Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
15 Apr

Cooking with Bones

Marrow is great and all, but what about the bones that aren’t blessed enough to bear the sacred gel in easily extractable amounts? We can’t forget about those. Chicken backs, beef knuckles, ham hocks, chicken feet, lamb necks, hooves and any other animal-derived matrices of calcium phosphate and collagen fibers are all worth saving, cooking, and perhaps even eating. Hell, I bet elk antlers would make a fine, mineral-rich soup. The best part is that bones, feet, hooves, heads, and connective tissues are all pretty inexpensive, sometimes even free, parts of the animal. They also represent an entirely different realm of nutritional content than basic muscle meat, being complex organs playing multiple roles in the body.

You see, bone is living tissue, rather than inert structure. It is rigid, true, but it’s actually an organ, in fact, placing it squarely in the nutritional all-star camp of liver, heart, brain, kidney, and sweetbreads. Bone is also slightly elastic, owing to the collagen, which combines with the calcium phosphate to lend “elastic rigidity.” (If it weren’t for the collagen, bones would simply be hard with no give, and thus brittle.) Bone is full of minerals, mostly calcium and phosphorus (seeing as how the “bone” part of bone is calcium phosphate, this is no surprise), along with sodium, magnesium, and other trace minerals. If the connective tissue – and most animal scraps and bones you use will have tendons, ligaments, and cartilage – is still attached, bones also include stuff like chondroitin and glucosamine, popular joint supplements that are the raw materials for bone and cartilage formation.

Let’s do a quick rundown of all the other good stuff found in bones and, therefore, well-made bone stock:

  • Bone marrow – We went over this last week, but I’ll say it again: bone marrow is one of the first “superfoods” (for lack of a better term – I actually slightly cringe using it) our ancestors enjoyed. It’s fatty, with a bit of protein and loads of minerals. Even if you’re cooking spindly chicken bones, there’s going to be marrow, and that marrow will make it into your stock.
  • Collagen and gelatin – Most commercial gelatin comes from animal collagen already, so why not cut out the middle man and get your gelatin directly from bone and cartilage? The more collagen your bones have, the more gelatinous, rich, and viscous your stock will be – important qualities, especially if you intend to reduce your stock into sauces. Gelatin may even reduce joint pain in athletes, as one (admittedly small) study appeared to show. Another showed benefits for ulcer patients.
  • Glycine – Although our bodies already produce plenty of glycine, rendering it a non-essential amino acid, there’s some evidence that supplementation can help mitigate free-radical oxidative damage in rats with alcohol-induced hepatotoxicity. Bone broth is rich in glycine. It probably doesn’t mean much, but it can’t hurt. And hey – it may even improve sleep quality, as one Japanese study showed in human subjects. Drink a warm cup of broth before bed, perhaps?
  • Proline – Proline is another non-essential amino acid found in bone stock, but supplementation has shown promise in patients suffering from vision loss due to gyrate atrophy. It’s also an important precursor for the formation of collagen, though it’s not clear whether eating proline has any affect on the body’s ability to make collagen.
  • Hyaluronic acid – Hyaluronic acid, also known as hyaluronan, is one of cartilage’s three glycosaminoglycans. It helps broth gel, and it’s been used for years to treat race horses with osteoarthritis, usually as an intra-articular injection or IV fluid. Recent studies on oral administration have been promising, though, meaning oral administration of quality bone stock (as opposed to, um, what other method of administration?) might help us with our joint issues, too. According to Wikipedia, human studies are underway and showing promise, but I wasn’t able to dig up much beyond this small study. Still, it’s compelling, and I’ll continue to drink broth regardless.
  • Chondroitin sulfate – Chondroitin sulfate is another glycosaminoglycan present in bone stock. It’s also a popular supplement for the treatment of osteoarthritis the efficacy of which has come under question. One recent review concludes that chondroitin sulfate “may interfere with progression of osteoarthritis”. I’d say it’s worth a shot.
  • Calcium – I’ve downplayed the importance of large amounts of supplementary calcium in the past, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It’s the raw material for bone production and fortification, and bone stock might be one of the best sources of calcium around, especially for those who avoid dairy and don’t eat enough leafy greens.
  • Phosphorus – There’s also a good amount of phosphorus in bone stock, though I doubt Primal eaters lack adequate dietary phosphorus (there’s plenty in meat). Still, it’s a nice buffer.
  • Magnesium – Magnesium is pretty lacking in the modern diet. Fatty fish like mackerel offer good amounts, as do leafy greens, nuts, and seeds, but most people, Primal folks included, could stand to take in more magnesium. Dr. Michael Eades says if he had to recommend just one supplement, it’d be magnesium; Dr. Stephan Guyenet over at Whole Health Source recently posted a couple great pieces, one on magnesium and insulin sensitivity (short version: the former improves the latter) and another on magnesium and vitamin D metabolism (short version: the former affects the latter). Bone stock is just another way to obtain this valuable mineral.
  • Sulfur, potassium, and sodium – Stock has these minerals in mostly trace amounts, but they’re all important for health. Sodium isn’t really an issue for most people, but potassium is undoubtedly important and often lacking. Both are crucial electrolytes (bone broth – possible new sports drink?). Sulfur is the “S” in MSM, or methylsulfonylmethane, the popular joint supplement that has shown some promising results in humans.

