The Junk Food Problem

Junk foods are more than just something to eat. They also represent money, profits, past emotional associations, childhood indulgences, and high-power advertising.

The junk food problem is not simply one of nutrition, but is related to the economic structure of this country and to the psychological and emotional makeup of millions of Americans.

If you want to wean yourself, your friends, and your clients away from health-destroying junk foods, then you must also understand the true nature of junk food addiction. You must learn how junk food is promoted, and why we allow ourselves to become willing addicts to food that supplies no nutrition or fulfills no need in the human diet. In short, you must learn about the economical and psychological aspects of junk food.

The 50% Junk Food Diet

More than half of all foods eaten by the typical American are junk foods. A junk food in this case means a food that is exceptionally high in sugar, fat or salt and supplies little or no nutrition. In short, a junk food consists largely of calories and little else.

Still, it is hard to believe that one out of every two bites eaten is a mouthful of junk food. Yet, it is true. Here's what the typical American ate last year:

Junk Food Consumption of the Average American (Per Year)

1. Refined white sugar
100 pounds
2. Fats and Oils
55 pounds
3. Soda and Cola Drinks
300 cans or bottles
4. Chewing gum
200 sticks
5. Ice Cream
80 quarts
6. Candy
18 pounds
7. Potato Chips
5 pounds
8. Other snack chips
2 pounds
9. Doughnuts
63 dozen
10. Cookies and cakes
70 pounds

On the average, every man, woman and child in this country is eating about 700 pounds of junk food each year. This does not even count other substandard and inappropriate foods, such as meat, alcohol, white bread, jams, jellies, and soon.

These foods have no nutritional value; indeed, they contribute to over 90% of all illnesses in this country. Why do people eat them? Obviously it's not for any food value.

No, junk foods are eaten for two basic reasons:

  1. they are highly visible, heavily advertised and are a cornerstone of this nation's food dollar
  2. junk foods exert a subtle but powerful psychological appeal for the user of such foods.

The Economics Of Junk Food

Foods For Profit

Junk foods exist today for only one reason: they are highly profitable. Because they can be marked up so heavily over the costs of production, junk foods put millions of dollars into the pockets of manufacturers.

It’s a fact that the lowest-profit item in most grocery stores is the produce—the fresh fruits and vegetables—and that the highest mark-up comes from packaged, processed and junk foods.


Natural and traditional foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, are rarely advertised because they cannot be given a brand name or identity by a manufacturer. After all, a potato is just a potato, and worth only a few cents a pound. But if you slice that potato, boil it in oil, add a large dose of salt and preservatives, and package it a bright bag with a catchy name, then you have potato chips that can be sold for ten to twenty times the cost of the original potato.

Even twenty years ago, it was discovered that for every dollar spent on breakfast cereals (a sugary junk food), only a fraction went for the cost of the raw materials. Consider where the average junk food dollar goes:

For Each Dollar Spent On Junk Food…

  • 12 cents goes for packaging
  • 17 cents pays for the advertising and promotion
  • 55 cents goes for processing and profit-markup
  • 6 cents is for additives, preservatives and colorings
  • 10 cents is for the actual food in the product

In contrast, for every dollar spent on produce and natural foods (like whole grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruits), about 65 cents goes for the actual food cost and the remaining for transportation and retail markup.

Not only does the consumer of junk and processed foods pay in terms of health and well-being, he is also spending 5 to 20 times as much as he should for the actual food.

Here’s another example: a popular “food” developed a few years ago was called “Shake ‘n Bake.” It was a food crust or covering put on chicken, fish and so on. It sold for $2.63 per pound. It was mostly wheat flour, with a few artificial spices and coloring, that could be purchased for 15 cents a pound for its raw ingredients. The consumer was paying the extra $2.48 for television advertising and promotion.

It’s the advertising and packaging that make junk foods so expensive and so profitable. In fact, without mass advertising, there would probably be no junk foods. An understanding of the junk food problem, then, requires an understanding of the advertising and promotion of this food.

Creating a Need

Of all the products sold in this country, food is the most ideally suited to manipulation and deception. The consumer has a limited ability to evaluate the effects of food processing on its nutritional value. He has no idea about the long-term effects of food additives on his health. He cannot verify any of the claims made by the advertising.

