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Bee Pollen Supplements – Not Safe or Effective

Among the myriad of supplements being offered to the public are various bee products, including bee pollen. The claims made for bee pollen supplements are typically over-hyped and evidence-free, as is typical of this poorly regulated industry. The claims from bee-pollen-supplements.com are representative:

The benefits are enormous and the substance has been proven by many health experts. This particular substance is known as an effective immune booster and one of the best ways to achieve a sound nutritional regime.

The pollen from the bee has been proven to increase sexual functions in both men and women. It stimulates our organs, as well as our glands and is known to improve the natural increase on a person’s lifespan.

What you never find on such websites are references to published peer-reviewed studies that substantiate the specific claims being made. There are also concerns about safety which have not been adequately studied.

Safety

A recent case report highlights one safety concern regarding bee pollen products – allergic and even anaphylactic reactions. The Canadian Medical Association Journal reports:

A 30-year-old woman with seasonal allergies but no history of allergies to food, drugs, insects or latex had an anaphylactic reaction after taking bee pollen. She had swelling of the eyelids, lips and throat, difficulty swallowing, hives and other life-threatening symptoms. After emergency treatment and discontinuation of the bee pollen supplements, there were no further reactions.

This is also not the first report. There is another case report of anaphylaxis from bee pollen in 2001, and another in 2010. Those with a history of airborne allergies to pollen show positive reactivity to bee pollen supplements, but a reaction can occur even without a history of allergies.

Allergic reaction is also not the only reported risk from bee pollen products. There is a published case report of a photosensitive skin reaction to a supplement containing bee pollen in one patient. Another report details a case of renal failure from bee pollen. Yet another study found substances known to cause liver damage (hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids) in bee pollen.

These studies highlight the potential health risks of bee pollen supplements, but do not document the magnitude of the risk – and that is precisely the problem. In many countries, such as the US, there is no need for specific safety studies of supplements prior to marketing. This regulation, and popular belief in the safety of such products, is largely the result of the naturalistic fallacy – the notion that because bee pollen is “natural” (a vague term without a specific definition) it must be safe. Of course nature is full of deadly toxins, so this reasoning does not follow.

Efficacy

In medicine it is not adequate to assess risk alone. Rather, we consider the risk vs benefit of any intervention. It is clear that injesting bee pollen products is not risk free, and the risks may be substantial. Only controlled clinical trials will establish exactly what the magnitude of potential risks from bee pollen is. We also need controlled clinical trials to assess any potential health benefit from these products. Unfortunately, such studies are completely lacking.

Many of the claims for bee pollen are supported by the notion that it is a “superfood” – a dubious category that is used to claim miraculous health benefits from “perfectly balanced” foods. Such claims are based on the fallacy of more is always better, and an exaggerated role of nutrition in overall health. Not all alleged superfoods are even good sources of nutrition (perhaps the most notorious being wheat grass juice), but even for those that are, the claims made for superfoods are not justified by an evidence or even plausibility. There is no theoretical benefit to deriving all required nutrition from one food source (even assuming that is possible) vs just having a well rounded diet.

There are some older studies of bee pollen as an “ergogenic” – an alleged category of food that enhances athletic performance. The consensus of research is that bee pollen has no ergogenic benefit. That is the extent of research into bee pollen as a super food – negative.

Everything else is hype and anecdote. Unfortunately, online information about bee pollen is overwhelmed by hype from companies and individual selling bee pollen products. One site claims you will live to 125 from eating bee pollen, and is complete with the typical anecdotes about some village in the Caucasus mountains of Russia who eat bee pollen and live to be 125. These are the same people that were used to sell the health benefits of eating yogurt (and still are). This claim linking their longevity to bee pollen is repeated endlessly on bee pollen sites, and all refers back to the work of Dr. Nicolai Tsitsin, a Russian botanist from the first half of the 20th century. I could find nothing substantiated about these reports – it seems to be bee pollen legend.

Other bee pollen health claims are completely unsubstantiated by controlled clinical trials. Some are based upon preclinical studies looking at the constituents and biological properties of bee pollen. There is no doubt that bee pollen contains many biologically active chemicals, and it is not implausible that one or more of these chemicals might have a medically useful property. It’s just as plausible, and a-priori more likely, that they will have properties that have negative health effects, as indicated above.