The best way to extract all that boney goodness from the bones is to cook with them, and that means making stock (or broth; from here on out, I’ll just say stock, but the two are pretty similar, with broth technically being derived from meat and bones, and stock from just bones). I mentioned a basic chicken stock recipe last year, but we can do better than that. Besides, different bones require different considerations. A few tips:

  • Add a couple shots of apple cider vinegar to your stock. This aids in the extraction of minerals without really altering the flavor.
  • Roast your bones beforehand. This adds color and flavor. For big bones like beef, 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 minutes usually works. For chicken, just use roasted carcasses.
  • Don’t throw bones away. Even if you just ate a couple bone-in chicken thighs, save those measly little bones! Freeze them and keep adding to your collection until you’ve got a respectable amount.
  • Don’t be afraid to simmer long and slow. Smaller animals require less cooking time to extract nutrients, so chicken can probably go for twenty hours and produce a quality stock, but beef or lamb bones can go for several days, provided you keep the heat low and watch the water level to prevent burning.
  • Add feet, especially chicken feet, for added collagen – and more gelatin.
  • If it’s a delicious joint supplement you’re after, look for actual animal joints to throw in. Knuckles, especially, have tons of cartilaginous material and snappy ligament that will break down in the water.
  • When dealing with the bigger bones from ungulates, sometimes the heat and the water need a little assistance. To really get the good stuff, stick the bones in a sturdy bag and smash them with your sledgehammer (you do have a sledgehammer, right?). Then put the shards in the stockpot. Native Americans used to do this to buffalo bones to get at the little grease pockets lurking within the bone latticework; why shouldn’t we do the same? Another option is to remove the bones after half a day or so and go to work with a smaller hammer, a chef’s knife, or even the food processor. They’ll have softened considerably, and you’ll be able to chop them up into bits for quicker, more thorough extraction. Last week, I took a 10-inch chef’s knife to some cow knuckles and cow necks that’d been simmering for a day and returned the pieces for another few hours of cooking. That stock was the thickest, richest, most gelatinized stock I’ve ever made. Correlation, causation? I lean toward the latter. In fact, going forward, I plan on doing this every single time I make stock. The difference was just that huge.
  • You can eat bone, technically. Now, if you’ve made a proper stock and gotten all you can out of your bones, eating them may not confer many benefits. Still, it’s an interesting thought. Chicken bones in particular become pretty delectable after a day of stewing, and I’ll confess to sifting through the stock solids for snacks. I haven’t eaten an entire carcass or anything (yet), but I may try a few of the smaller, softer bones as an experiment. Anyone else?
  • Once your stock has cooled in the fridge, only skim the fat if you’re prepared to store or use the stock right away. That layer of fat is protecting your broth from adulterants, whether they’re random fridge flavors or bacteria.
  • Speaking of fat, I’d toss poultry fat. It’s a relatively high-PUFA animal fat, and a day of simmering has probably damaged it beyond repair. If you’re stewing bones with more saturated animal fat, though, you should absolutely save the fat layer.
  • Veggies are optional, but tasty. They add flavor, and the classic mirepoix blend of carrots, onions, and celery is always a welcome addition. Herbs work well, too. I’m partial to thyme, bay leaf, and whole peppercorns, with maybe a sprig or two of rosemary added. If you’re doing herbs and veggies, add them toward the end of cooking, especially if you’re doing a marathon two-day stock making session.

