial colors, flavors or carcinogens today or try Lisa’s Maple Mocha. Both of these recipes are so easy to make, you’ll never have to worry about getting sabotaged at Starbucks again.

Vani HariVani Hari a.k.a. Food Babe is an organic living expert, food activist and writer on FoodBabe.com. She teaches people how to make the right purchasing decisions at the grocery store, how to live an organic lifestyle, and how to travel healthfully around the world. The success in her writing and investigative work can be seen in the way food companies react to her uncanny ability to find and expose the truth. To follow Vani, check her out on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

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272 comments to Food Babe Investigates: Sabotaged at Starbucks

  • Daniel

    Leah from Iowa I find your prospective rather perplexing. I’m new here and I have yet to read all of the postings with this blog yet. But I’m someone who suffers from an inflammatory disease, and if I’m very lucky I will only end up using a cane to walk. I am much more sensitive to the foods I eat than most people are, or at least my body is more aware. Yes many things kill, that fellow in Colorado killed just the other day, drunk drivers kill someone every day, and I’m sure that for every American solder in Iraq killed, maybe 10 or more civilians are killed, the list can go on and on and on… Then you say “enjoy anything you eat”. How does one enjoy eating food that will kill you? With ‘foods that kill’ are being placed in front of us all day long, children the age of 3-4 like to go to Mc Donald’s, and are duped into going by a clown to eat food that kills them and you “say enjoy anything you eat”. Do you understand the term ‘Oxymoron’?

  • [...] simple reasons like I just began to find them too darn sweet, and bigger reasons like these and these. But my quiet quest for the perfect blended coffee drink never ended–at least it didn’t [...]

  • [...] motivator in my decision to give up my love affair with Mr. Java Chip Light is this article: http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/07/18/food-babe-investigates-sabotaged-at-starbucks/ something I will need to refer to daily in my quest to give him the cold [...]

  • Sarah Hudson

    I’m just curious-the article talks about decaf coffee being made my soaking the beans in acetate. From what I can tell from looking in to this, this was the practice in the 80′s and 90′s, but no longer. I’m just wondering where The Food Babe’s research came from.

  • [...] are EXTREEEEEME! Why do kids like ap-pap (ketchup)? Think before you act. 10 Everyday Super Foods Top 5 Ways to Get Sabotaged at Starbucks 100 Days of Real Food The Rules for 100 Days of Real Food What is a Whole Grain? Is mold good for [...]

  • Alex C.

    Darn it…I wrote an entire response and it didn’t send, so now I’m starting again.

    First of all, kudos for taking the giant green monster to task about their nutritional content and value. Second, I am offering my insight as someone who has worked in specialty coffee for over a decade and so my opinions are that of someone with extensive experience, albeit in a more specialty market than Starbucks:

    Organic and Fairtrade: These are buzz words in coffee and while they do mean that the crop was produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, it does NOT mean that the end product was any better in terms of quality and it ABSOLUTELY does not mean that the farmer is benefiting from the premium the consumer pays for the coffee. In fact, a lot of farmers are too poor to pay for the fees associated with having their coffee certified as organic, or the five years MINIMUM it takes for a farm to become organically certified. What farmer in a developing nation can afford to NOT have a crop for five years?

    If consumers truly want to have an impact on the quality of life of the people producing these products, they would support independent coffee houses who follow a direct trade model of coffee sourcing. That means that small coffee companies create and maintain relationships with the farmers directly, buying their crop, and paying a premium for it without having a middle man in the supply chain. Again, buying organic only means that you’re buying a product that was produced without chemicals, but it doesn’t mean that the other myriad amount of items in the supply chain weren’t compromised (fair wages to farmers, fair prices at market, the mass amounts of fuel used to get the product to the US, etc.).

    Decaf: It is true that Starbucks used to use the Swiss Water Method for their decaffeination of coffee and for economic reasons primary moved back to using the methylene chloride and ethyl acetate method, but while it IS a chemical method, it’s a naturally occurring chemical in fruit, so unless you cut out most of your fruit intake, this chemical is entering your body in some fashion. That said, it’s still pretty gross that the same chemical used in dry cleaning is also used to decaffeinate your coffee.

    Pesticides: No scientific study has been accepted in the industry that pesticides used in the production of coffee ever end up in the finished cup. There are a a variety of reasons for that, but the two primary reasons are: When roasting coffee, the temps are in excess of 400 degree F and 85-100% of the pesticides are ‘cooked’ off at that point. Second, when grinding and brewing coffee, as the water that is 202 degrees F or more passes over the grinds, the residual amount of pesticides are left behind as part of the ground coffee solid remains and not passed through to the finished cup. Again, just because pesticides are used in the production of green coffee cherries does not mean that pesticides penetrate the cherry and into the bean and then are able to stay present in the bean throughout the roasting process and then the brewing process. I challenge anyone to present an article that has supporting documentation to prove otherwise.

