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Let's Get FunctionalLet's Get Functional

Heather Granato

September 21, 2010

25 Min Read
Let's Get Functional

While nutritional fortification has been common practice in many food categories for years, it is only since the early 1980s that the term functional foods has come into industry parlance. Originally used in Japan as part of the definition of Foods for Specified Health Uses (FOSHU), the definition of functional foods has expanded to encompass a broad range of foods and beverages with health-enhancing properties beyond intrinsic nutrient value.

The category has expanded slowly through the years. Early additions most often included single, common vitamins or minerals, such as the addition of iron into bread products or the addition of vitamin C into a variety of beverages, noted Cheryl Sturm, marketing director, Embria Health Sciences. And while fortification continues to occupy a portion of the healthy foods category, the move to condition-specific functionality outpaces it. Functional foods and beverages now exist, touting benefits for a wide range of conditions from common heart, bone and immune to growing categories such as energy, stress relief and a wide variety of digestive issues.

Indeed, Karen Todd, director of marketing, Kyowa Hakko, observed, This is not your mothers functional food or beverage. And Roberto Crea, Ph.D., president and CEO, Creagri Inc., added Functional foods were once considered foods that provided more than the basic fats, proteins and carbohydrates; foods that were inherently rich in vitamins or minerals; and foods that prevented deficiencies and supported body growth and development. Today, the definition of a functional food is one that has natural or added compounds that provide benefits beyond those of vitamins and minerals.

In fact, these products can be designed in different ways to deliver that value to the consumer. The ways of enhancing the nutritional characteristics of foods might be achieved through nutrient fortification; removal or replacement of negative constituents; enrichment with bioactive substances; or application of intelligent recipes to give food a well-balanced nutritional composition, said Ria Biswas, senior manager, technical marketing, Sami Labs, a division of Sabinsa Corp.

However they are designed, functional foods and beverages are seeing continued growth. Tom Vierhile, Datamonitor, noted the state of the market has reflected the overall economy with both challenges and opportunities. Functional foods and drinks were expanding well before the recession, but things have slowed since then, not the least of which was because of the tendency for functional-food products to cost more than traditional foods and drinks, he observed. He noted this has slowed the rate of new product introductions in the category. For example, only 2.7 percent of new food introductions in the United States during the first six months of 2010 claimed to be high in omega-3 fatty acids, compared to 3 percent in the comparable 2009 period and 2.9 percent in 2008.

New product activity has slowed in the last year as a direct result of the down economy, agreed Paul Dijkstra, CEO, InterHealth Nutraceuticals. While major players such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCola introduced several new products last year, new product introductions were definitely down from previous years with companies concentrating on achieving growth through acquisitions, licensing and partnership agreements.

At the same time, Scott Martling, group leader, International Food Network (IFN), said smaller firms have the chance to enter the market and take advantage of niche openings. . These opportunities are often too small or possibly too risky for a major manufacturer to pursue, he said. This model does lend to a good acquisition market for the major manufacturers, though. They can forgo the start-up risk and buy successful businesses once they are established in the marketplace with a proven track record.

Whatever the method for market entry, the challenges in the economy have had positive effects on consumer purchasing patterns. With consumers moving from medication to prevention and self-care, the demand for products that can deliver better health continues to grow, even in tough economic times, said Peggy Steele, global business director, Danisco Health & Nutrition.

Fonterras marketing teamRachel Marshall, category marketing manager; Mark Robinson, beverages marketing manager; and Carrie Schroeder, category development manager/functional beveragesadded: Challenging economic conditions coupled with the increasing cost of health care and uncertainty around new government health-care initiatives have encouraged consumers to become increasingly involved in their own health and wellness decisions.

In fact, the rate of growth in the functional food sector has outpaced that of the mainstream food and beverage market. BCC Research estimated the global market for functional foods/beverages will reach $176.7 billion by 2013 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.4 percent, with the fastest growth seen in functional beverages, with a CAGR of 10.8 percent.