Food should serve one primary purpose: supplying the materials needed by the body for its health and
preservation. Junk foods cannot do this. In fact, they do just the opposite. In that case, it should be easily seen that there are no rational reasons to purchase or consume junk foods. There is no real need for them.

The manufacturers of these foods realize this. They also know that if they can create an imagined need for their products, they can get consumers to buy them. If you take a child that is raised away from the influences of television, peer influence, and deceptive advertising and ask him what he desires when he is hungry, he might respond with something like “an apple” or “a banana.” He most assuredly wouldn’t answer with “a Ding-Dong” or “Captain Chocolate Cereal.”

Unless a junk food is advertised, we know nothing about it. Having no innate need for it, we wouldn’t buy it. But if we are told that it exists and that we should probably try it, then we may fall prey to the advertising gimmicks of junk food salesmen.

Michael S. Lasky, author of The Complete Junk Food Book, has this to say about eating junk food and the power of advertising:

“We are all proselytized at an important age into consuming puppets of the junk food barons. Our parents inadvertently help them by buying their products as a form of ‘reward’ food. We grow up unaware that we have slowly acquired a junk food habit by the subtle forces of advertising. By the time we are capable of making a decision about junk food, we are already hooked from years and years of indulging in what we had been told by TV was good food.”

Actually, very little “good food” is advertised. Eighty percent of all food advertising is for blatant junk foods. Most of the remaining 20% is for convenience foods that are often little better than the candy, cakes, and snack foods which make up the majority of food advertising. In fact, out of the top 100 most heavily advertised food products, over 30 of them have absolutely zero food value, except for empty calories.

The majority of Americans receive almost all of their nutritional information from advertising. In other words, the typical person only knows as much about nutrition and good food as the advertisers want to tell him. When asked how good a job food manufacturers do in telling the public about good nutrition, a leading advertising executive for a convenience food company said: “The job of product advertising is to persuade and sell, not to educate.”

Studies have shown that it does not matter how nutritious a food may be or even how good it tastes. It is advertising alone that sells a food product, and it is primarily the junk foods and the nonfoods that are advertised the heaviest.

Partners In Crime

The manufacturers and advertisers of junk food are not the only ones to blame for our nation’s ill health. Economics dicates that chain supermarkets and grocery stores must also be aggressive partners with the producers of junk food.

Walk into any grocery store and what do you see? Outside of maybe one aisle for fresh produce and the milk and meat sections, the rest of the store is filled with packaged and convenience junk foods.

Consider these facts: Eighty percent of all food items sold in the supermarket did not exist ten years ago. In the past decade, over 9700 new items were introduced into grocery stores. The majority of these items are packaged junk foods which are characterized by a remarkable lack of nutrients due to overprocessing.

That’s right, your friendly neighborhood grocer is simply another of the links in the junk food chain—foods that the Senate Committee on Human Health and Nutrition say contribute to 6 out of 10 of the leading causes of death in this country.

Surviving The Supermarket Jungle

More than 50% of all purchases made in a supermarket are done on a whim. You don’t go to a grocery store with the conscious thought of buying frozen brownies or butterscotch chip cookies. The designers of supermarkets know this, and consequently they stack all of the high-profit junk foods in front of the consumer so it is impossible to avoid seeing them.

In a book called The Supermarket Trap, author Jennifer Cross says that even a person with a cast-iron will can fall prey to the junk food merchandising used in grocery stores. “The consumer’s senses become so blitzed by the sheer amount of food choices that everything becomes a blur. Logic and common sense fail us, and we choose food items solely because of attractive packaging or name recognition.”

The simple way to avoid such a trap is to buy only specific items from a supermarket. If you go into the store and head straight for the fresh produce department and come straight out, you can miss the cookies, candies and packaged foods that might beckon you. Most grocery shoppers make the mistake of pushing their basket up one aisle and down the other, exposing themselves to thousands of poor food choices and useless products.

Marketing studies have shown that from 70 to 90% of the time, the purchase of junkie favorites like candy, frozen desserts, snacks and chips occur because of an instored decision. People do not consciously go into a store to purchase useless and destructive nonfood items, but once they are inside, they become fair game for the promotion and advertising tricks of the store.