    On a final more personal note, while it’s certainly your right to patronize Starbucks and get a cup of free hot water, as someone who advocates better ways to source food, shouldn’t you be using a reusable cup and NOT contributing cups to a landfill every time you visit that store? Or, if you don’t have a cup, ask for a ceramic MUG of hot water so that you may enjoy your tea, or self-brought oatmeal.

    • Buttercup

      I think it’s just really cheap to go for their free internet when you aren’t paying for anything they sell there!

    • Alex C.

      Food Babe-I can’t believe after my original posting from more than 7 months ago, you don’t have any follow up comments, or retorts to my points about organic/fairtrade, decaf, and pesticides.

  • Missy

    Excellent article. I don’t eat very many processed foods, but I do enjoy the occasional iced coffee from Starbucks. I had no idea they used so many bad ingredients, and I’m usually great about checking that type of thing.

  • Todd

    What fool ever thought Starbucks was healthy? Very little when you eat or drink out is natural or healthy. But then breathing in most larger cities is bad for you as well…. Not sure I understand the point of this article. I think Starbucks is fine in moderation just like many other things. Your body is an amazing complex machine that does a great job taking care of itself if you do not abuse it to much.

    • Leslie

      Thank you! That is exactly what I was thinking!! Are people really going there and buying baked goods and pastries, sugar filled coffees and whatever else they like and thinking that it is natural and healthy?? I’m not a regular Starbucks customer but last I knew they weren’t touting the health benefits of consuming their products. I totally agree that anytime you eat or drink out you have no idea what you are actually consuming. Apparently there are people out there who don’t know this.

    • Stefania

      We all say things are okay in moderation. Here is what I can tell you as someone who worked for Starbucks for 2 years. There is no such thing as moderation. We would see the same people at the same time every single day. Not once a week or even two times a month; every single day. It’s part of their culture. They train the baristas to learn your name and get to know you. It’s all about getting you to feel welcome so you come back and spend more money. Starbucks wants to be a part of your daily routine.

      So do people think it is good for them to eat that pastry? No, but they DO think they are doing right by themselves by ordering the Reduced Fat Cin Swirl cake over another pastry.

  • [...] use high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils.  But, then I came across this article: http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/07/18/food-babe-investigates-sabotaged-at-starbucks/, which has made me think twice about consuming much of anything at Starbucks.  I LOVE their iced [...]

  • Stinkydog99

    Without going into the bad and the ugly (after having learned from friends and family who worked for sbux corporate and gave me the inside scoop…) a relatively clean option at Sbux is the vivanno: organic juice (used to be odwalla or naked brand, now it’s an in-house mixture I think), low fat milk, a whole banana and ice plus a scoop of whey protein. For my kid, I just hold the protein powder. They have strawberry/banana, orange/mango and chocolate banana. Much better than jamba juice and definitely better than the refresher (gross) and frappacinos (nothing natural in that thing as far as I can tell…)

    As for the “outrage” over Sbux being unhealthy, let’s be clear, they are in business to make money. Overall. I think they are pretty responsive to customer input compared to their competition (dunkin’ donuts anyone?). They market test cleaner, healthier baked goods all the time and gee, guess what, they don’t do well in store. People just don’t want them or they don’t want to pay the prices they’d have to charge (but have no problem with a $4 frappacino and a $3.00, 500 calorie pumpkin scone…LOL). They just acquired evolution juices and food bars (based in LA) and opened one outside Seattle. It’s doing pretty well–who knew kale salad and fresh juices to order would be such a hit?!

  • sue matra

    i’ll echo and confirm what others have posted about the BOH mocha sauce not containing high fructose corn syrup. the mocha sauce sold on starbucksstore.com does. here is a link to confirm http://www.starbucksstore.com/Fontana%E2%84%A2-Bittersweet-Chocolate-Mocha-Sauce/000998019,default,pd.html?start=4&cgid=syrups-and-sauces

    something you might want to add, or further research, are the refreshers. not the tetra juice packs, but the fruit that is included. dehydrated blackberries and lime wheels, but they are a product from venezuela, taiwan and china.

  • E

    Have you thought about sending this to Starbucks? Like taking this entire article and emailing it to them to see what their response is?? Now thats an idea. If allow you did that – you’d create a stir I bet. Especially on their Facebook page. Food for thought

  • Sandy Beach

    Isn’t it time to stop giving Starbuck’s your money? They put small coffee houses out of business and feed you toxic food. Why not go to your local small coffeehouse instead?

  • Jill

    Get the book Wheat Belly free at http://www.lapl.org

  • Wow, such great info! Thanks for sharing!

  • Gina

    so whats good enough to drink? at starbucks or drink??i love frappuccino it keeps me awake, but is there a better selection they offer?

  • Ian

    In the article you come across as cheap when you flaunt going to starbucks and not buying anything, just weaseling their wifi.

