The Violence of Sugar

"Mass production of refined sugar has worked to the same effect. It is interesting and not coincidental that sugar and nicotine both stimulate the same dopamine-mediated, addiction, and reward centres of the brain. A puff of a cigarette, or a piece of candy — or even the thought of them — can cause a warm rise of dopaminergic reward in the pleasure centre. "

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Dr. Kenneth Kunz is a medical oncologist, molecular pharmacologist, and a counsellor and mental health and addictions consultant with Strength Counselling Services. 

Kunz is also a student of how discipline, when applied to the human form, can be used to attain peak core strength, flexibility, and improve aerobic and anaerobic development.

In addition to physical health, Kunz is also passionate about mental and spiritual wellbeing and how the two influence athletic performance. This leads to the topic of diet and nutrition. Kunz believes that the way the community approaches nourishment is inseparably linked to the greater social collective wellbeing. In this interview, he shares his perspectives on sugar and other refined carbohydrates. This so-called macronutrient, in addition to naturally occurring carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and fibre play a key role in the state of our health and therefore determines how well we function. 

Dr. Kenneth Kunz. Photo credit: Leona Fowler Photography, Victoria, BC

Overconsumption of refined carbohydrates coupled with sedentary behavior can be toxic, if not fatal.

“Indeed, we are constantly encouraged — even exhorted, to grotesque feats of overindulgence by an avaricious corporate marketing machine that is eager for profit, at any cost. These factors, superimposed on the general lassitude that has overtaken society, amount to a form of mass armchair suicide. A suicide which, by the way, can be quickly and easily reversed, with proper motivation and direction. We are, after all, still primal. The human genome has not changed significantly in some 300,000 or 400,000 years,”  said Kunz when asked about participating in this interview. “So, yes, let’s do this interview.”

Personal bests (55-plus age-group):

  • 200m – 30:40
  • 400m – 65.85
  • 600m – 1:46.86
  • 800m – 2:29.15

The interview

Christopher Kelsall: As the Athletics Illustrated audience is made up primarily by runners, right off the bat, let’s talk about the overconsumption of refined carbohydrates and the negative effects that it may have on sport performance.

Dr. Kenneth Kunz: Since I am trained in medicinal chemistry, and for good housekeeping, let us define exactly what molecule we are talking about. Although refined carbohydrates are commercially available in many forms; mono-, di-, and polysaccharides, we can consider table sugar, or sucrose, as the prototypical example. 

Therefore — what is sugar, and how did it come to be? The Oxford English Dictionary defines sugar asA sweet crystalline substance obtained from various plants … consisting essentially of sucrose … used as a sweetener in food and drink.” On the surface, this explanation sounds pleasant, beneficial, even salubrious. But the definition overlooks the unfathomable secret destructive powers of sugar. For civilized humankind, the molecule has proven to be an absolute disaster. 

Read: >> where strategic consumption can improve performance

Let me share something that came as a shock to me during my medical
training: every atom, element, or molecule on the planet that is essential for life
is fatally toxic if administered in the wrong proportions. Consider oxygen, which
is by far the most abundant element making up the earth. It comprises nearly
half the weight of the earth’s crust, at 46.6 percent. Our bodies are made up
of 65% oxygen, by weight. We think that the molecular oxygen, O 2 , we breathe
is good — therefore the more we can get, the better.

However, the human form evolved over millions of years on a planet with an atmosphere equilibrated to a concentration of precisely 20.95% oxygen. If we breathe higher concentrations of this short-lived and highly reactive chemical species for any extended period, it results in rapid oxidative blindness and fatal pulmonary and central nervous system toxicity. So much for Michael Jackson’s famed hyperbaric oxygen chamber.

CK: So Jackson’s chamber is not recommended? Even water, when over-consumed can cause death.

KK: Correct, the hyperbaric oxygen chamber is not recommended and yes, of course water can indeed cause death. Free water, which makes up 60% of our bodies, is similarly toxic. While in medical residency at the University of Arizona, I learned how lethal drinking water can be when I admitted a patient from the Tohono O’odham Nation who believed that the mystical qualities of water could purify a troubled spirit. Our medical team could simply not get him to stop drinking water. We finally had to shut off the faucets and remove the toilet from his hospital room. Eventually, he was found lying face down in the rose garden, under the spigot. He had died of a seizure, having profoundly diluted his serum electrolytes by drinking a lethal dose of water.