There are two ways to handle this situation. The best way is simply to refuse to ever buy or eat such products. If junk foods are never a part of your diet, you’ll never be tempted to buy them. Even if you eat them only on rare occasions, the potential for buying them will still remain. The second way is to make a list before you go shopping. Then refuse to buy anything not on your list, and always shop alone—without a spouse or begging children.

Junk Food Tactics

Candy Is Good For You And Other Lies

Not only does the junk food industry aggressively promote health-destroying foods through advertising, but they defend them with a barrage of propaganda, misinformation, and outright lies. Much of this propaganda is aimed at children and concerned parents.


Consider the following statements that are in a booklet distributed to over 60,000 students by the National Confectioner’s Association.

  1. “Candy is vital for weight watchers. To reduce, eat candy before and after each meal. We can promise you it works.”
  2. “Candy helps fight fever and can prevent vomiting and diarrhea.”
  3. “Candy is not the cause of cavities, but the lack of hard chewing causes tooth decay.”

Not to be outdone, the National Soft Drink association passes out literature to children and high school athletes that tell them “soda drinks are a good source of water.” A better source of water is water itself—but then, you can’t sell pure water for a hefty profit under some brand name.

Finally, read what the Hershey Foods Corporation has to say about proper nutrition in their “Nutritional Information” handbook: “Calories are important, and foods which supply only calories can, if used correctly, contribute to good nutrition.” Of course, one of the highest calorie, no-nutrition foods is white sugar—a chief ingredient in this manufacturer’s products.

The Great Fortification Rip-off

Besides deceptive advertising and outrageous propaganda, the junk food industry defends its products by emphasizing the added nutrients these products contain. “Fortified” candy bars and cereals are used to lure consumers into thinking that they might be getting a little nutrition among the garbage.

Here’s how it works. Junk food manufacturers know that their products have no nutritional value and that their foods are open to attack by nutritionists. To head off such criticism, they often add vitamins and minerals to their products. Thus we have sugary bits of cereal that claim to supply 100% of all our vitamin and mineral needs. There are candy bars that give us “10% of all 19 nutrients” that we need.

Adding inorganic and useless vitamins and minerals to junk food is a cheap process. You can turn a box of sugared, processed cereal into a daily vitamin pill by adding about two cents worth of additives. In turn, these fortified junk foods are then marked up 15 to 25 times what it costs to add these useless vitamins and minerals.

Fortified junk foods still have the white sugar, the saturated fats, the high salt content, and the empty-calories. The consumer is fooled by two cents of added minerals and vitamins. Even worse, the so-called “extra” vitamins and minerals which were added to the junk food cannot be used anyway. They are inorganic chemicals, just like the other additives and the preservatives already laced through the destructive foods.

Hooking the Kids

Children are the helpless members of out society. And they are the biggest target for the junk food pushers. Children know nothing about nutrition or the necessity of eating wholesome foods. They receive most of their knowledge from television programming and advertising.

Junk foods are advertised on children’s television shows at the rate of 20 times per hour—certainly enough to qualify it as brainwashing. Robert B. Choate, a television critic, told a Senate investigating committee, “When you take a child who sits in front of Saturday TV and hears sugar, sugar, sugar, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, he picks up a habit that is going to last all his life.”

“Get’em while they’re young” is the attitude of the sugar cereal and candy manufacturers. And they’re successful. The Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee found that junk food products advertised on television are more frequently requested by children than any other products, including toys.

“Television advertising,” says Dr. Judith J. Wurtman and author on children’s nutrition, “is probably the most persistent force undermining good- eating habits.” One father who became concerned about his children’s health threw away his television set after he became tired of salesmen in my living room telling lies to my children.” Maybe you don’t want to go that far, but here are some things you can do to counter the effects of junk food advertising on children.

  1. Fight propaganda with facts. No matter how young your child is, he or she can understand some basic facts like “Sugar will make your teeth rot and hurt” and “Fresh fruit makes you strong and healthy.”
  2. Restrict television watching. Have your children watch commercial-free programs and stations. Try to avoid the heavy Saturday morning advertising schedule.
  3. Give your own reactions to commercials. React with undisguised disgust at commercials for bad food or products. Point out to children how advertising is often deceptive. Don’t let them think that television and advertising is to be trusted or accepted on face value. Teach them to think for themselves and to question things that they see or read.

