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Basil is a popular kitchen herb which is packed full of aromatic oils


Ocimum basilicum Lamiaceae

Most of us have an apothecary of herbs and spices in our kitchens that we don’t necessarily think of as medicine. Basil is no exception, as it can also be taken as a tea or tincture for nervous irritability and stress, as well as for digestive issues.

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Nervous irritability
  • Flatulence
  • Gastric infections
  • Digestion
  • Warming circulatory stimulant
  • How does it feel?

    Basil has a classic aromatic herby, fresh flavour profile with hints of citrus and pine. It has a mildly pungent quality, making it a truly uplifting and pleasant medicine to use as fresh or dried, in tea, tincture or in food. The flavour and aromatic profiles of basil are best experienced with the fresh herb.

  • What can I use it for?

    Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
    Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

    Basil is a well loved kitchen herb so named the ‘king of herbs’ due to its popularity. It belongs to the mint family – a plant family that holds many of our most familiar kitchen herbs such as sage, oregano, thyme and marjoram.

    Basil, like its culinary sister species, is abundant in aromatic oils that have various effects on our nervous and digestive systems. Basil may be thought of as a kitchen remedy to ease digestive problems associated with stress and nervousness.

    The action of basil’s volatile oils make it an excellent carminative. Carminatives help to settle and support digestion, often resolving flatulence and bloating. Basil is considered a ‘specific’ for flatulence and discomfort caused by trapped wind. Basil can be used fresh or dried as a tea, or made into a refreshing syrup, which might be favoured by children. Using basil in cooking is an excellent way to support digestion and the absorption of nutrients. Where a more powerful action is required, however, a higher medicinal dose than that used in food may be needed.

    Due to its antioxidant and cardio-protective effects, basil improves peripheral circulation as well as circulation to the brain. Basil’s uplifting nervine action may be linked to its ability to support circulation to the central nervous system.

    Using herbs such as basil in our daily lives offers us a wide variety of health benefits. Basil is a gentle medicine which is widely available, and easy to grow at home on a warm, sunny windowsill. Its aromatic compounds are potent cellular protectors with anti-ageing properties. As a daily tonic basil can help to enhance the feeling of well-being and vitality.

  • Into the heart of basil

    Basil plants (Ocimum basilicum)
    Basil plants (Ocimum basilicum)

    Energetically, basil is a warming stimulant. Galen, a renowned 1st century. Roman physicians described basil as moist and hot in the second degree. Basil’s warming and stimulating effect may be mediated by its ability to promote the movement of blood to the periphery. The volatile oils it contains have the general effect of opening, relaxing and relieving tension, which may be experienced as both relaxing and energising.

    Fragrant plants like basil have been traditionally thought to clear stagnation, which is a way of discussing inflammation and the accumulation of metabolic debris in energetic terms. They are specific for ‘depressive’ states – this refers to both depressed or reduced function of the tissues, but also depressiveness of the mind and mood. Basil elevates, rejuvenates and enlivens by improving the flow of blood to all tissues (4).

    Matthew Wood (4) describes this cold, depressed tissue state as “ a deep cold within an organism from the dying down of the innate heat of life – and not from mere cold exposure. Basil is a great herb to include where this enlivening and warming quality is needed to deeply invigorate one’s constitution. 

    Basil’s fragrance has an immediate emotional impact due to the close connection between the sense of smell and psycho-emotional brain centres. After being taken in via the nose,      these warming, aromatic stimulants open up the lungs, enabling them to deliver more life-giving oxygen to the cells, creating the sensation of energy and nourishment. 

    A historical reference is made to basil as “ a herb that helps the heart, changing the grief of the soul caused by black bile into cheerfulness and joy, and the head, procuring sleep when steeped in water and drunk (1)”. Black bile is a term used in mediaeval physiology’s understanding of the four humours. It refers to cold and dry states in a person and was understood to be the root of melancholy. Warming, moist herbs would be best applied as an antidote for this particular humeral imbalance.