One study did find anti-inflammatory effects of some extracts from bee pollen. The anti-inflammatory effect came from inhibition of NO production and inhibition of COX-2 (but not COX-1). Incidentally, the inhibition of COX-2 but not COX-1 is the same effect as Vioxx, that was found to increase the risk of heart attacks in susceptible individuals. The point is that it is difficult to extrapolate from such effects to their net clinical outcome. Not all chemicals with an anti-inflammatory effect are overall beneficial. Further, even if they can be clinically useful that would require purification and standardization of active ingredients.

Interestingly, the claim that bee pollen “boosts the immune system” is common on promotional sites. This is not a meaningful term scientifically, and is used simply because it is the type of claim that can be made without the burden of any evidence. Also, anti-inflammatory effects, if they are significant from consumed bee pollen, is the opposite of “boosting” the immune system, as by definition anti-inflammatory effects result from suppressing or inhibiting one or more aspects of the immune system.

Conclusion

Bee pollen products are a classic example of the current fallacies of the supplement industry. The claims made for such products are full of hype but are completely unsubstantiated by rigorous scientific evidence. What little evidence we do have shows that it is ineffective. What passes for “scientific” evidence on promotional websites are ancient tales and anecdotes. Further, there are increasing safety concerns about bee pollen products, mainly from the potential for allergic reactions but also including organ toxicity.

There is no current basis on which to recommend the use of bee pollen products. There is a basis for caution, however.

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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36 thoughts on “Bee Pollen Supplements – Not Safe or Effective

  1. Janet Camp says:

    It was back in the 80’s, in one of my little woo-friendly towns, that I first heard of bee pollen “therapy”, which was being touted by an MD, no less. This gave it great credence at the time (and still does. i.e., Oz). I looked into this MD and found that he was offering a plethora of “alternatives” and decided he was just weird, as they couldn’t ALL be the “one true cure for everything”. I think that was the beginning of my being an outcast in that community! I was quickly labeled “intolerant” and pitied for my lack of “spirituality”.

    Anyway, I wonder how bee pollen treatment squares with Bach flower remedies? Or gluten-free with wheat grass juice? Do these people ever get at each other over whose woo is best? My experience is that they all do lots of it in a serial manner–moving from one “truth” to another, but now with the internet it must be overwhelming for them. I guess many have settled into a “community” with Mike Adams, Dr. Oz, Andy Wakefield, or some such.

  2. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    I hope someone can explain to me what “bee pollen” actually is. I thought pollen comes from plants, not bees. Of course bees collect pollen and honey, but according to Wikipedia the so-called bee bread is a mixture of pollen, nectar, enzymes and lots of microorganisms that partly digest the stuff. It’s just one kind of insect food, just like milk (cow’s milk, mare’s milk, camel’s milk, donkey’s milk, goat’s milk, even dog’s milk – which incidentally makes a superb homeopathic remedy against diphteria after diluting 1, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 times) food for mammalian young. Would the quality of the pollen not depend on the plant? If the plant is poisonous, then the pollen is probably poisonous as well. The words “bee pollen” sound just as funny as “bottle milk”.

  3. Naked Ape says:

    Bee pollen you say?

    I have been living under the delusion that plants produced pollen (and that the various plant pollens were distinctive enough to use in identifying the source plant).

    Who knew that bees also produced pollen?

    Charitably assuming for a moment that these newage wack-a-loons are actually referring to the pollen collected by the bees from a variety of plants as ‘bee pollen’, I wonder was sort of magic being stuck to a bee’s ass for a period of time is supposed to impart to what would otherwise be a random assortment of ‘plant pollen’?

    It would seem to me that these folks could skip the middleman by just rubbing bee’s directly upon themselves and therefore absorb the magical boojum directly instead of relying on a medium of questionable provenance like the pollen from an unknown variety of plants that just happened to end up sticking to a bee’s ass.