If you’re a parent, you will have a massive job in reeducating and protecting your children from the effects of junk food advertising. It is amazing that we have removed ads for cigarettes and hard liquor from television, but allow ads for “Sugar Puffs-Puffs” and “Chocolate Doo-Dads” to be blast into our children’s brains at the rate of 5,000 per year.

Junk food addiction begins in childhood, and this is where the problem can be most easily handled.

Breaking The Junk Food Addiction

The Psychological Appeal of Junk Food

We cannot blame the entire junk food problem on the manufacturers and advertisers of these products. After all, if people did not eat such foods, they would never be kept in the marketplace. But people do eat junk foods. And they eat them almost compulsively, without regard to their health or to the innate harmfulness of these foods.

Why do junk foods exercise such a stranglehold on America’s nutritional well-being? Primarily because such foods are psychologically addictive. A habitual use of junk food occurs not because the food is fulfilling any physiological need, but because they answer some psychological need. People eat non-nutritious, worthless foods purely for emotional and psychological reasons.

Psychological studies have shown that food is the single most powerful emotional stimulus in our lives. We use foods as much to cheer us up, to fight depression, to reward ourselves, to indulge ourselves as we do to satisfy any hunger, real or imagined. And because we often eat for emotional reasons, we often choose foods that are associated with specific emotional experiences. Unfortunately, such foods are often “pleasure” foods or junk foods.

“Most people do not eat foods because they are good for them,” says Dr. Robert S. Harris, a professor of nutritional biochemistry at MIT, “But because the foods appeal to their appetite, to their emotions, to their soul.”

Junk foods have a strong appeal to the primitive and infantile emotions. They are usually very sweet, very rich, and very filling. They remind us of our first rich and sweet food, mother’s milk. They take the place of the natural sweets, like fruits, that our sweet tooth craves.


Junk foods are often the foods that our parents gave us for being “good”—ice cream, candy, cookies. Consequently, when we have been “good,” we still reward ourselves with these foods. It is an early conditioning that persists long into adulthood.

It is interesting to observe that junk food is the single largest class of pollutants that modern man inflicts upon himself. Forget about air pollution, cigarette smoke, contaminated water, radiation, or so on. It is the junk food eaten everyday by almost every person in this country that is the biggest source of internal pollutions. Now psychologically, this is an interesting situation.

Junk foods, besides being a way to reward ourselves, now also become a way to punish ourselves. People who are depressed and who have a low self-esteem often eat health-destroying foods in an effort to punish themselves for being unworthy or for having committed imagined wrongs. Junk food becomes for these people a socially-sanctioned form of suicide.

A successful avoidance and elimination of junk food from the diet requires efforts from two sides. First, a barrage of nutritional information and hard facts about the destructiveness of these foods must be obtained. Second, the person’s psychological state must be evaluated and improved so that this addiction can be exposed and eliminated forever.

The Economic Benefits of Avoiding Junk Food

Nutritional arguments for the elimination of junk food may not be effective enough to wean people away from a poor diet. Almost everyone, however, understands the benefits of saving money. Eliminating junk food not only results in better health, but it means a real savings in the amount of money spent every day.

Let’s look at the typical costs for a junk food habit for the average person. During a week, every person in this country is calculated to consume, on the average; the following amounts of junk food:

One Week of Junk Food And Us Cost

  • 7 bottles of soda
  • 1 package of gum
  • 2 quarts of ice cream
  • 2 ounces of snack chips
  • 1 dozen doughnuts
  • 1 pound of cookies or sweets
  • 6 ounces of candy

1982 costs for such foods: $16

Notice that the above does not take into consideration any fast food eaten out or convenience foods prepared (such as frozen desserts, sugared cereals, etc.) The average spent on such foods per week varies greatly, but a conservative estimate of the costs of such foods per week is around $18.

Not only do these junk foods and fast foods cost money to eat, but the after-effects of consuming such foods often results in additional money being spent. Indigestion, headaches, colds, hemorrhoids, colitis, and many other ailments may be traced to junk food consumption. The average person may spend another $5 per week just on “medicine cabinet” remedies or over-the-counter drugs for these illnesses that result from such foods.

A year of junk food eating also typically results in about six new cavities and a tooth needing capping or pulling, according to figures from Army dentists. This translates into an average $10 per week for dental care.