    As a previous commenter noted: You should be using a ceramic cup!! Imagine how much plastic and paper is used there everyday, starbucks can’t be bothered to recycle unless consumers push them to it.

  • David

    This is a silly article. All this talk about pesticides is complete and utter nonsense. Every product is certified safe before use. 96% of all fruits and vegetables that are sprayed, have no chemical residue left on them, and the rest has under 1%(which has been tested and is 100% safe). Before you criticize the system that was built to protect you, get your facts straight. Also, organic DOES NOT mean there are no chemicals…it just means they sprayed organic chemicals, which are the same products, except harvested from nature. Many chemicals are certified organic– and you thought you were so high and mighty!

    As for your argument that these products are causing unhealthiness, well you are an idiot to think that. Any product in moderation is fine for you, and it is the persons fault for being unhealthy. As occasional Starbucks drink with these “toxins” will not harm you. Americans are so fat because they want more, more, more, then they blame it on little things that don’t matter. Exercise and eat things in moderation and you will be great.

    As for the refreshers, you never mentioned how it does have lime flavor. I am not paying for a mint and cucumber drink, I am paying for a lime drink, and I really don’t care if it has small amounts of natural flavors.

    I will continue to enjoy my Starbucks, along with healthy foods and exercise, while all of you sit around on your lazy butts and get fat and blame it on something that is nothing.

  • Victoria

    I’d love, or maybe not, to hear your thoughts on Caribou Coffee. Very enlightening. Thank you!

  • [...] maybe I am a little down on Starbucks – have you seen THIS POST outing Starbuck’s ingredients by Food Babe?! Seriously – bookmark it or save it for later and [...]

  • [...] steps were great for my waistline but not so much for my wallet. I also read up on some of the not-so-nice things found in Starbucks drinks. I’m trying to be healthier and focusing on more real foods which [...]

  • Fitmom

    A note about the refreshers. You stated, “It is interesting that Green Coffee Extract was not actually in the drink like they advertise. It is included in the refresher products they sell packaged in the store, but not in the version baristas make behind the counter. Is this their way of tricking us into buying a cheaper derivative of Green Coffee – just the flavor and not the extract?” I drink the refreshers fairly often, and trust me, they do have caffeine. I asked and was told that the actual limes and berries are saturated with the green coffee extract, which is why they cannot sell the drink if they sell out of the fruit. Not sure why you make a big deal out of the two favors using the same base. That is the case for the majority of their drinks, hence the syrups. The dried fruit is where the flavor and caffeine are contained.

    While it is certainly beneficial to seek foods that are high in quality and free of chemical additives, we must realize that we will never escape ingesting toxins, as they are ever present in every aspect of our environment – air, water, soil, soaps, lotions, cosmetics, fabrics, etc. Unless you find a corner of the planet that has never been inhabited by man and contains no natural environmental toxins, your body will have to contend with toxins. Just strive to eat whole, fresh foods whenever possible, minimize processed foods, drink purified water, get adequate sleep, and exercise. The stress of worrying about every little chemical in our foods is likely to cause more harm than many of the concerns you raise. I am all for raising awareness about those things that effect our health. Let’s just keep it balanced.

  • Karen

    They do sell organic coffee. Any thoughts or information on this product?

    • Jack

      Some coffees are certified organic. If one has it ground in store, it is no longer organic because the grinder is used for non-organic coffees as well. They are transparent about this.

  • JasonMChicago

    It’s really hard because places that see “not too bad” have a lot of bad stuff. I’m thinking Chipotle and Starbucks. I have given up on ALL restaurants, fast food, etc. I’m beating a chronic condition so it’s a little different for me but I’m eating only food I know and see. Do I have to resort to grocery store organic parsley… yes… but it is organic parsley not that much junk in it.

    • betsy s

      Jason, if you have a kitchen counter near a window you can grow a nice pot of parsley yourself. If you’re starting with seeds it TAKES A LONG TIME to germinate, so I usually start with a six-pack of young plants from a nursery or garden shop. Make sure there’s a hole in the bottom of the pot and water thoroughly when the soil feels dry to the touch. Snip off what you need and enjoy your totally organic parsley. (Lots of other crops can also be grown at home, inside and out.)

  • LuAnna

    Thanks so much for your research! I wanted to add something to your list of Starbucks ingrediets, and to see if anyone else has heard this…I work at a health food store. Today we had a Starbucks employee come in. She was asking what the “natural flavors” in a brand of Stevia consists of. She was asking because she said that someone came in to Starbucks and asked what the “natural flavor” in their raspberry syrup consisted of. They looked up the ingredients, and there was a scientic name that nobody had heard of. They looked up the scientific name, and it was beaver anus. I was of course, appalled. I have not been able to confirm this yet (just got home from work). The customer who claimed this information said that we’d be able to look on the Starbuck’s website and it’s clearly listed on the ingredients. I did not find this when I went to the website. I’m interested to see if anyone else has heard this or can confirm?

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