There are several factors driving this growth rate, said Bernard Becker, co-founder and managing director, InterMed Discovery. The accelerating phenomenon of what is being described as the aging population of Baby Boomers has shifted needs and demands to issues that favor growing age: mental and physical fitness, cardiovascular protection and weight control, he said. Based on increasing consumer health awareness of these topics, the market expects more and more sophisticated functionalities to be available in order to support the general desire to preserve and maintain a healthy state for as long as possible. In addition, the regulatory environment has rightfully become stricter, reflecting the need for reliable products to be safe and efficacious. All of these factors have transformed, and continue to transform, the range of application categories from basic fortification solutions to more differentiated and substantiated health benefits.

Ultimately, the market is driven by consumer demand. This has to do with a very different mindset among mainstream consumers than what perhaps existed 10 years ago, said Ram Chaudhari, Ph.D., senior executive vice president and chief scientific officer, Fortitech. People today are much more aware of the long-term benefits that proper nutrition plays in their overall health, as well as how it relates to specific health conditions. During a trip to the grocery store, they are actively looking for products whose labels call out things like antioxidants, because they now understand the role they play in their well-being.

This doesnt necessarily mean consumers are seeking functional foods. Many execs see the term itself as a more convenient way for the industry to group common products, although that terminology isnt what shoppers are thinking about. Consumers lead busy lives and are inundated with so much information that the term functional food does not resonate with them, said Patrick Luchsinger, director of marketing, Lipid Nutrition. Consumers only think about or define foods if the product addresses a need for them. Consumers make healthy food choices for different reasons. They determine which health benefits are the most important to them and justify the additional cost in exchange for the benefits the products offer. By choosing foods that contain added ingredients or certain benefits, they feel a greater sense of control over their health. Consumers have an increasing desire to take a more proactive role in optimizing personal health and well-being, and foods with added functional ingredients for certain health benefits appeal to this desire.

As consumers get more educated, marketers will have to deliver items that meet their desires. In the past, a whole-wheat bread was sufficient, but now, consumers are looking for products with claims of additional vitamins, calcium, omega-3s and no trans fat, said Marge OBrien, insight manager, Caravan Ingredients. They are looking for maximized nutrition from the foods they eat.

Moving forward, Becker said it is likely consumers will focus on the benefits of different types of functional foods and integrate them into their day-to-day consumption patterns. He added, It is very likely the concept of functional foods will become an integral part of the consumers perception, as quality and the benefits of daily food consumption strongly influence consumer habits and product selection.

Part of that means developing products that deliver the health benefits consumers are seeking at a reasonable price. Consumers are seeking better-for-you foods, and theyre willing to pay some amount of premium depending on the product and how well they understand the value of that added ingredient, said Sharann Simmons, marketing director, NA, Cognis Nutrition & Health.

Mike Bush, vice president of business development, Ganeden Biotech, agreed the economic value is critical. Consumers determine which health benefits are the most important for them and justify the additional cost in exchange for the benefits the products offer, he said. Premium products branch across many areas in the market and consumers are showing theyre willing to pay for quality, benefits and peace of mind.


Developing Functional Products

Fortunately for the creative minds on the product development bench, there are many opportunities for the types of foods and beverages consumers are seeking. Consumers are looking for all types of foods and beverages with functional benefitsno one just eats or drinks one type of food all day long unless they are following a strict diet or must do so for medical reasons, Todd noted. Beverages are a large part of the functional category, however, we must develop foods outside beverages or traditional bar forms.

At this point, bars and beverages are the most popular functional-food formats. Consumers tend to be novelty seeking when it comes to drinks, so this is an excellent place to experiment with new fortification concepts, Vierhile said. This has been bolstered of late by consumer acceptance of various healthful beverage formats, including drinkable yogurt and smoothies. Shot-type drinks have been another positive development for functional foods and drinks as a whole because these products have been able to focus not only on energy enhancement, but overall health. As far as foods are concerned, snack bars have traditionally been one of the most functional markets and that continues to be the case.

Beyond the bars, there has been movement in many other food segments, from cereal-based products and baked goods into the dairy category, with opportunities for expansion. Consumers are ultimately looking for health benefits in every food group they normally consume, which of course includes condiments, baked snacks and even a healthy boost to a sweet indulgence, said Matt Philips, president, Cyvex Nutrition. Though many functional food/beverage consumers are committed to good nutrition, the proliferation and reliance on processed foods has led many casually healthy consumers to counter poor diet choices with concentrated, nutrition-enhanced products.