  4. qetzal says:

    I think anyone who tries to sell a product by claiming it “boosts the immune system” should be subject to an immediate $10,000 fine. It’s a meaningless phrase that’s intended to trick consumers into believing something is beneficial. It’s unfairly deceptive statement and I think it should be considered prima facia evidence of an intent to defraud.

  5. Always Curious says:

    Anyone with an allergic reaction to bee pollen probably doesn’t appreciate the “immune system boost”.

    Incidentally, I was just reading about making mead last night. Honey consumption, mead production, and beekeeping were revered arts by the ancients. Honey & mead were variously used in all kinds of medicinal concoctions–the alcohol in mead is excellent for extracting essential oils from herbs & the residual sugar hides the bitter flavors. So this whole bee pollen thing strikes me as an updated version of millennium-old medicine.

  6. DugganSC says:

    On other pollen/bee-related matters, I’ve had several people tout the benefits of consuming “local honey” to alleviate seasonal allergies under the idea that it provides exposure to the local pollen in a manner which somehow prevents it from causing an allergic reaction, “de-training” the body from reacting to the pollen with histamines. Is there any truth to that or is it just more local folklore used to boost local honey purchasing?

  7. jpmd says:

    We get a lot othe “local honey for allergy” people here also. I point out that bees make honey from plants with heavy pollen, and allergies are usually from air born pollen (trees grass etc.) so it really makes no sense. Not that it convinces many who buy into that sort of thing.

  8. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    Often allergies are very specific. If people are allergic to pollen, are the allergic to any kind of pollen (pine, birch, hazel, chestnut, willow, poplar, olive, various herbs and grasses) or just a few? For example only 20% of hay fever sufferers are sensitive to birch (I presume this is counted in regions with lots of birch trees). 90% of sufferers are allergic to grass pollen.

    Of course, if people are allergic to ANY pollen, then they might be sensitive to the pollen in honey and/or “bee pollen”. It is not the size of the pollen grains, but the proteins on their surface that cause the reaction.

  9. NYUDDS says:

    Bee pollen lives on in NCCAM lore: “One was Tom Harkin, who believed that bee pollen had cured his hay fever.” Yes, the US Senator Tom Harkin who has been an important supporter of complementary and integrative “medicine” at NIH. Here is a short video from Medscape re: the money, mission and mystery of NCCAM:

    http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/763604?src=mp&spon=38

    I thought the criticism could have been stronger, but that’s only me.

  10. William M. London says:

    Another noteworthy case of severe allergic reaction to bee pollen:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1983/02/17/sports/sports-people-adverse-reaction.html

  11. Kultakutri says:

    @Jan Willem Nienhuys

    One is not allergic to all pollens existing but often, related plants produce pollens with similar or identical proteins that cause immune response. Which is my random observation based on my allergy to birch pollen and hazel pollen and these bastards are from the same family (Betulaceae) and I’m also mildly allergic to hazelnuts themselves. However, I’m not sure whether nut allergies go hand in hand with allergies to the respective pollens.

  12. Galadriel says:

    Just one instance, but we had my dog allergy tested and she’s allergic to a ton of unrelated plants: some evergreens, some deciduous, some ground weeds, etc. Oh and dust, mold, gnats, roaches, and sheep. Nothing I’ve ever seen a bee collecting from around here, though.

  13. kathy says:

    Where the flowering plants (Angiosperms) are concerned, there are two major strategies for getting pollen from the stamens of one individual to the stigma of another: wind-mediated and animal-, including insect-, mediated.

    I stand under correction, but aren’t human pollen allergies/hay fever triggered by wind-dispersed pollen such as that of grasses? Whereas bees, etc., collect pollen from the other sort of plant (with a few rare exceptions). Wind- and insect-pollinated species are in different families, or different genera if they are the same family, i.e. taxonomically pretty far apart. Genetically there are some big changes that have to happen to flowers, anthers, stigmas and ecology, to move from one type of pollination to the other.

    It puzzles me therefore, howcome this lady referred to had a violent reaction to bee (gathered) pollen. How did she develop this allergy in the first place? But, like I said, I don’t know much about allergies!