Divining the nutritional details of traditional foods like bone stock and bone marrow is difficult, if not impossible altogether. We know stock contains gelatin, calcium, phosphate, magnesium, glucosamine, chondroitin, and other trace minerals, but what are the numbers? We’re a numbers generation; we expect to have accurate info at the tips of our fingers at all times, but that’s unrealistic. Bone composition isn’t set in stone. What the animal ate, how it lived, where it lived, the mineral content of whatever it ate, the nutrient density of whatever it ate – these all factor into the composition and content of the bones, joints, and cartilage. The nutrition facts of commercial bone meal marketed as a calcium supplement gives us a general idea of the mineral content (900 mg calcium, 360 mg phosphorus, 9 mg magnesium per serving) of bone stock. That stuff comes from powdered “cattle raised in the United States,” which undoubtedly means corn-fed, nutritionally-deficient cows. We don’t know exactly how an animal’s diet affects its bone composition, but we know that it matters. Diet plays a huge role in everything, and I’d bet that grass-fed (again, as always) results in better, more nutritious stock. Regardless of the numbers, bone stock is good for you, damn good, and being somewhat in the dark about the precise nutrient count shouldn’t dissuade you from making and using your own bone stock on a regular basis.

Even if you don’t (or are unable to) seek out bones specifically for cooking, you’ll end up with plenty as leftovers. In fact, I’d suggest opting for whole animals or bone-in segments; the meat tastes better, it stays fresher longer, and you get some cooking bones when it’s all done. When you roast a chicken, you’ve got an entire skeleton to work with. When you cook a bone-in leg of lamb on the barbecue, you’ve got a big femur left over. What does a skinless breast offer after it’s been eaten, or an endless parade of steaks? I love a good steak as much as the next man, but a Primal eater shouldn’t live on muscle meat alone. I highly recommend giving homemade stock a try. If you eat animals, you should have access to their bones, and you should never throw those bones away.

Have I missed anything? Anyone have any good stock-making tips?

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. @ Andrew
    I drink heated up bone soup by itself – as you say, it’s like a consomme – and sometimes I just take a spoon to the gelled contents of the jar in the fridge.

    Valda Redfern wrote on April 18th, 2010
  2. Great post Mark – especially as it is soon to be bbq time here in England!

    When I was in Brazil, I tried a national dish, ‘Feijoada’. It was a bone delight!
    I understand it is made with black turtle beans, pork and beef products, (ears, tail, feet), bacon, smoked pork ribs, (loin and tongue). All to be cooked slowly in a clay oven…
    I was reluctant to eat the bones in the dish but not only did they add flavour to the stock, they were quite soft and tasty themselves!! and made me feel like a true Grok :)

    Luke M-Davies wrote on April 18th, 2010
  3. I have been simmering about 5lbs of buffalo bones together with an onion, couple celery stalks, 2 carrots, some garlic and ginger. I’ve had it going for about a day and a half now. Coming home from work today I was surprised how much water had evaporated, a few hours more and it would have started burning, should have told my wife to add some hot water as needed. The smell is driving my dog crazy, he’s ready to attack the stove. Tomorrow night I am going to strain it and freeze it and save some of the meat parts which have fallen off for my dog.

    Jeff Cowan wrote on April 19th, 2010
    • the first time I roasted 8 pounds of marrow bones for 50 minutes in my oven to prepare to make bone broth the delicious smell permiated to the house next door and smeelled so good my neighbor came over to ask what I was cooking. I told her to come over with her husband in 3 days and they would have it for dinner. They liked it so much they started cooking bone broths. After 2 months it relieved my neighbor’s arthritis, which just seemed to disappear, much to the consternation of his doctor. I gues teh 3 types of collagens, glucosamine and all the minerals really are a super food. Isn’t that too bad for Big Pharma.

      marilyn wrote on July 27th, 2012
  4. @Valda – I heated up the stock with some fresh herbs and it was an ace drink!

    Yesterday I bought a slow cooker (crockpot?) and today got some free range, grass fed beef bones (free) from the butcher. They are roasting now – I’ll give them 45 – 50 minutes.