It’s the same for everything else – sodium, potassium, calcium, iron – anything found in the air, water, soil, in the human body, or on the planet. Some kill fast — some kill slow — but they are all exquisitely toxic in the wrong proportions. And this includes the simple sugars, which are mostly slow-time killers — glucose, fructose, sucrose — and any substance made of them or like them.

How we have “evolved”

As Homo sapiens sapiens — ‘the ones who know, and know we know’, paleoanthropologists studying skulls found at the Jebel Irhoud cave in Morocco report that we are more than 300,000 years old. Think about it. Agriculture was only developed about 12,000 years ago. For at least 15,000 human generations, we have been surviving on a planet that was designed to offer only rare and minimal quantities of simple sugars. And we had to work hard for these, and only get them when they were seasonally available. 

Thus, to score a prize of honeycomb, a group of prehistoric humans had to locate a nest, use cooperation, strength, and agility to ascend the tree, smoke out the bees with a tinder bundle, and hack away for hours with a stone axe to then — amid shouts of approval and drunken glee — plunder a few ecstatic handfuls of sweet, dripping honey. Mind you, all the while being tormented into madness by an organized and single-minded body of near-identical honey bees — each individually motivated to express its indignation through vigorous use of venom and stinger. For early humans, the stone-age equivalent of a Mars bar came only once or twice a year, and not without its attendant lumps, bruises, and pulsing welts.

Nowadays, unfortunately, we don’t have to exert ourselves to such extremes to languish in a surfeit of sugar. This sets us up for disaster, because, as humans, we fall victim to our own motivational salience. Motivational salience is a term that neuropsychologists Kent Berridge and colleagues at the University of Michigan have coined to describe a cognitive state where we analytically balance the time, energy, and effort required to attain a desirable or pleasurable outcome, called incentive salience, against the risk, pain, or punishment that will operate against us if we try to secure that particular goal, aversive salience. Whether we hope to pursue a handful of delicious honeycomb, or a school record in the 1-mile run, motivational salience  — titrated between the incentive and aversive components — is intended to confer a survival advantage upon us, according to the best principles of evolutionary biology.

CK: And in contrast to prehistoric times?

KK: In contrast to prehistoric times, humankind has now ‘progressed’ to the point where every year, worldwide,180 million metric tonnes of fine, white, crystalline sugar is manufactured, sold, and consumed — with gusto. We have developed a level of intellectual, scientific, and industrial knowledge that far outreaches our capacity to mentally, physically, or spiritually manage it. We have enough information to destroy ourselves.

The average American, knowingly or unknowingly, consumes about 152 pounds of sugar per year. Some groups, such as teenagers, can ingurgitate much more. And that’s just sugar. Then you have to take into account the polysaccharides we unthinkingly consume, such as starch and flour products. Bagels, cookies, muffins, and Cinnabons, some slathered with a seductive glaze of sugar, beckon to us from every direction. These products, upon gross deglutition, are quickly hydrolyzed in the gut to flood the circulation with a rush of corrosive sugar. 

A slow death

When we are overcome by a hankering for sweets, nothing could be simpler than driving to the supermarket — ‘incentive salience’ — where a 10-kilogram (22 pounds) sack of pure cane sugar can be had for only $9.89 CDN ($7.51 US). It is a testament to the miraculous protective efficiency of the endo- and exocrine liver and pancreas that we do not succumb several times daily to lethal overdoses of sugar from a hyperosmolar hyperglycemic nonketotic coma. 

In the short run, too much sugar in the blood will fatally dry out the brain, killing within hours. In the long run — the ‘aversive salience’ part — we are blindsided by a tsunami of debilitating, age-related diseases. These are diverse and include a variety of aggressive, early-onset cancers, ischemic and hypertensive heart disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and crippling degenerative arthropathies of the weight-bearing joints — among a miserable plethora of other woes. They drain the will, resources, and spirit out of a society that was otherwise longing for a future of comfort and splendour. Almost all of these conditions are avoidable — advancing age is not an absolute mandate for chronic illness.