  14. These are mostly from WLU, a few studies came out this week about different supplements:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18425980
    - “We found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary
    or secondary prevention. Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and vitamin E may
    increase mortality. Future randomised trials could evaluate the
    potential effects of vitamin C and selenium for primary and secondary
    prevention. Such trials should be closely monitored for potential
    harmful effects. Antioxidant supplements need to be considered
    medicinal products and should undergo sufficient evaluation before
    marketing.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22275325
    - “With the possible exceptions of Vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids
    there is no data to support the widespread use of dietary supplements
    in Westernized populations; indeed, many of these supplements may be
    harmful.”

    http://heart.bmj.com/content/98/12/920
    - ” Increasing calcium intake from diet might not confer significant
    cardiovascular benefits, while calcium supplements, which might raise
    myocardial infarction [heart attack] risk, should be taken with
    caution.”

  15. MissMarnie says:

    “Other bee pollen health claims are completely unsubstantiated by controlled clinical trials. Some are based upon preclinical studies looking at the constituents and biological properties of bee pollen. There is no doubt that bee pollen contains many biologically active chemicals, and it is not implausible that one or more of these chemicals might have a medically useful property.”

    So this, in a nutshell, is the closest anyone could get to an argument in favor of bee pollen, basically that there might be something that is effective for something because there are a lot of things in it.

    We don’t go to the doctor and say, “give me any treatment at random, it’s medicine, it must be good!” Anything that can have some beneficial impact has the potential to do some sort of harm and often, both go hand in hand. You wouldn’t down willow bark with reckless abandon. It may be “natural” and it may be “effective” but it is not, in all doses, in all people, harmless. Heck, you can overdose on water, in extreme cases.

  16. Kultakutri says:

    @Kathy, the pollination strategy is not that clear-cut and easy. Some plants or groups of plants rely exclusively on insect pollination, such as orchids which actually have the pollen glued into a tiny ball that gets stuck on the insect, while grasses rely exclusively on air pollination. However, black elder, which is blossoming madly in my area just these days, sheds lots of pollen that can be carried by wind but it’s also pollinated by insects. And only as of lately, elders were added to the Adoxaceae family. The namesake Adoxa moschatellina is a teeny tiny and not exactly common plant, at least in my general area, and quite advanced molecular biology was needed; until recently, the Sambucus and Viburnum genera were a taxonomic mystery and annoyance. Speaking of viburnum, it’s pollinated almost exclusively by insects and doesn’t produce much pollen. Or, take dandelions. They shed pollen like mad but they’re clones – they produce seeds that do not need to be pollinated. But back to the point, especially the early spring shrubs and trees, while they produce heaps of pollen and air pollination would be fine with them, are fave spring delicacy for all the awakening bees. Also, although pollen grains are bigger or smaller, even the largest ones are minuscule – 1/10 mm is the upper limit and in fact, it’s the grasses which have large pollen grains. Mother Nature is pretty twisted in her doings.

    As such, it would be next to impossible to have an allergic reaction to a product containing orchid pollen when using said product for the first time but with most plants, it’s well within the realms of possibility.

  17. stanmrak says:

    Seems strange to compare bee pollen, for any reason, with Vioxx, a drug that killed anywhere from 27,000 to 45,000 people, and caused another 100,000 heart attacks and strokes.

  18. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Why does it seem strange? Vioxx, which effectively reduces pain, does so through the inhibition of COX-2. Bee pollen extracts might have the same effect, possibly through the same mechanism – chemicals are chemicals. It might, therefore, have the same adverse effects. Seems like a very logical comparison, unless someone had already decided that all drugs are bad and all natural products are effective. The overall point, of course, is that natural compounds aren’t necessarily better, or even effective – we must test for both efficacy and adverse effects to know if they are there.

    The real differences between drugs and natural products are purity, standardization, understanding of pharmacokinetics, and most importantly – drugs are proven to work before being released for use while natural products are asserted to work and often never tested.

    How many people have died because of bee pollen? We don’t know. How many have had their pain reduced because of bee pollen? We don’t know. Despite this, it’s still sold.