    I feel that they’d need too long in the pressure cooker for me to feel comfortable with it so I’ll put them in the crock pot with water and a touch of vinegar. But for how long??!!

    andrew wrote on April 20th, 2010
  5. My mom used to “can” chicken in Mason jars in her pressure cooker. The bones were so soft that you could just eat them with the chicken if you wanted to.

    Elizabeth wrote on April 20th, 2010
  6. “FitDay” doesn’t seem to have a listing for homemade beef stock (or chicken) – only gravy, broth or tinned consommé.

    So – my homemade French onion soup appears to have very little nutritional value – and I just don’t believe that! I think it must be much higher in minerals etc than they give it credit for! It made a filling, delicious and much enjoyed lunch – and added very little to my %RDA according to the chart.

    andrew wrote on April 22nd, 2010
  7. I make beef stock with meaty bits like neck bones plus knuckle bones (femur tips), carrot, onion, and celery. I saved the fat I skimmed off the last batch – does this constitute tallow? I’d love to cook with it.

    emily wrote on April 22nd, 2010
  8. Weeeee! I’m off to get 10lbs of mixed bones (lamb, pork, goat) from my summer CSA supplier. I think I’m helping clean out their freezer so they’re giving me a huge deal. I’m also getting 5 whole ducks, pork fat (for lard-rendering), and various organs. all organic. Can’t wait to get cookin, roastin & stewin! Plus rendering some schmaltz & a try at duck confit.

    Peggy wrote on April 22nd, 2010
  9. Here is some great stock advice and discussion from Kitchen Stewardship, including some tips I added in the comments:

    Shebeeste wrote on April 22nd, 2010
  10. I eat slow-cooked chicken bones all the time – the entire beast gets eaten, minus feathers, beak and bowels.

    I have tried slow cooking duck and rabbit bones, but they appear never to get soft enough to eat.

    Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later wrote on April 23rd, 2010
  11. The Nourishing Traditions cookbook has very clear instructions for stock, including the vinegar for releasing more minerals.

    When I roast a chicken, I snag the roasted chicken wings every time and crunch the wing tips – YUM. and the carcass always goes directly into a pot after supper. I often roast chickens beer-can style and use different vinegars and herbs. Great flavor for the broth, but different than stock. Drinking the warm broth by itself is wonderful, especially if I’ve gone a little crazy with the herbs.

    I reduce my stock to demi glace and put .5 pint jars in the freezer to save space. I measure how much stock I have and then reduce by barely simmering and divide the demi glace among the jars. I.e., if I start with 10 quarts of stock, I reduce the pot full so it will fit in 10 small jars. I can spoon out .25 of the demi glace to make 1 cup of reconstituted stock.

    Reading about folks using slow-cookers is very interesting to me. I use a 16 quart stock pot and usually don’t have much room left after covering with the filtered water…

    Mary Anne Mead wrote on April 24th, 2010
  12. Anybody ever mix various animal bones? I made some amazing buffalo stock with leftover marrow bones (after I baked them and got out the marrow). Now I’m collecting some more buffalo bones but recently bought a leg of goat. Now I’ve got a nice goat foot and leg bones. I’m just wondering how goat and buffalo bones will make broth together or whether I should just do them separately.

    Jeff Cowan wrote on April 25th, 2010
  13. Regarding the vinegar: I think it is best if the vinegar is added to the bones and water and let to sit at room temp for an hour or so before starting the simmer. Seems that’s what I have read in a number of different blogs and books regarding the most nourishing way to prepare bone broths. If you’re roasting the bones first, I’d let them cool a bit, dump in the stockpot, cover with cold filtered water, then add and mix in the vinegar–at least a couple tablespoons per quart.

    Also, if you’re going to be adding herbs, etc., then you should wait until (after the vinegar soak) after bringing everything to a boil. Boil it for a few minutes and skim the scum that comes to the top–this will take longer in a slow cooker, so when I’m using mine, I’ll boil it on the stovetop, skim, then dump into the slow cooker. After skimming the crud off the top is when you add the herbs & spices, onion, carrots, celery, etc.