My daughter, who works as a cook at an expensive kitchen & bar, made the honest declaration “we mix sugar into almost everything we make.” This indicates that those who stand to profit from preparing our foods will employ such tricks to enhance the savor of a meal. The food industry, tapping into our ‘reward centres’, will thereby ensure a continuous, golden flow of cash. 

This leads me to a deeper appreciation of why my coach insists that his athletes shop for and prepare their own meals. But here is a confession. Since I am an ordinary person, I fall prey to the same craven impulses that overcome everyone else and am often caught with a Lindt milk chocolate hazelnut bar and an iced venti frappuccino. These sprees usually happen after a threshold workout, when my will falls sway to such vulnerabilities.

CK: Overconsumption of sugar and being sedentary sounds horrifying. Is there anything good that can come out of that lifestyle?

KK: Well, glucose as a carbohydrate is essential for metabolic homeostasis because glucose, along with fats and proteins — in that order — are the final common denominators in the physiological currency of respiration and energy. 

Then, with a twist of irony, we have to consider some of the other dubiously ‘beneficial’ aspects of sugar. Since we cannot use all the sugar we consume, the body converts it into harmful forms of fat which precipitate into the organs, vessels, and tissues throughout the body where it oxidizes and calcifies. But think of the commerce the illnesses caused by sugar generates every day. Doctors, hospitals, CT-Scans, first responders, medicine, pharmaceuticals, health insurance, and all of the other disease-care related enterprises such as walkers, wheelchairs, mobility scooters, and Acorn Stair Lift-type products. The deleterious effects of sugar generate a worldwide whirlwind of activity, industry, and profit.

To my assessment, there appears to be scant income to be made in healthy people, while dead people obviously generate little ongoing revenue. All of the breathtakingly gargantuan profit is generated in that dismal gray area of chronic disease. By the end of 2020, annual healthcare spending in the US will reach an estimated 4-trillion dollars. The profits so generated keep the world spinning around, in accordance with modern wants, likes, and values.

CK: So, why did you refer to sugar as violent?

KK: Because it is, in more ways than one. Few people know this, and it came as a shock to me in high school biology class. Our teacher, a certain Mr. Oliver, was kind of a hip, slick, happening dude who liked the coolness of science combined with teaching pranks. One day, when all the kids were distracted, he slipped into the room with one of those restaurant dispensers of white sugar, a brown glass reagent bottle of potassium permanganate — which is a rich chemical source of oxygen — and a book of matches. With a loose hand, he poured quantities of sugar and manganese together on a dish, then unobtrusively put the mixture to a match.

Ka-Boom! The explosion was unexpectedly violent, unleashing a torrent of spectacular purple fire, carbon dioxide, and steam. Mr. Oliver staggered backward, with singed eyebrows and glasses askew. The class likewise recoiled. But Mr. Oliver — recovering his composure — stepped forward with the aplomb of a magician and said, “that is the power of sugar.” Little could any of us foresee that years in the future, Mr. Oliver’s notorious prank was to play out on a more fatefully horrendous scale. In 2008, the Imperial Sugar Refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, which was filled with millions of pounds of sugar and sugar dust, detonated spontaneously in a gunpowder-like inferno that burned the industrial compound uncontrollably for over a week. The blast killed 14 unsuspecting workers and left 36 to suffer life-threatening burns. A shocked nation was left to reflect upon the violent, and now not so secret power of sugar.

Dr. Kenneth Kunz being led by coach Miklos Arpasi. Photo supplied by Kenneth Kunz

But it is not surprising that a sugar molecule would contain such savage power. It was designed to be so. Every second, the sun fuses 600-million tons of hydrogen into helium, thereby producing an appalling amount of furious raw energy. That energy, in the form of photons, reaches the earth where, in combination with carbon dioxide and water, it is captured and carefully engineered by plants — through photosynthesis — into a convenient molecular storage form: sugar. 