Convenience, along with taste, is a major driver for all food/beverage product development, not just those functional items. This seems to be true for products that deliver immediate gratification as well as products people feel good about consuming as part of their regular diet, observed Gregory Drew, director, Food & Beverage Group, Pharmachem Laboratories.

An additional consideration when deciding on the product form is the target market. Manufacturers should keep consumer demographics in mind while developing functional foods and beverages, as not all segments of the population would demand them in the same way, Biswas said. An aging population is a key driver leading to increased demand for functional products. Time- and energy-strapped workers seek functional products that provide quick health solutions wrapped in a convenient package. Also, parents are starting to take greater responsibility for the improvement of their childrens health, and women, in particular, are demanding functional foods and beverages more than men.

The childrens category is one Cassie France-Kelly, director of corporate communications, Martek Biosciences, called out as particularly poised for growth. Consumers are looking for any and all products to provide an added benefit if possible, she said. For example, parents are going to give their kids cookies from time to time regardless, but if they can provide whole grains as well as a vegetarian sources of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for brain health, then all the better. Even healthy products that already offer standard benefits can get an added boost by fortifying with a healthy ingredient. For example, milk, the health food of all health foods for growing kids, has been shown in the marketplace via the Horizon Organic brand to perform well when it has the added benefit of vegetarian DHA to support kids brain health, beyond the standard calcium and vitamin D benefits every mom knows so well.

The idea of starting with a food that has a healthy halo and enhancing it with added nutritional ingredients was one cited by several industry members. Generally, the product in its basic form needs to have a health position in the consumers mind, said Chet Rao, Ph.D., marketing manager, Hormel Foods Specialty Products. For example, yogurt and juice are inherently considered healthy, so fortifying them for a specific health claim makes business sense. In any category, there might also be sub-categories that can be health positioned, such as low-fat or sugar-free items.

Luchsinger added consumers should not only have a positive health impression of the food, but be willing to accept the added nutritional ingredient in that format. For example, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is understood for its weight-management benefits of reduction of body fat and increasing lean muscle, he said. Because CLA is found naturally in dairy, it makes sense to consumers that CLA be found in that type of product.

Marketers should also be aware of the type of health effects consumers are seeking via food, versus other formats such as supplements. Ipsos Marketing recently conducted a survey asking consumers about their interest in various product forms for health benefits. Within the food and beverage category, consumer interest was strongest in products that offer better digestive health (38 percent), increased energy (37 percent), weight loss (34 percent) and healthy blood sugar levels (34 percent), with interest levels in those areas higher in fortified foods than in using supplements. Supplements were significantly more appealing in areas such as immune health (41 percent), increased brain power/memory (41 percent), bone/joint health (40 percent) and cancer prevention (38 percent). Lauren Demar, CEO, Ipsos Marketing, Global Consumer Goods Sector, commented: The data suggests consumers are most interested in health and wellness products in which there is already an established connection between the product and the benefit. For example, there is already a connection with food and beverage products, and benefits related to digestion, increased energy, weight loss and healthy blood sugar levels (corresponding to diabetes management); therefore, consumers are more open to using food and beverages that offer these advantages.

Seeking the Hot Ingredients

There are several stand-out ingredients in the functional food and beverage category. Several industry members cited omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), fiber, vitamin D, phytosterols, B vitamins and protein as hot offerings. All of which have been relatively high-profile in the media in the last few years, with studies substantiating their health effects when consumed in the diet.

Datamonitors Vierhile particularly called out resveratrol and vitamin D. Consumer awareness for resveratrol is rising rapidly, and this is helping to speed its ascent, though this does not necessarily address the sticky issue of efficacy, he said. And vitamin D is really taking off. We are just beginning to see companies tout vitamin D on product labels, and I think we could be on the ground floor for what could be a big rise in these claims over the next year or two.

Martling said the IFN research team has seen steady interest in proteins and fibers. They are continually utilized in a broad variety of applications, he said. With improved ingredient functionality and expanding research around additional health benefits, such as blood-glucose control and satiety, these ingredients have even more versatility for product formulators.