    This is one of my favorite breakfasts, to have a cup of hot bone broth. I don’t even drink coffee anymore (well, not often), and I find that it holds me over better than the things I used to have would do. (Don’t miss donuts much) Still, I agree to not add salt until you’re actually using the broth, so be sure to taste before heading off to the computer and to start your morning with your broth in-hand.

    One last tip: when freezing in jars, be sure the broth is fully cooled–I even use an ice bath–before putting in the freezer. Don’t fill the jars–leave two or so inches, or well below the “shoulder” of the jar–and don’t tighten the lids until after the broth is frozen solid. I have never had a jar break when I remember to follow these three simple guidelines.

    Dani wrote on April 28th, 2010
  14. The above post is a very clear rendering, no pun intended, of the Nourishing Traditions stock instructions. And thanks for adding the details about freezing stock. It is also helpful to freeze the stock in jars in a non-frost free freezer. I did have 2 jars break when I put the completely cooled jars in the frost-free freezer compartment of my refrigerator. Definitely use the ice-bath and make sure there is plenty of room for the stock to expand, and leaving the lids loose helps with the expansion. However, since I started cooking the stock down to demi glace, I have had no problems whatsoever. hmmm, think I’ll go get a cup of nice hot broth!

    Mary Anne Mead wrote on April 28th, 2010
  15. ummm looks appetizing, will give it a try!

    Usman wrote on April 29th, 2010
  16. How long can a jellied bone stock last in the fridge – not a freezer? I have some chicken stock which I made on Thursday – and it is now Tuesday – too long to be safe??


    andrew wrote on May 4th, 2010
  17. Home-made stock kept in a glass jar in the fridge, should last a week. Not infrequently, I’ve found stock still good after two weeks. If you want reassurance, bring it to a boil for five minutes before you use it. It’ll start to smell “off” when it goes bad.

    Suzy wrote on May 5th, 2010
  18. hmmm I guess I don’t know how to respond to a specific post. Anyway, the question of spinach affecting calcium absorbtion. I think Sally Fallon, in Nourishing Traditions, mentions that dark leafy greens should be cooked…at least a little… I know I read it somewhere. So wilt your greens before adding them to a smoothie; serve your slices of bbq’d tri tip hot on top of greens (spinach or arugula). Anyone who has memorized more of Nourishing Traditions than I have, please chime in on this.

    Mary Anne wrote on May 11th, 2010
  19. Thank you! I just signed up for a chicken CSA and the birds come with heads & feet attached… good to know I can throw them in and get some benefit when making broth.

    Just a tip from my mama, even if you’ve already roasted the chicken, re-roast the bones for an hour or two. It makes the flavor richer.

    jj wrote on May 14th, 2010
  20. If I can’t afford grassfed/organic meat is it better not to make stock at all or can I still use conventional meat?

    Mia wrote on June 9th, 2010
  21. I find that lemon juice works quite as well as vinegar – chicken bones end up breakable with a wooden spoon. Also I like the taste better…

    andrew wrote on June 9th, 2010
  22. I remember when I was young reading an old book on ninjutsu training, and one section talked about diet. The author considered it extremely important to eat the whole fish, bones and all.

    So I wonder, has anyone here tried making fish stock? Is there anything different about boiling fish bones compared to mammals?

    Jesse wrote on August 6th, 2010
  23. I love your article, Mark, on making stock from bones. Four days ago, before I’d read your article I made my first lot of stock from a pile of pork bones, and was rewarded with a lovely glutinous concoction which I’m including in gravies, soups, stews, etc. I have been recently reading about hyaluronic acid and how good it is for joints, skin, hair, eyes, and I did purchase some capsules which were quite expensive. However, I found on taking them that I felt overwhelmingly tired, so stopped taking them and decided to make the stock in the hope that it will contain hyarulonic acid, and thus allow me to get HA naturally. I know that HA can be obtained from chicken combs, can it also be got from cooked animal bones?

    B Mitchell wrote on August 11th, 2010
  24. I’ve made fish stock quite often – i do Not know how nutritious it is compared to mammals or birds.. however, it is easy and fish heads are often free- just toss a bunch of heads and fish parts into a pot and boil – it’s delicious! It also becomes more Creamy than jellylike.