Carbon is the signature element of all living things on earth. If we measure the weight of all the biomass on the planet, in gigatons of carbon (a gigaton is one billion metric tons), scientists estimate that there are 550 gigatons of life, or 550 X 109 metric tons of living matter on earth. As humans, we make up an insignificant, less than 1% of this, but plants make up about 80% of this biomass. A survey of the numbers suggests that plant life must continually synthesize many, many millions of tons of sugar per day, as chloroplasts without number capture and package the sun’s horrendous power. Sugar, therefore, is really just a stockpiled, ‘metastable’, end-product of solar, nuclear-powered fusion. Similar to TNT, all it needs is a little ‘nudge’, and then …

The purpose of sugar is evidently to fuel ongoing life on the planet, like a rechargeable battery pack. Animals, seeking energy through nourishment, consume plants, sugar, and polysaccharides, and in turn distribute the seeds, thereby ensuring that all participants flourish. The system has worked perfectly for millions of years — eons uncounted. 

Read: >> Dr. Kenneth Kunz interview: World War Covid, the Olympics and the Biology of Human Connection

Then, about 2,500 years ago, humankind got ahead of itself. The first chemically-refined sugar appeared on the scene in India. That was the start of the trouble — an unrestricted supply of free sugar. The problem has since continued to escalate to the present day. We are crushed by the never-ending, almost infinite, and unstoppable production of sugar.

CK: Were your sugar experiments related to running?

KK: After Mr. Oliver’s marvelous demonstration, how could a kid ever look at sugar in the same way? A born chemist, I began designing my own experiments – this time to take place on the track. It was the summer of the 1976 Montreal Olympics when the giant-striding Alberto Juantorena stormed around the final bend to shake off Rick Wohlhuter and Ivo Van Damme and claim the 800-metre gold medal in a record 1:43.50.That fearful, wonderful Olympic scene is the reason why I am still running — I found it so inspiring, even to this day.. 

That summer, the apocalyptic power of sugar and the magnificence of Alberto Juantorena came together in my teenage mind to hatch a scheme. My plan was to formulate an appallingly supersaturated solution of orange juice and sugar, then oxidize the power within to break the school record in the 1-mile run. Having already run a 5:12, I drank enough of the elixir that I figured would power a rocket.

Then, with a stopwatch in hand, all I could produce was another crestfallen 5:12 mile. Something was missing — I was not able to unleash the furious power of sugar. The same thing happened when I tried a protein boost, according to the 1976 ‘Rocky’ egg-guzzling scene. There were other unaccounted for factors that determined performance. Training was one of them. In retrospect, my thinking concerning sugar was akin to putting hydrazine rocket fuel into a lawnmower and expecting it to fly.

CK: Can we include flour-made products as well? Like bagels, bread, wraps, buns, muffins, croissants, doughnuts, cookies, cake, some ice-cream, and candy? In other words, anything that causes a blood sugar spike, followed by the insulin reaction and then the crash!

KK: Yes — these seemingly irresistible bagels and muffins are essentially the addictive, packaged, end products of the more sinister hidden sugar molecules. The calamity precipitated by refined carbohydrates — a woe that cannot be taken back — is eerily reminiscent of Albert Bonsack (1859 – 1924) and his marvelous cigarette rolling machine. In those times, a skilled cigarette-maker could handroll only about four cigarettes per minute. Therefore, in 1875, a Virginia tobacco concern offered a $75,000 prize to anyone who could build a machine that would do it faster. Bonsack dropped out of school to address the challenge and by 1880, had developed a machine that could roll 200 units per minute, or 120,000 cigarettes in a 10-hour shift. A tidal wave of inexpensive, prefabricated cigarettes hit the streets like crack cocaine, to unleash widespread anguish on humankind. Within a few decades, lung cancers and other equally dreadful circulatory and cardiopulmonary diseases skyrocketed. 

Mass production of refined sugar has worked to the same effect. It is interesting and not coincidental that sugar and nicotine both stimulate the same dopamine-mediated, addiction, and reward centres of the brain. A puff of a cigarette, or a piece of candy — or even the thought of them — can cause a warm rise of dopaminergic reward in the pleasure centre. At a certain point, the decision to consume either sugar, nicotine, or any other mood or mind-altering substance prone to misuse, is almost no longer voluntary. We just do it.