    People who castigate Big Pharma for unethical practices while promoting untested natural products are both ignorant and hypocrites advocating a rather distinct double-standard. Would you support a new drug being released without safety or efficacy testing? If not, why is it acceptable for bee pollen without any such testing? I would say it’s not.

  19. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    Kathy asked

    howcome this lady referred to had a violent reaction to bee (gathered) pollen.

    quote: “The first couple of times he took bee pollen as an energy supplement, according to Pat Cummings, nothing much happened.
    What happened when he took it Monday, however, …”

    You become allergic by multiple exposure. Your body gets to know the ‘dangerous’ intruder and prepares defenses for the next time. Purely speculative: not all bee pollen is the same, it depends on the flowers. so if he got the third time something with a different flower in it that for some reason was marked ‘dangerous’ in his body, en the fourth time the same flower made up a sizable part of the ‘bee pollen’ the accident happened. You would have to ask an allergy specialist. How are things with bee stings? In people who die of an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting, half of them did not experience an earlier reaction, it seems (how you can know that if they are already dead, I don’t know).

    Almost anything (latex, peanuts, semen, penicillin ) can cause anaphylactic reactions in susceptible people (in 50% of cases it is not clear what caused it, says Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaphylaxis , so it is not quite fair to blame the bee pollen after one incident.

  20. fledarmus1 says:

    @ stanmrak – seems strange to compare bee pollen, a drug which (at least in studies acceptable to the FDA) has no standardized preparation, no measurement of active ingredients, no controlled testing in any biological system, no studies of long term effects, no efficacy data, no safety data, no toxicology data, no demonstrated possible mechanism of action, and a long list of random indications for which it is to be prescribed by people with no medical training whatsoever, to any prescription drug available. Frankly, nobody has any clue what bee pollen will or will not do to the general population, and anybody who claims otherwise is lying. Anybody who claims otherwise and is actually selling bee pollen should be sued for fraud.

  21. Badly Shaved Monkey says:

    Could someone explain to me, as a Brit, why “boosts the immune system” is allowable under US law. Is this one of the “structure function” loopholes granted by the DHSEA? As a matter of simple logic, it makes no sense to me. If Americans are not allowed to tell outright lies in advertising, as a basic principle, I don’t see how the “structure function” permission grants the scope to make the claim that a product “boosts the immune system” without any evidence.

    In the specific case of ‘bee pollen’ one might admit that reports of anaphylaxis do constitute evidence that it “boosts the immune system”, but not in a good way!

    There are not enough hours in the day to pursue all the necessary complaints but claims like this would be expected to be struck down by the (non-statutory) ASA in the UK. They ought also be an easy target for local Trading Standards offices, which would lead to criminal prosecution. The fact that one struggles to get TS to pay this area any serious attention does not alter the point of principle.

  22. Scott says:

    Yes, “boosts the immune system” is considered a structure/function claim. Basically anything that isn’t a specific disease claim, but “does something good for some bodily system” is structure/function.

    This can (and routinely is) twisted into a pretzel by claims like “this flu season, you should boost your immune system! I do, and feel great!” (show happy speaker surrounded by coughing/sneezing folks). Anybody seeing it will get the message “prevents the flu,” but they didn’t actually say that so they’re in the clear.

  23. stanmrak says:

    We may not know what bee pollen will do, but Merck knew that Vioxx would cause thousands of deaths before they put it on the market – and sold it anyway, covering up the hazards along the way. Court records show this.

  24. Scott says:

    And if you think that has any bearing whatsoever on bee pollen, well, you’re Just Plain Wrong.

    The only link is the one which makes it MORE likely that bee pollen is dangerous…

  25. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Yup, Merck did something very unethical with Vioxx. Manufacturers and retailers lie about the safety and efficacy of their products, which is why a strong regulatory body with independence from manufacturers is a very, very good thing.

    I just don’t understand why CAM whackaloons bitch about Vioxx on one hand, but undermine the FDA’s actual enforcement powers on the other. Do you want a strong regulatory agency protecting the public’s interest, or not?

  26. bgoudie says:

    Because they don’t actually care about safety in any way William. They simply want to bleat on about how their magic works and science is bad. Expecting logical consistancy from such people is foolish at best.