    Amy wrote on September 2nd, 2010
    • Fish are very healthy because of the omega 3 content but those same omega 3s don’t really stand up to heat very well sadly. you would still get the minerals and the gelatin but It would be better to skim the fat because of the polyunsaturated fat being heated for so long. That kind of gets rid of the omega 3 though. The broth would be perfectly healthy after this but, again no omega 3.

      Jason wrote on August 28th, 2012
  25. “Hell, I bet elk antlers would make a fine, mineral-rich soup. ”

    I think you’re right. Here’s a passage from Sourdough Sagas, which has several first personal accounts by people who took part in the Alaskan Gold Rush including what they learned from the local natives.

    “gold rushers would take the antlers of a deer or elk, cut it into pieces, and boil it for a couple of days. They would then let it cool for an afternoon and, well the quote follows:

    “The mixture would cool, and to the top would rise a white butter that, with salt added, was as fine as any butter that came from a cow. The natives called it “bone butter.”

    Trish wrote on March 5th, 2011
  26. I’m not sure if I’ve asked for feedback on this. I’ve bought 4 slow cookers and none have ‘slow-cooked.’ I have the best results in cast iron (e.g. le creuset) in an oven at 225F. In the oven, over 8-10 hours, I have a slightly simmering pot. In slow-cookers (even on low), the pot is furiously boiling. Does anyone have an explanation? a solution? a slow-cooker that doesn’t do this? The last one I had was a programmable that boasted a ‘keep-warm’ setting. HA! Volcanic virgins sacrificing themselves would have expired long before reaching the mountain, at this temperature! Any help anyone can provide will be appreciated!

    Mary Anne wrote on June 2nd, 2011
    • I recently read that the older crock pots kept the temperature stay pretty low, and usually didn’t have a hi/lo setting, they just had one setting. Because of the fear of food poisoning (and lawsuits, perhaps) the newer ones cook much hotter. Maybe you can find an old crock pot at a garage sale or thrift store and try that.

      birdy wrote on January 30th, 2013
  27. Does anyone know if it is safe to cook/eat bones from grain fed confined livestock? thinking about heavy metal contamination and other toxins. How bad is it really?

    Nélio wrote on June 17th, 2011
    • I feed my 4 dogs raw and they certainly can smell the difference.

      When I toss a mixture of commercial, grain-fed bones together with grass-fed/finished bones, they all go for the grassfed bones.
      The commercial, grain-fed bones get sniffed and then ignored. A dogs nose definitely smells nutrient content and chemical contamination I think.

      BUT, commercial, grain-fed bones are still 100 times better than grains themselves. :-)

      Primal Palate wrote on June 19th, 2011
  28. I have heard that the “new” crockpots – which may mean any made in the last 10 years – cook much faster than the old ones. (“safety”, litigation and all that) See if you can find an old one at a thrift store. Or crack the lid a bit while cooking to keep it from getting so hot.

    Lori wrote on July 4th, 2011
  29. I wonder if bone meal is any good for gardening after we make stock with it? Would all the minerals/nutrients be cooked out, leaving nothing for the plants?

    KillerAbsMtn wrote on July 30th, 2011
  30. IS this a problem? After 24 hrs of cooking in a slow cooker and then straining the broth into containers and sticking them in a fridge for 12 hours, my beef bone broth has come out with a thick layer of fat on top and a jelly like substance underneath. Before, when I’ve made beef bone broth (cooking only 12hrs) I always had fat on top and an a brownish liquid underneath. Why is there jelly now? Is it because I used too many bones this time or is it because I cooked it longer? Why did it turn to jelly?

    Marlene wrote on August 4th, 2011
    • You extracted all the collagen and conective tissue from the bones. According to the article it’s really good for you! Skim the fat (if you want to) but keep the jelly – it will melt down again when you warm the stock and make the stock rich and smooth.

      Abby C. wrote on August 10th, 2011
  31. I keep “stock bags” in my freezer. Whenever I cook with a bone-in piece of meat, I toss the bone in the freezer bag and save them until I’ve collected enough for stock. Every time I roast a chicken or turkey I save the whole carcass this way too. I also save shellfish shells – shrimp and lobster make great stock. I don’t have enough cash to buy enough lobster for shell stock at one go, but if I save up for long enough, I can make a gorgeous lobster bisque.

    Abby C. wrote on August 10th, 2011

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