What Is Spirulina: 10 Health Benefits and 5 Side Effects

Article based on scientific evidence

Spirulina | Health Benefits | Side Effects | How Much | Conclusion | FAQ | Studies

Superfood or pond scum? In this review you’ll hear about all the health benefits from spirulina and possible side effects you need to know.

What Is Spirulina?

Spirulina is a blue-green alga, which is precisely a cyanobacteria. It occurs in both salt and freshwater.

Already the Aztecs used spirulina as a natural food supplement. Furthermore, NASA astronauts used the alga on space missions several times.

The blue-green alga is called spirulina because its cells form spirals when viewed under a microscope.

Spirulina is harvested, freeze-dried, and then sold mostly as powder or pills.

Because the health benefits of spirulina are exceptional and add exciting color to snacks, drinks, and granola, it is trendy in food production.

Additionally, spirulina consists of approximately 60% protein, covering all essential amino acids.

For this reason, many people consider it the best non-animal protein source available.

What Is Blue Spirulina?

The spirulina alga is packed with the natural antioxidant phycocyanin, which gives it a bright blue-green color.

This phycocyanin also ensures that the blue-green alga absorbs enough sunlight for photosynthesis.

Due to the color-giving properties of phycocyanin, spirulina is the only naturally blue food colorant.

Therefore, the blue-green alga is also called blue spirulina. Hence, it’s not a different species.

With this in mind, blue-green algae lattes are hyped by wellness gurus so that they have been conquering the menus of coffee shops lately.

Blue algae lattes can deliver health benefits from spirulina

Besides, you may have heard of Blue Majik, an extract of phycocyanin, the spirulina dye. In contrast to Blue Majik, spirulina powder is obtained directly from the algae.

With this in mind, in the wellness and superfood, three algae are currently quite large:

  • Spirulina (in blue lattes)
  • Green span algae (also a cyanobacterium)
  • Chlorella (unicellular freshwater algae)

Above all, these algae have high concentrations of nutrients and minerals such as protein, iron, potassium, zinc, calcium, and B vitamins.

What Is Spirulina Good For?

Due to its excellent nutritional value and health benefits, spirulina is often referred to as a superfood.

Because of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals in spirulina, it is an outstanding natural supplement for vegetarian or vegan people.

According to research, you can experience the following health benefits from spirulina:

  • Antiviral
  • Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
  • Immune system boosting
  • Energizing
  • Triglyceride lowering
  • Weight loss promoting

How Much Spirulina per Day for Health Benefits?

You will mostly find spirulina in two forms as a more or less natural food supplement:

  • Spirulina powder: Inexpensive with an intense taste
  • Spirulina capsules: More expensive, portable, tasteless, but processed a small step further

Although there is no single scientific opinion on how much spirulina you should take per day, here is an overview of the doses research has used:

Nevertheless, you should keep in mind that spirulina, despite its natural origin, is a kind of dietary supplement.

Therefore, the appropriate dose may depend on age, gender, nutritional and medical history. Consequently, you should contact your doctor for a personal consultation.

Health Benefits From Spirulina

Although I am not a fan of the term, spirulina lives up to its superfood title.

Accordingly, it is one of the most versatile foods on the planet, even though it may look like blue-green mud.

However, we will now take a closer look at what the research says about the health benefits from spirulina:

1. It’s Incredible Nutrient-Dense

Due to its high concentration of vitamins, minerals, and proteins, spirulina is considered the most nutritious food in many places. Nevertheless, at least beef liver is still ahead when it comes to overall nutrient density (*).