  27. stanmrak says:

    CAM proponents bitch about the FDA because the FDA is nothing but a pawn of the pharmaceutical and food industry. The FDA is more concerned about the profits of these industries than they are about the public interest, because that’s where over half of their funding comes from. Only a fool would believe anything they say.

    If you work for the FDA, CDC, or any other government regulatory agency, and play ball with big corporations, you can look forward to a very lucrative position with one of them after you leave your government job. This isn’t bribery exactly, but it works the same way.

  28. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    CAM proponents bitch about the FDA because the FDA is nothing but a pawn of the pharmaceutical and food industry.

    …the same pharmaceutical companies that produce the vitamins, minerals and supplements so beloved of CAM promoters. Want to do something about it? Talk to your political representatives about giving the FDA more teeth, increased funding, greater separation from pharmaceutical companies, and the ability (in terms of authority and personnel) to enforce the rules that exist to protect consumers. Support the FDA so it can be a place where employees are proud to work and happy to defend consumers over corporate profits.

    Or, just keep complaining about how the FDA wants to take away your vitamins (which it doesn’t want to do).

    Actually, I’ve always found the FDA does a pretty good job of giving basic health advice including information on how to avoid getting scammed, how to question dubious claims, diet and exercise, specifics on scams of individual practitioners and more. It’s a pretty good agency, but I agree it would be better if it were more independent and had more authority.

  29. stanmrak says:

    The vitamins and other supplements made by pharmaceutical companies are worthless. Some even contain known carcinogenic ingredients!!! Never buy a supplement made by a drug company! Centrum, one of the leading sellers, is laughingly nicknamed “bedpan bullets” by hospital personnel because they often come out intact enough that you can read the embossed label on them. The drug companies use nothing but artificial, cheap ingredients since profit is really all they care about.

    Again, the FDA doesn’t care about you or me anywhere near as much as they care about Merck and Glaxo, their generous benefactors.

  30. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Sounds like you’ve got some letter writing to do to convince your government representatives to strengthen the FDA.

  31. Calli Arcale says:

    Jan Willem Nienhuys:

    I hope someone can explain to me what “bee pollen” actually is. I thought pollen comes from plants, not bees.

    It’s one of several products that can be harvested out of a beehive. Bees have “pollen baskets” on their legs which they use to transport pollen from flower to flower. This helps flowers by transporting pollen, but that’s not really why the bees carry so much of it — they bring it back to the hive, where it is stored away in pellets as an important source of protein. They eat it. These pollen pellets are a vital portion of the larder. All bees will eat pollen, but honeybees are overachievers in this as in everything, and store far more than they need. Beekeepers consequently can harvest it and sell it, just as they do honey and wax and royal jelly, all three of which also have a whole range of woo associated with them.

    As crazy as bee pollen as a panacea seems, I think the wackiest bee-related woo has got to be “bee therapy”. In this case, the treatment isn’t something stolen from the bee’s larder. It’s the worker bee herself, who is forced to sting you. (I wonder whether anybody’s tried merging that with acupuncture yet?) This is, of course, fatal to the bee, and I wonder whether PETA ever protests it.

  32. Alia says:

    Well, bee therapy would certainly be lethal for me, my allergy could kill me.

  33. Calli Arcale says:

    I have heard of anaphylaxis cases because of bee therapy. Given that it’s not a horrendously unusual allergy, this shouldn’t be surprising, yet it’s still not difficult to find somebody willing to do the therapy. And obviously it’s not done in clinics, where one might expect a crash cart to possibly be available.

  34. My son who had allergies for years is now symptom free since taking organic bee pollen, just a tsp. or so a day. I’d only say test it first..with a few granules or so (not capsule form) ..to see if you have any reaction. But, it seems to be working very well with my son. I take it as a multi-nutrient now. Neither of us had any adverse reaction.

  35. Rustichealthy. Thanks for the statistically valid clinical trial there. Very useful and should be published in the next issue of NaturalNews.

    You have no clue whatsoever what did or did not work, whether it worked or did not work, or whether the symptoms disappeared because he was misdiagnosed by you.

    Sheesh.

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