Dr. Kenneth Kunz. Photo credit: Leona Fowler
Photography, Victoria, BC

As humans, we have developed a ‘learned-helplessness’ against the scourge of a limitless supply of inexpensive, good-tasting, preserved, processed, sweetened foods. Our bodies, as such, were not designed to withstand the oxidative stress of such abundance. And additionally, we do not have an “off-button”. During the epochs that humans developed, we could never be sure if or when we would have the occasion to eat again. We can, when the opportunity arises, consume thousands of calories within a few minutes, as anyone can attest. Think of this: sociobiologists calculate that in stone age times, a mother would need to consume 13 million calories to successfully raise a child. That feral driving force to eat leaves, nuts, berries, roots, grubs, bark, and carrion still exists within us, but now we hunt at leisure, with big carts, at the supermarket.

This bane, combined with our attitude of entitlement regarding extravagant luxury, has generated a sinister and thoroughgoing health crisis. Chronic disease has become an almost normal outcome of contemporary life — cancer, coronary heart disease, type-2 diabetes, obesity, degenerative osteoarthritis, and an absolute explosion of mental illness and unhappy addictions all have gripped western society in a strangling chokehold. These are not the normal outcomes of life and advancing age — this is not the way it was meant to be.

Are we to succumb? Not yet. We can do much better than this if we so determine.

Read: >> Dr, Kenneth Kunz interview: lower cancer rates among middle and long-distance runners

CK: We know about obesity. What macronutrient can we use to replace refined carbs to satiate appetite? I understand fats make a person feel full for a longer period of time, yes?

KK: Yes. But to understand and ‘know’ satiation, we have to descend to the level of particle physics: quarks, charms, and gluons. On the grosser, more surface-level however, you are correct. 

 “Look to the animals for your example”, wrote the French physician Jean-Emmanuel Gilibert (1741 – 1814), as he was struggling to promote a way of truth in human behavior. In those times, religion was more acceptable and pervasive, and Gilibert was probably referring to Job 12:7, which states, when in doubt, “ask the animals, and they will instruct you; ask the birds of the air, and they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will teach you.”

When I am out running, I love ‘looking to the animals’, and take my example from the deer at Beacon Hill Park. They eat when they are hungry, drink when they are thirsty, play when they are happy, and sleep when they feel fatigued. These instructions also play out in a more horrific sense on animal planet shows. We watch in fascination as a 400-pound tiger pulls down a 2,200-pound. buffalo and, within a few minutes, consumes 90-pounds of fat, gut, and internal organ meat — over 60,000 calories  — in a single ravenous meal. 

Carnivores invariably go for the internal fats and organs first, because they know that both survival and reproduction depend upon the highest quality in food value. I don’t think that you could get a tiger interested in a chocolate bar or a bran muffin. This behavior simply plays out in the numbers. If one chemical mole of glucose generates 686 kilocalories, the same unit measure of a fat, such as palmitate, yields a staggering 2,304 kilocalories. Thus, if your moment-to-moment survival depended upon caloric food value, which energy source would you choose? This is why we love fat. The healthy and robust Inuit people live off of it.

In medical school, we were taught that dietary fat was ruinous for our health. I recall a proud professor of internal medicine — as stern and starched as any — who swore a solemn vow that never again would he consume an egg, out of fearsome respect for the cholesterol therein. But cholesterol is essential to cellular biology and life. These scientific fads and notions that so contaminate modern medicine are tragic misunderstandings. The right kinds of fats, and the micronutrients they contain, are delicious, healthy, critically essential, and far more beneficial than any amount of sugar. Simply ask the animals.

CK: So is there some sort of physical disconnect to do with the perception of satiation?

KK: In modern society, satiation presents a different situation for humans — at least as it concerns myself. With an unlimited supply of resources, ‘satiating the appetite’ has become ‘a state of being’ that is regulated by the mind. When I forfeit self-discipline and internal self-regulation and allow myself to become emotionally disturbed, I am in danger of losing control over my eating, in the futile pursuit of solace. And — to the vexation of my coach — that works double for the nighttime, when all other protective distractions evaporate. During this vulnerable period, I consider a whole tube of Pringles, or 2-litres of Fudgy Turtle ice cream — or both — to be a single serving. If in stock, these commodities have no chance of surviving the night, in my house. Through exhaustive personal experiments, I have discovered that you can consume thousands of calories in the span of only a few minutes, and still have an empty feeling — a feeling that something is missing. 