However, the term could well apply in the case of a vegetarian or vegan diet. Either way, spirulina provides a unique composition of nutrients (*):

  • Proteins: Spirulina is a complete source of essential amino acids. Due to the 58g of proteins per 100g of spirulina, the alga is often compared to eggs. Spirulina has a net protein utilization rate of more than 50%, equivalent to a raw egg. However, cooked eggs bring 90% bioavailability to the plate (Evenepoel et al. 19984).
  • Fatty acids: Although rarely mentioned, spirulina is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. 100g of spirulina provides almost a whole gram of omega-3 fatty acids, exceptional for plant-based food. Moreover, its omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 1:1.5 is in line with research’s health ideal (Okuyama et al. 19965).
  • Vitamins: The blue algae provides a full charge of thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. These B vitamins (B1-3) are essential for the functioning of the nervous system and energy metabolism.
  • Minerals: Not only do 100g of spirulina exceed the daily requirement of iron, but they also supply three times the need for plant-based copper. Hence, spirulina is incredibly popular among middle-aged women, as they suffer from iron deficiency much more often than men due to menstruation (Weinberg 20106).
  • Electrolytes: Among other minerals, the blue-green alga provides a balanced composition of the essential electrolytes magnesium, sodium, potassium, and calcium. Therefore, spirulina helps with muscle cramps and ensures the function of the nervous system.

2. Spirulina Offers Benefits for Skin and Hair

Spirulina alga consists of approx. 60% amino acids, which are the basis for collagen formation. And collagen is the most important and most abundant protein in the human body (Stefanovic 20137).

It’s also the material your body uses to build teeth, joints, connective tissue, skin, hair, and bones. In short, collagen holds the body together.

Accordingly, collagen can slow down skin aging and reduce wrinkles. As studies have shown, collagen supplementation ensures that skin elasticity is significantly improved (Proksch et al. 20148).

Furthermore, spirulina can promote wound healing and skin cells’ life span (Gunes et al. 20179).

Moreover, spirulina promotes muscle gain. Thus, one tablespoon of spirulina powder corresponds to about six grams of pure protein.

3. It Supports Performance and Weight Loss

Those who train intensively induce oxidation, which leads to muscle fatigue.

Here, spirulina’s antioxidant effect reduces oxidative damage to skeletal muscles and muscle fatigue (Lu et al. 200610).

Further studies have found that spirulina enhances athletic performance and promotes weight loss through fat-burning (Kalafati et al. 201011).

Health benefits from spirulina can be unfolded by adding it to food

4. Spriulina May Reduce Allergy Symptoms

If you are allergic to pollen, dust, or pets, you may know the feeling when the inside of the nose swells up. This process is called allergic rhinitis.

With this in mind, researchers have found that the consumption of spirulina can significantly reduce the following symptoms of allergic rhinitis and increase the patients’ well-being:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Nasal discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Itching

Moreover, spirulina algae can reduce inflammation of the nasal mucosa and histamine in the body (Sayin et al. 201313).

Further studies link spirulina with anti-allergy, antiviral, and anticancer effects (Karkos et al. 201114).

5. The Alga Offers Anticancer Properties

According to numerous studies, spirulina can be effective against cancer, especially in the mouth (Mathew et al. 199515).

Accordingly, it can counteract changes in connective tissue in the mouth. Not only is it more effective than drugs, but it also causes no side effects (Mulk et al. 201316).

Furthermore, the health benefits of spirulina can reduce tumor growth (Ismail et al. 200917).

6. Blood Glucose Regulation

Studies show that spirulina is incredibly helpful in keeping blood sugar levels in check. In some cases, its effect could even dwarf that of diabetes drugs such as metformin (Jarouliya et al. 201218).

Besides lowering blood sugar levels, the blue-green algae can reduce the risk of diabetes and improve the lipid profile of type 2 diabetics (Winter et al. 200119).

7. Spirulina Offers Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Benefits

Antioxidants are substances that protect cells from harmful effects. Ideally, you consume antioxidants from natural sources, and spirulina is one of them.

Moreover, spirulina contains the antioxidant phycocyanin, which can have potent anti-inflammatory effects (Shih et al. 200920).

Additionally, phycocyanin gives this alga its blue color.

Furthermore, spirulina is a food with a high oxygen radical absorption capacity (ORAC). This means the ability to neutralize oxygen radicals and prevent oxidative damage to cells.

Therefore, studies show that spirulina can reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body (Gemma et al. 200221).