The Fonterra group echoed the interest in protein, as consumers are more aware of its multiple health benefits. Fonterra has seen a steady growth in consumer awareness of the multiple benefits of protein, including sports performance, weight management, lean muscle mass retention, satiety and general well-being, they said. Demand for specialized proteins will grow as we see an increase in the launch of convenient, protein-enriched products. It is likely we will see an increase in the number of protein-based products available that target different meal occasions.

Superfruits continue to hold manufacturer interest, according to Chaudhari. While clinical research on this category is still in its infancy, these fruits and their benefit claims, which range from promoting heart health to anti-aging and increased immunity, have been culturally upheld by the various ethnic groups whose diets include these exotic fruits, he said.

One of those major benefits is their power as antioxidants, which is also attracting interest. George Pontiakos, CEO, BI Nutraceuticals, observed Companies are looking for high-ORAC value products. Chia and maqui berry are being picked up into the baked goods category. These buyers also want omega-3s, and not necessarily fish oil, because the taste in fish oil and smell are big challenges.

France-Kelly agreed omega-3s are a hot trend, although she said consumers and manufacturers are paying more attention to the sources and the inclusion levels. Theyre looking for products that are fortified with levels that make sense from a claims and health perspective, she said. Theres no sense of fortifying a product with a healthy ingredient if theres not enough in it to talk about health benefits from a claims perspective, or to provide true benefits to the end consumer.

Another critical issue is whether the ingredient is GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Since the late 1950s, federal regulations have laid out the parameters for adding ingredients into the food supply, dividing inclusions into food additives (subject to premarket review and approval) or GRAS substances. As FDA explains in a Guidance on the topic, The difference between use of a food additive and use of a GRAS substance relates to the widespread awareness of the data and information about the substance, i.e., who has access to the data and information, and who has reviewed those data and information. GRAS ingredients are not subject to FDA review and approval; while companies can submit a GRAS notification, it is a voluntary process and the agencys response is not an approval of GRAS, but no objection to marketing it as such.

GRAS status is an important safety assurance for manufacturers, as it makes an ingredient more desirable from a sales standpoint and, hence, it is well sought after by many large manufacturers, Biswas said. Regulatory consultants suggest manufacturers request safety documentation with specific use levels and applications when incorporating GRAS substances into new foods. Because GRAS determination applies to specific usage levels and ingredient categories, it is important to ensure the new usage will be legal. Formulators should ask about a companys GRAS status to ensure the intended application has been included in the GRAS evaluation.

The necessity of GRAS notification spurs a good deal of debate within the industry. Kevin Boot, regulatory counsel, Embria Health Sciences, said, It is surprising how many people think a GRAS notification has met some type of higher standard when the reality is that both a GRAS self-determination or a GRAS notification have to meet the exact same requirements. Whether or not the GRAS determination is later sent to FDA as a notification does not affect the requirements that a company must meet for the product to meet the high principles of safety that are inherent in a GRAS determination.

However, other companies have found FDA notification of GRAS status is increasingly desired, particularly by mainstream consumer packaged goods firms. We learned in dealing with mainstream food companies that self-affirmation of GRAS is not always enough, Simmons said. They really prefer FDA notification because it minimizes safety questions FDA may have.

Richard Mueller, president/CEO, Biothera, concurred, stating: It is our belief that self-affirmation is not reassuring to customers. Any ingredient supplier that isnt willing to submit its safety data to FDA for review may lack confidence in the quantity and quality of its research.

Moving Ahead

After determining the desired ingredients and product form, the next hurdle is actually making a working product. There are several considerations, noted Bill VanDyke, CEO and chairman, B&D Nutritional Ingredients. Manufacturers must consider how to maintain or improve safety and freshness; how to improve or maintain nutritional valuevitamins and minerals and fiber are added to many foods to make up for those lacking in a persons diet or lost in processing; or to enhance the nutritional quality of a food, among others, he said.

Further, companies need to prove the ingredient will work in a given food matrix. We have to assess and account for ingredient interactions, organoleptic impact and stability characteristics, Martling said. Sensitivity of the active components to heat, oxygen, light and moisture are the typical limiting factors for any delivery formats. Powder blends are often best suited for particularly sensitive ingredients as they are inherently low moisture and can be partnered with modified atmosphere packaging and high-barrier opaque films to maximize shelf life.