We still do not know the costs of medical expenses that accumulate because junk food eaters go to their doctors, nor can we accurately figure in how many lost days of work result from such a diet. Even so, the total costs of eating junk food for a year are impressive. Consider these ‘figures:

Annual Costs of a Junk Food Diet

Junk foods
Fast foods
Drugs and Medication
Dental Bills
Medical Bills (estimate)
Days lost from work (estimate)
Total yearly loss of income from junk foods

By eliminating junk foods from the diet, a person would realize enough yearly savings to purchase a new car every three years. He or she would have more energy, a higher level of health and well-being, and literally extra years to enjoy such benefits. No one really knows how much junk foods shorten the lifespan, but it would probably not be unrealistic to use the same figures that are often quoted for cigarette smokers.

Every cigarette smoked means a 15-minute decrease in your life. Junk foods, with all their poisons and additives, may be more harmful than smoking and it would not be unreasonable to assume for every bag of cookies or quart of ice cream, you’re knocking off hours, days, and weeks of your life.

Understand that these figures are speculative and have no sound basis in hard research simply because no one has had an opportunity to study the long-term effects of eating junk foods. We are the first generation of guinea pigs for the high-sugar, high-salt, high-fat and high-poison junk food diet.

Regardless, it is painfully obvious that people who consume junk foods not only steal money from themselves and their families, but also lay the foundation for expensive and painful suffering in the years to come. Can any type of food or sensual pleasure be worth these costs? Is a chocolate chip cookie or a scoop of ice cream or a diet soda worth $3000 plus a year?

The next time someone says to you, “I’m just dying for a piece of that cake or pie,” you should let them know that that is just precisely what they are doing, and they are also paying dearly for this “privilege.”

Kicking The Habit

As we have seen, the junk food problem is not simply one of nutrition. Good nutrition is easy to teach, but is only partially effective in getting people away from their junk food habits.

People must also be made aware of the economic and psychological aspects of eating junk food. This lesson should help you educate others who are ready to abandon the typical high junk food diet of most Americans.

First, teach the person the economic facts of life about junk foods.

  1. Junk foods are very expensive to eat in terms of the actual nutrition provided. Most junk foods have only about 10% of the food you are paying for. The rest is for pretty packaging, promotion, advertising and profits.
  2. Junk foods cost you twice. Once when you pay the overinflated prices for them and again when you pay the costs of ill health that they produce.
  3. A typical overfed American family can save anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a year if they eliminate all fast foods and convenience foods from their diets. This saving results from the actual costs of the junk food, the sick time lost because of them, and the incidental expenses of eating such foods.

Second, the person must be made aware of the psychological reasons for junk food addiction. He should be told that most eating patterns are based on emotional and not rational decisions. Foods as a reward or punishment should not be used—neither for children nor adults.

Negative eating habits and poor choices sometimes result from a lack of self-esteem or self-worth. A person addicted to junk food may have other serious problems connected with the personality or with social behavior. To eliminate junk foods from such a person’s diet, he or she must also embark upon an overall health program of improvement. They must view themselves in a different light, and consider themselves worthy of good health and sickness-free living.

Third, children are especially vulnerable to junk foods. Outside of rational explanations and setting a good example, you can wean children away from junk foods with healthy substitutes. Sweet dried fruits can replace candies. Fresh juices or blended fruits can take the place of sugary drinks.

Realize that most children want the sweetness of junk foods because they have a natural sweet tooth and demand for high-carbohydrate foods that can supply them with energy. In this case, give them plenty of natural carbohydrates with fresh fruits, dried fruits and occassional nuts and seeds.

The way to fight junk food addiction is through education. Tell your friends, your family and your clients about the nutritional inadequacies of these foods. Let them see the economic harm that also comes from consuming such foods. An approach to this problem on several levels—nutritional, economic, and psychological—can help most people end their romance with junk food and give them years of healthy and illness-free living.

Frequently Asked Questions

There's one aspect of junk foods that you overlooked. The ecological benefits from avoiding all junk foods.