8. Reduced LDL Cholesterol Oxidation

For LDL cholesterol to become dangerous in the first place, it must acquire oxidative damage.

With this in mind, antioxidants in spirulina can significantly counteract lipid peroxidation (Ismail et al. 201522).

Accordingly, spirulina could reduce oxidative damage and improve blood lipid levels during the day in type 2 diabetes patients (Lee et al. 200823).

9. Antitoxic Properties

One of the primary health benefits of spirulina is its action against heavy metals.

People in Asia and South America still suffer from contaminated drinking water. In this context, researchers have found that spirulina extract is an effective natural treatment for people who have suffered poisoning from drinking water (Misbahuddin et al. 200624).

Moreover, studies suggest that one can even use spirulina clinically against poisoning caused by harmful substances.

Hence, these antitoxic benefits from spirulina can work against the following pollutants in your body (Martinez-Galero 201625):

  • Arsenic
  • Fluoride
  • Iron
  • Lead
  • Mercury

10. Improved Hypertension

In one study, the oral intake of 4.5 grams of spirulina per day significantly reduced the subjects’ systolic and diastolic blood pressure (Torres-Duran et al. 200726).

With this in mind, researchers assume that the reduction is due to the increased production of nitric oxide. This molecule acts as a messenger and signals blood vessels to dilate (Juarez-Oropeza et al. 200927).

Side Effects From Spirulina

The blue-green alga already made the headline once that humans would have been ill after consuming it.

Nevertheless, the trigger for this seemed to have been much more the genetically modified maltodextrin and soy protein isolate in the blue-green protein bar.

In my opinion, this is another reason to stay away from highly processed foods, even if so-called superfoods like spirulina spice them up.

With this in mind, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that most people tolerate spirulina well and that it does not cause significant side effects (Madrigal-Santillán et al. 201428).

However, it is essential to consult your doctor before adding the supplement to your diet, especially if you are taking prescription medication.

Some of the few known side effects of spirulina include:

1. Allergies

Some people may be allergic to spirulina.

Also, the alga may cross-react with other allergens (Le et al. 201429).

2. Possible Slowing of Blood Clotting

Spirulina has an effect that dilutes the blood and can thus prolong the duration of blood clotting (Majdoub et al. 200930).

Therefore, you should avoid spirulina if you suffer from a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinners.

3. Contamination

Algae can absorb toxins if they grow in water that is contaminated with heavy metals or bacteria. This way, they can develop high amounts of microcystins (Roy-Lachapelle et al. 201731).

These are toxins used by algae against predators. Like lectins in nightshades, they may not have a noticeable effect in small quantities, but in larger amounts, they can be harmful.

Because of their effect on the liver, they pose a health risk. However, spirulina, which is usually grown in controlled environments, contains hardly any microcystins.

4. Possible Worsening of Autoimmune Diseases

As spirulina strengthens the immune system, it can aggravate autoimmune diseases in which antibodies attack the body’s own cells.

In particular, people with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis should be cautious with spirulina (Mukhopadhyay 201532).

The consumption of spirulina increases the production of so-called natural killer cells.

Although natural killer cells strengthen the immune system and slow down tumor growth, they can also aggravate autoimmune diseases (Witek-Janusek et al. 200733).

If you suffer from an autoimmune disease, you should be particularly careful and avoid various algae supplements.

5. Metabolic Issues Due to Phenylketonuria

People suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU) should strictly avoid spirulina.

Since they cannot metabolize the algae properly, people with this rare metabolic disease have to avoid them (Mukhopadhyay 201534).

Health Benefits From Spirulina Drown Out Side Effects

The bottom line is that the health benefits of spirulina are outstanding. Now that we know that health authorities generally consider spirulina to be safe and side effects are rare.

Nevertheless, due to the ongoing hype around blue algae, it is essential to be careful in your product selection.

Finally, not every supplier tests for toxicity. And one must be careful of contaminated spirulina preparations.