Upon considerable reflection, I have found that this unfillable emptiness is actually a state of spiritual disconnection. It is a loneliness that cannot be filled by food  — or anything else of a material or physical nature. These sorts of temporary distractions simply will not help. To attain inner stillness, ‘satiation’, as you call it, I have now learned to calm myself down through meditation, prayer, running, and a good cup of tea, with fantastic results — if I am studious.

Thus your question regarding ‘satiation of appetite’ is a concept that opens up a more expansive, even — dare I say it — cosmic vista. Satiation is best attained through belonging — being woven into the very fabric of the eternal. We are the same. We are quarks, charms, electrons, and gluons — sparking motes drifting in a homogenous galactic plasma — all as one. This is what I mean when I refer to spirituality — this is satiation. We exist together in a serene and easy cosmos that is everlasting. This cosmic connection resolves all problems. We have nothing to fear, in life, or in death. We are already in The Forever — we hunger for naught.

CK: Earlier, you mentioned a myriad of diseases. Does sugar preferentially feed cancer in the body?

KK: That is a fascinating topic — the answer is yes. Some tumors cause large, pulsing, ‘feeder’ arteries to grow into them, so biochemically avid are they for a rich supply of oxygen, nutrients, and glucose. A cancer can wield a survival advantage over its host through the dominant force of a willpower that shapes pathophysiology.

I had a professor of obstetrics and gynecology who pointed this out to me in a patient with advanced, relapsed, multi-drug refractory ovarian cancer. The patient had attained a state of tumor cachexia. In Greek, kakos stands for ‘bad, or evil’, and hexis, which means ‘a stable arrangement’. The woman and the tumor cells growing within her had attained a state of dynamic equilibrium. Neither would give sway in a life-or-death tug-of-war. Mind you, tumors have the wherewithal, through the action of cytokines and chemokines to dissolve the muscle, fat, and bone of the host to preferentially feed themselves upon the nutrients so liberated. When the body has been sufficiently depleted, the host and the tumor will come to a standstill — an uncomfortable and sometimes prolonged stalemate is thereby established.

Oncologists — sometimes — but not always — will attempt to enhance the strength of the patient by administering intravenous feeding, the so-called Total Parenteral Nutrition, or TPN, so that more treatment may be delivered. The net effect is that the tumor, which has a survival advantage, immediately sequesters all incoming nutrients and begins its growth anew. CT-Scans and clinical assessments will show growth of the tumor and an inversely proportional dissolution of the patient.

Clinically, I have seen this play out many times, and it represents one of the most emotionally difficult situations that doctors and patients can find themselves in together.

CK: The fact that sugar fuels cancer should become common knowledge. Any final thoughts on sugar and nutrition? 

KK: Since time immemorial humans have come together and bonded through telling each other stories — we connect by sharing our personal narratives about what life has been like. Connection is the most fundamental of all human needs, and cave paintings, thousands of years old, are a form of our ancestors reaching forward to connect and tell us about the important things in life. The most common themes of these messages are large wild animals such as bison, horses, deer, and aurochs, set amid a hunt. Evidently, food was the most important issue and no doubt occupied a place of central importance in daily life — a place that attained spiritual proportions.

We have lost those spiritual proportions, through fads, weaknesses, and culinary dalliances such as consuming too much sugar, in its various forms. These frivolities have proven to have serious, long term, toxic, and eventually fatal consequences.Our woes become greatly magnified when sugar is combined with the now normalized attitude of overeating, usually of processed foods, coupled with the all too common setting of physical inactivity. 

I wonder what our early ancestors would think if they could see us on the sofa at playoff time. We would be spread out, lethargic, overweight, and mesmerized in front of the hexenkessel. Hexenkessel is a German word that translates to ‘witches box, or cauldron’, and is an apt descriptor for the television, and all other related electronic screens. I refer to these devices as ‘the devils’ tools’. On the coffee table, in front of us, would be a cornucopia of you know what — Coca Cola, pizza, beer, taco chips, burgers, M&Ms, etc. Our ancestors would no doubt be as astounded as the students witnessing Mr. Oliver’s violent sugar explosion pranks. 

We have gone torpid and flat, and this has evoked a great collective misery. No matter, we must regain our awe and respect for the incredible gift of food. It must be rediscovered and embraced forevermore. The future is bright, exceedingly bright.

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) reminds us that “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

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