In fact, many companies turn to premix blends for the nutritional inclusions to aid in product development. Blending and processing techniques can make the difference between producing a reliable, high-quality, homogenous, shelf-stable nutrient premix and an inferior one that may cause poor consumer confidence, Chaudhari said. In the nutraceutical/functional food industries, combination products are the norm, and the most common nutrients are vitamins, minerals, amino acids, nucleotides and other functional-food ingredients offered in a single serving of powdered productstablet or capsule. The average premix formulation contains at least 10 to 14 active nutrients and three to six functional ingredients, or carriers (excipients). Some formulations contain more than 30 active nutrients and carriers.

Whether the decision is to use a premix or individual ingredients, manufacturers are increasingly turning to suppliers to offer ingredients optimized for food and beverage formulation. Selecting ingredients that are tasteless, odorless and colorless in a solution will have little or no impact on the overall organoleptics of a finished product, Dijkstra said. The stability of a functional ingredient may be compromised when incorporated into food and beverage products. Stability data confirming the ingredient has retained its structural integrity for the life of the product is needed to ensure efficacy.

This move has led to the development of new technologies and ingredient categories to meet market demands. Functional fat-soluble ingredients have suffered a long-standing negative reputation for being too expensive, unstable, short shelf life and negative off-flavors to be successfully incorporated into many food and beverage matrices, said Richard F. Staack, Ph.D., CEO, SoluBlend Technologies. The company developed a water-soluble technology that allows lipid-soluble functional actives to be added into a variety of products as water-soluble lipids; Staack said the technology has opened up opportunities to provide shelf-stable, value-added foods and beverages without any impact on flavor, taste, texture or appearance.

Similarly, Bryan Rodriguez, technical marketing and scientific affairs manager, Lonza, said many suppliers have developed innovations in the fiber category. In the earlier days of fiber fortification, poor functional characteristics restricted fiber from being formulated into new applications, he said. Simultaneously, those characteristics also drove many end users away from eating high-fiber foods in the first place. Mouthfeel, grainy texturing and poor solubility all plagued early fiber fortification, resulting in dry, texture-heavy foods with little consumer appeal.

And obviously, products with little consumer appeal arent going anywhere. While the nutritional value and health benefits need to be credible and clearly understood by consumers, taste is still the key driver for repeat purchases, the Fonterra team stated. This can be a challenge when adding functional ingredients to many food and beverage formats.

Adding to the challenge is the need to ensure the product delivers efficacious levels of the functional ingredient. Many labels do not state the amount of functional ingredient per serving, which could be important information to the consumer, said Dr. Jit Maheshvari, Orgenetics. But functionality or efficacy is related to the dosage per serving.

Simmons said Cognis has gone to great lengths to ensure its ingredientsparticularly the specialty branded itemsare used at optimal levels, particularly when the ingredient will be part of the marketing strategy. She added, In the case of our Tonalin CLA or Heart Choice plant sterols, we mandate the dosages; if they use the ingredient logo on the label, they must use an efficacious dose.

Those efficacious levels are a must when companies aim to market products with health claims or structure/function claims, which require substantiation. Manufacturers should work with legal counsel when crafting claims and examine the supporting evidence behind the functional ingredient. Manufacturers also must be certain the science supporting the package claims meet FDA and FTC requirements, Sturm said. We encourage all manufacturers to closely examine the science being offered as evidence. Are there large-scale human trials? Were they conducted using methods considered gold standard: double blind, placebo controlled? Have they been published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals?

Mueller echoed those concerns. Pay attention to the quality and quantity of the clinical research, he said. Was the research conducted with the specific ingredient or borrowed from another product in the category? How were the studies designed? Can the health benefit be attributed to a known component of the ingredient? A well-characterized molecular structure allows for measurement and standardization, which is required for establishing dosage, consistency in manufacturing, stability and shelf life.

Many suppliers are taking the time to develop structure/function claims for their specialty ingredients, using their portfolio of scientific research, to ease the process for marketing firms. Cognis, Pharmachem, InterHealth and Kyowa Hakko were among the companies stating they have invested in clinical studies on key branded ingredients to affirm efficacy and safety, and have developed substantiated claims for use by brand marketers. Health claims will become increasingly important with the increased interest in functional food because consumers want products where there is an established connection with the ingredient benefit, Drew said.