Since the demand is high, there can be dubious suppliers on the market. Therefore, it is vital to choose a GMO-free, sustainable, and organic producer to prevent cross-contamination.

Furthermore, I would not buy highly processed spirulina products. For example, cross-contamination has already been detected in soy protein bars.

Health Benefits From Spirulina FAQ

How much spirulina should I take daily?

There is no single scientific opinion on how much spirulina you should take per day. However, researchers used doses from 2 to 8 grams of spirulina per day in their trials.

What are the side effects of spirulina?

Health authorities consider spirulina to be generally safe. However, side effects may be caused by specific health conditions or by contamination of spirulina.

Why is spirulina good for you?

The alga may improve blood pressure, glucose, and lipid levels. Besides A, C, E, and K, Spirulina contains various B vitamins that support the nervous system and the body in producing energy.

Is spirulina good for skin?

Spirulina consists of about 60% amino acids, which your body can use to produce collagen. Hence, spirulina benefits skin renewal by supplying its primary building block.

Studies

#1-7

1Parikh P, Mani U, Iyer U. Role of Spirulina in the Control of Glycemia and Lipidemia in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. J Med Food. 2001 Winter;4(4):193-199. doi: 10.1089/10966200152744463. PubMed PMID: 12639401.

2Torres-Duran PV, Ferreira-Hermosillo A, Juarez-Oropeza MA. Antihyperlipemic and antihypertensive effects of Spirulina maxima in an open sample of Mexican population: a preliminary report. Lipids Health Dis. 2007 Nov 26;6:33. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-6-33. PubMed PMID: 18039384; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2211748.

3Lee EH, Park JE, Choi YJ, Huh KB, Kim WY. A randomized study to establish the effects of spirulina in type 2 diabetes mellitus patients. Nutr Res Pract. 2008 Winter;2(4):295-300. doi: 10.4162/nrp.2008.2.4.295. Epub 2008 Dec 31. PubMed PMID: 20016733; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2788188.

4Evenepoel P, Geypens B, Luypaerts A, Hiele M, Ghoos Y, Rutgeerts P. Digestibility of cooked and raw egg protein in humans as assessed by stable isotope techniques. J Nutr. 1998 Oct;128(10):1716-22. doi: 10.1093/jn/128.10.1716. PubMed PMID: 9772141.

5Okuyama H, Kobayashi T, Watanabe S. Dietary fatty acids–the N-6/N-3 balance and chronic elderly diseases. Excess linoleic acid and relative N-3 deficiency syndrome seen in Japan. Prog Lipid Res. 1996 Dec;35(4):409-57. doi: 10.1016/s0163-7827(96)00012-4. Review. PubMed PMID: 9246358.

6Weinberg ED. The hazards of iron loading. Metallomics. 2010 Nov;2(11):732-40. doi: 10.1039/c0mt00023j. Epub 2010 Sep 24. Review. PubMed PMID: 21072364.

7Stefanovic B. RNA protein interactions governing expression of the most abundant protein in human body, type I collagen. Wiley Interdiscip Rev RNA. 2013 Sep-Oct;4(5):535-45. doi: 10.1002/wrna.1177. Epub 2013 May 28. Review. PubMed PMID: 23907854; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3748166.

#8-13

8Proksch E, Segger D, Degwert J, Schunck M, Zague V, Oesser S. Oral supplementation of specific collagen peptides has beneficial effects on human skin physiology: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2014;27(1):47-55. doi: 10.1159/000351376. Epub 2013 Aug 14. PubMed PMID: 23949208.

9Gunes S, Tamburaci S, Dalay MC, Deliloglu Gurhan I. In vitro evaluation of Spirulina platensis extract incorporated skin cream with its wound healing and antioxidant activities. Pharm Biol. 2017 Dec;55(1):1824-1832. doi: 10.1080/13880209.2017.1331249. PubMed PMID: 28552036; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6130752.

10Lu HK, Hsieh CC, Hsu JJ, Yang YK, Chou HN. Preventive effects of Spirulina platensis on skeletal muscle damage under exercise-induced oxidative stress. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Sep;98(2):220-6. doi: 10.1007/s00421-006-0263-0. Epub 2006 Aug 30. PubMed PMID: 16944194.