Thank you. That is also a very important area, and it may help some people end their consumption of these foods. Ecologically, junk foods are a disaster. Right now there are millions of acres of trees and rain forests in South America that are being destroyed forever by a major hamburger chain. They are clear-cutting trees hundreds of years old so that they can raise more cattle at a cheap price for their hamburgers. Not only that, but millions of trees are sacrificed annually so that these hamburgers and french fries can be packaged in paper and wrappings.
Junk food is a rich source of both external and internal pollution. Litter from junk food products is astounding, and it is everywhere. My family and I were once picking peaches in a large orchard that allowed the public to pick and eat all the peaches they wanted., We were happily picking and eating tree-ripened fruit right in the orchard. Suddenly I noticed that all over the grounds of the orchard were candy bar wrappers, chip bags, empty soda cans, and bags from rake-out fast food places.
Here were thousands of luscious fruits all around us—the natural food for man, and the best available, just for the picking. What were people doing? They were bringing in bags of junk food and throwing the remains on the ground. They had become so blinded and desensitized by their addiction to junk foods that they could not even recognize wholesome foods that were literally hanging before their very eyes.
Not only that, but after eating such foods, their consciousness was so deadened that they threw the trash and garbage from these foods all around them. It's sad, but people that eat junk and trash foods often act trashy. There is no way that you can claim to be concerned about the environment or ecology and still eat junk foods. It's a contradiction, and junk foods are a significant part of the pollution affecting our planet.

My problem is other people. They all think I never have any fun because I won't eat their "fun" foods, like potato chips and cookies. They tell me that I'm cheating myself out of some simple enjoyments. What should I say in return?

The main problem with junk food is that so many people see it as a harmless pleasure or as a legitimate form of entertainment. Food should be pleasurable to eat,
but too often it is used just as social entertainment. Why people think that you must eat health-destroying foods to be sociable is a mystery. Often you will find people that eat junk foods do indeed know better. They realize that they are making poor and incorrect food choices, and no doubt they unconsciously resent it when you do not "join in" and give your support to their bad habits.
Probably the best thing to say when offered junk foods is a polite and smiling, "No, thank you" without any further explanation. If you're pressed, simply say that you feel much better when you don't eat such foods. Make it sound like your rejections of these foods is a personal choice and not an attack on their dietary habits.
People dislike being told that they are doing the wrong thing—especially when they already suspect it. By remaining pleasant and exhibiting a well-balanced attitude toward such foods, you may make a positive impression on the person and thereby encourage them to also give up junk foods. By no means should you lecture to the person or point out how much better you are than them. A well-balanced, healthy person is usually a strong enough argument for the avoidance of junk foods.

My friends always tell me that fast foods are a cheap way to eat dinner, and that they really couldn't afford to eat just fresh fruit and vegetables. Now you say that these foods are actually costly. What's the truth?

Fast foods are deceptive. Certainly you can fill your stomach up for every little money, but this "full" feeling is because of the heavy amounts of grease and fat present in these foods as well as the cheap white bread and filler that they use.
Junk foods may seem like a cheap way to fill up, but they are an expensive way to get nutrition. Proper eating is not just having your stomach full. When these same people who get a cheap meal at a fast food place later have to pay hundreds of dollars on dental or medical care, they don't see the connection. When they later have cancers, heart problems, kidney failure and premature aging, they never suspect that they are results of too many "cheap" meals.
You cannot cheat your body of the nutrients and foods it needs by just "filling it up" with cheap, greasy bulk. The best way to eat inexpensively is to select those foods that promote the highest level of health—regardless of financial costs. You see, even if you spend twice as much for good foods than for junk foods, you're avoiding the much greater expenses of pain, suffering and ill-health.
Junk foods are nutritionally worthless and health-destroying. Yet they still make up, half of the average person's diet. Why? Because the economics of junk food production and promotion make them a high-profit and a highly visible item.
People are first manipulated by the manufacturers into buying junk foods, and then they are controlled by their psychological addictions to continue eating the foods.
 Eliminating junk foods from a person's diet depends upon a three-fold approach. First, intensive nutritional education. This is the rational appeal. Next, a concrete illustration of how much money can be saved if junk foods are eliminated (actual costs of the foods, expensive sicknesses caused by such foods, etc.). This is the material appeal. Finally, an explanation of the psychological factors in eating junk foods (how they serve as an emotional substitute, how they are used to "reward" or "punish.") This is the emotional appeal. An education program of this sort is effective in breaking the junk food addiction.

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