Biswas noted the proliferation of claims on food and beverage products has created an environment of confusion among consumers. Clinical substantiation of health benefits goes a long way to help consumers believe in the validity and the value of product claims, she said.

Companies can also craft claims that responsibly convey the benefits of even lower levels of nutrients. Structure/function claims like supports brain health communicate effectively, but also responsibly, France-Kelly said. Excellent or Good Source claims can also effectively communicate that a product contains significant levels of a healthy nutrient.

Into the Future

The market for functional foods and beverages remains ripe for growth, assuming companies take time to develop products that meet consumers desires and deliver on the health promises they make. The future for food fortification is very promising and offers a unique opportunity for manufacturers to differentiate their products, while providing consumers with what they are looking for in a food or drink product, Chaudhari said. Improved understanding of interactions between food and ingredients, and health and expertise of food technologists in food formulation and fabrication will contribute to advancements in food fortification.

Vierhile expects to see not only greater growth in functional products, but more items with basic ingredients and whole foods. Functionality may well be redefined less in terms of new wonder ingredients being added to products and maybe more in terms of whole-food components being a part of specific products, he said.

This likely means continued interest in items, such as superfruits, from around the globe and products, such as spices and botanicals, that offer synergistic nutritional profiles. There is no doubt functional foods constitute one of the most promising and dynamically developing segments of food industry, Biswas said. And, as the functional food area grows, natures bounty of traditionally used exotic foods and untapped exotic ingredients will be a treasure chest for new product development.

The potential for foods and beverages with great taste that help consumers meet their health goals is relatively unlimited. As Pontiakos noted: Functional foods is the category of growth; its the singular wealth vehicle for companies that are well-positioned and have the supportive infrastructure and commitment to innovation.


Get a Taste of Success

While the functional food/beverage segment is posting great growth, an increasing number of nutritional ingredients are affirmed GRAS (generally recognized as safe), and research continues to substantiate the beneficial effects of myriad nutritional ingredients, all of that can lose meaning if it doesnt translate to a tasty finished product.

Sharann Simmons, marketing director, NA, Cognis Nutrition & Health, noted consumer packaged goods (CPG) firms are increasingly expecting suppliers to come to the table with product prototypes to assist in that development process. Its almost mandated, she said, adding Cognis will go into initial meetings with finished product concepts, possible label claims and target market demographics. When we go back in for a serious presentation we always carry prototypes, and these are really fully developed prototypes with a full flavor system and maybe in a final package that we would recommend to the customer for a product launch, she said. It helps accelerate the project, and at some large food companies, thats just the ticket to get in the door.

As formulators and marketers head to SupplySide West, theyll not only have the opportunity to learn more about various nutritional ingredients, but get hands-on experience with those items in food and beverage offerings. Taste of SupplySide, now in its second year, was developed to help visitors find exhibitors that have developed food and beverage prototypesfrom snack foods and desserts to bars and beverages. Simmons said Cognis found offering prototypes at SupplySide West 2009 was a great success, and the company will be serving up multiple items for attendees. She advised any exhibitor to take the time to offer finished product prototypes, noting, Its not enough to give attendees a brochure or show a picture, you have to have something for them to taste.

To learn more about Taste of SupplySide, visit SupplySideShow.com/2010/West/Taste-of-SupplySide.html.

About the Author(s)

Heather Granato

vice president, content, Informa Markets, Food EMEA division

Heather Granato is a 25-year veteran of the natural products industry, currently serving as the Vice President, Content, in Informa Exhibitions’ Global Health & Nutrition Network. She has been a presenter at events including SupplySide, Vitafoods, Natural Products Expo, the Natural Gourmet Show and the Folio: Show. Her publishing experience includes Natural Products INSIDER, Food Product Design, Country Living's Healthy Living, Natural Foods Merchandiser, Delicious Magazine and WomenOf.com. She was named a 2015 Top Woman in Media by Folio:; received the 2014 Visionary Award from the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA); and was awarded the CEO Merit Award for Content from Informa in 2014. Granato graduated magna cum laude from the University of Richmond, Virginia, in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism; she currently serves as a national vice president for Kappa Alpha Theta women's fraternity.

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