11Kalafati M, Jamurtas AZ, Nikolaidis MG, Paschalis V, Theodorou AA, Sakellariou GK, Koutedakis Y, Kouretas D. Ergogenic and antioxidant effects of spirulina supplementation in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Jan;42(1):142-51. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ac7a45. PubMed PMID: 20010119.

12Sayin I, Cingi C, Oghan F, Baykal B, Ulusoy S. Complementary therapies in allergic rhinitis. ISRN Allergy. 2013;2013:938751. doi: 10.1155/2013/938751. eCollection 2013. PubMed PMID: 24324897; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3845706.

13Karkos PD, Leong SC, Karkos CD, Sivaji N, Assimakopoulos DA. Spirulina in clinical practice: evidence-based human applications. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011;2011:531053. doi: 10.1093/ecam/nen058. Epub 2010 Oct 19. PubMed PMID: 18955364; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3136577.

#14-19

14Mathew B, Sankaranarayanan R, Nair PP, Varghese C, Somanathan T, Amma BP, Amma NS, Nair MK. Evaluation of chemoprevention of oral cancer with Spirulina fusiformis. Nutr Cancer. 1995;24(2):197-202. doi: 10.1080/01635589509514407. PubMed PMID: 8584455.

15Mulk BS, Deshpande P, Velpula N, Chappidi V, Chintamaneni RL, Goyal S. Spirulina and pentoxyfilline – a novel approach for treatment of oral submucous fibrosis. J Clin Diagn Res. 2013 Dec;7(12):3048-50. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2013/7085.3849. Epub 2013 Dec 15. PubMed PMID: 24551724; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3919363.

16Ismail MF, Ali DA, Fernando A, Abdraboh ME, Gaur RL, Ibrahim WM, Raj MH, Ouhtit A. Chemoprevention of rat liver toxicity and carcinogenesis by Spirulina. Int J Biol Sci. 2009 Jun 2;5(4):377-87. doi: 10.7150/ijbs.5.377. PubMed PMID: 19521547; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2695150.

17Jarouliya U, Zacharia JA, Kumar P, Bisen PS, Prasad GB. Alleviation of metabolic abnormalities induced by excessive fructose administration in Wistar rats by Spirulina maxima. Indian J Med Res. 2012 Mar;135:422-8. PubMed PMID: 22561632; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3361882.

18Jarouliya U, Zacharia JA, Kumar P, Bisen PS, Prasad GB. Alleviation of metabolic abnormalities induced by excessive fructose administration in Wistar rats by Spirulina maxima. Indian J Med Res. 2012 Mar;135:422-8. PubMed PMID: 22561632; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3361882.

19Parikh P, Mani U, Iyer U. Role of Spirulina in the Control of Glycemia and Lipidemia in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. J Med Food. 2001 Winter;4(4):193-199. doi: 10.1089/10966200152744463. PubMed PMID: 12639401.

20Shih CM, Cheng SN, Wong CS, Kuo YL, Chou TC. Antiinflammatory and antihyperalgesic activity of C-phycocyanin. Anesth Analg. 2009 Apr;108(4):1303-10. doi: 10.1213/ane.0b013e318193e919. PubMed PMID: 19299804.

#21-26

21Gemma C, Mesches MH, Sepesi B, Choo K, Holmes DB, Bickford PC. Diets enriched in foods with high antioxidant activity reverse age-induced decreases in cerebellar beta-adrenergic function and increases in proinflammatory cytokines. J Neurosci. 2002 Jul 15;22(14):6114-20. doi: 20026622. PubMed PMID: 12122072; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6757915.

22Ismail M, Hossain MF, Tanu AR, Shekhar HU. Effect of spirulina intervention on oxidative stress, antioxidant status, and lipid profile in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients. Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:486120. doi: 10.1155/2015/486120. Epub 2015 Jan 22. PubMed PMID: 25685791; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4320919.

23Lee EH, Park JE, Choi YJ, Huh KB, Kim WY. A randomized study to establish the effects of spirulina in type 2 diabetes mellitus patients. Nutr Res Pract. 2008 Winter;2(4):295-300. doi: 10.4162/nrp.2008.2.4.295. Epub 2008 Dec 31. PubMed PMID: 20016733; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2788188.

24Misbahuddin M, Islam AZ, Khandker S, Ifthaker-Al-Mahmud, Islam N, Anjumanara. Efficacy of spirulina extract plus zinc in patients of chronic arsenic poisoning: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Clin Toxicol (Phila). 2006;44(2):135-41. doi: 10.1080/15563650500514400. PubMed PMID: 16615668.

25Martínez-Galero E, Pérez-Pastén R, Perez-Juarez A, Fabila-Castillo L, Gutiérrez-Salmeán G, Chamorro G. Preclinical antitoxic properties of Spirulina (Arthrospira). Pharm Biol. 2016 Aug;54(8):1345-53. doi: 10.3109/13880209.2015.1077464. Epub 2015 Oct 6. Review. PubMed PMID: 26439611.

26Torres-Duran PV, Ferreira-Hermosillo A, Juarez-Oropeza MA. Antihyperlipemic and antihypertensive effects of Spirulina maxima in an open sample of Mexican population: a preliminary report. Lipids Health Dis. 2007 Nov 26;6:33. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-6-33. PubMed PMID: 18039384; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2211748.

27Juárez-Oropeza MA, Mascher D, Torres-Durán PV, Farias JM, Paredes-Carbajal MC. Effects of dietary Spirulina on vascular reactivity. J Med Food. 2009 Feb;12(1):15-20. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2007.0713. PubMed PMID: 19298191.

#28-34

28Madrigal-Santillán E, Madrigal-Bujaidar E, Álvarez-González I, Sumaya-Martínez MT, Gutiérrez-Salinas J, Bautista M, Morales-González Á, García-Luna y González-Rubio M, Aguilar-Faisal JL, Morales-González JA. Review of natural products with hepatoprotective effects. World J Gastroenterol. 2014 Oct 28;20(40):14787-804. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v20.i40.14787. Review. PubMed PMID: 25356040; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4209543.

29Le TM, Knulst AC, Röckmann H. Anaphylaxis to Spirulina confirmed by skin prick test with ingredients of Spirulina tablets. Food Chem Toxicol. 2014 Dec;74:309-10. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2014.10.024. PubMed PMID: 25445756.

30Majdoub H, Ben Mansour M, Chaubet F, Roudesli MS, Maaroufi RM. Anticoagulant activity of a sulfated polysaccharide from the green alga Arthrospira platensis. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2009 Oct;1790(10):1377-81. doi: 10.1016/j.bbagen.2009.07.013. Epub 2009 Jul 23. PubMed PMID: 19632306.

31Roy-Lachapelle A, Solliec M, Bouchard MF, Sauvé S. Detection of Cyanotoxins in Algae Dietary Supplements. Toxins (Basel). 2017 Feb 25;9(3). doi: 10.3390/toxins9030076. PubMed PMID: 28245621; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5371831.

32Mukhopadhyay CD. Engineering Spirulina for Enhanced Medicinal Application. Algal Biorefinery: An Integrated Approach. 2015 Jul 23:235–52. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-22813-6_11. PMCID: PMC7123989.

33Witek-Janusek L, Gabram S, Mathews HL. Psychologic stress, reduced NK cell activity, and cytokine dysregulation in women experiencing diagnostic breast biopsy. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2007 Jan;32(1):22-35. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2006.09.011. Epub 2006 Nov 7. PubMed PMID: 17092654; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3937868.

34Mukhopadhyay CD. Engineering Spirulina for Enhanced Medicinal Application. Algal Biorefinery: An Integrated Approach. 2015 Jul 23:235–52. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-22813-6_11. PMCID: PMC7123989.

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