  • Traditional uses

    Basil plant (Ocimum basilicum)
    Sweet, savoury, Genovese basil growing in the garden

    Basil has a long history of use as medicine. It is referenced by Pliny who was an authority on scientific matters up to the Middle Ages and formed a compilation of medicinal remedies dating to the early 4th century AD. He wrote that ‘basil vinegar is also good for the stomach, and to break wind upwards, to treat jaundice and dropsy and applied to the belly, to stop (bloody) diarrhoea’. It was also referenced as having a diuretic effect and an additional application taken as a vinegar infusion to strengthen the womb.

    Basil was also referenced as having an effect upon the mind. Parkinson, herbalist to Charles l, noted that a cordial of basil is used in trembling of the heart or palpitations and for melancholy or sadness”  (1).

    It was written that “a liniment of basil corrects cold in the head, clears catarrh, and with vinegar and oil of roses or myrtle helps headache; the powdered seed is taken as snuff to provoke sneezing to clear the head, or the juice made up with goose grease and dropped into children’s ears for problems there”.

    Dioscorides from Ancient Greece recommends the juice of what we believe to be basil for  “dimness of sight and rheums of the eyes” whilst other bygone texts also reflect this use for watering eyes with irritation and inflammation. Additionally, basil was used mixed with a copper compound for the treatment of warts (1). 

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    Basil tincture (Ocimum basilicum)
    Basil tincture (Ocimum basilicum)

    Digestive system

    Basil has a number of therapeutic actions that render it able to improve and support the digestive system. These actions are thought to be due to its action on the nervous system via its high volatile oil content. Basil’s effects are mostly seen in the upper digestive tract where it produces a stomachic action – helping to improve digestion and reduce flatulence (3). Basil also has an antispasmodic action which is useful for griping pains. It is indicated for irritable bowel syndrome and other conditions where there is excess contractility and spasm in the digestive tract. 

    Basil also has antibacterial properties which are understood to relate to its potent volatile oil components. Studies have shown these to be effective against some food-borne pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella species(2). While they may begin mildly, gut infections can be serious if not treated properly under the supervision of a healthcare professional. A herbalist may use basil alongside other potent antibacterial herbs to overcome gastric illness or to help reduce inflammation and discomfort that is often experienced thereafter.

    Nervous system

    Basil has some reference for use as an adaptogenic tonic to the autonomic nervous system (3). It is also commonly thought of as an anxiolytic (resolving anxiety)  herb in both modern and historical texts. It may be used forin cases of anxiety and depression alongside other nervine herbs and adaptogenics. Its actions may help relieve anxiety, nervousness, low mood and irritability via a harmonising effect on the autonomic nervous system (3).

    Basil relaxes smooth muscle spasm and may also be useful for migraines or headaches which are related to tension in the musculoskeletal system (3).


    Basil can help control and decrease blood glucose levels and has anti-diabetic properties. Studies have demonstrated that basil can decrease blood glucose and advanced glycation end products – a marker in diabetes mellitus. Basil may be supportive as part of a treatment approach that includes other herbs and nutritional interventions specific for treating diabetes under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. Anti-atherosclerotic and anti-thrombotic effects have also been identified (2), both actions that support the health of blood vessels in cardiovascular disease. Clinical herbalists can be found on our resources section. 

    Basil is both a diuretic (increases the fluid output) and also mildly diaphoretic – meaning that it increases the output of sweat (3).

    Immune system 

    Basil’s antimicrobial activities are understood to be related to its volatile oil content. One such compound called eugenol has been found to have anti-fungal, nematocide and specific anti-bacterial effects against food-borne pathogenic bacteria. Basil is also well-referenced as a vermifuge and it may be helpful for arthropod stings due to its anti-inflammatory actions (2). 

    Its anti-fungal actions are said to be specific to Tinea a fungal infection of the skin (3). It is also traditionally used to treat insect stings, snake bites and skin infections externally (5).

    Basil’s volatile oil components also have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. In addition to the volatile oils, basil contains other herbal constituents that modulate immune function directly. For example,  the polysaccharide components in basil have been shown to have anti-tumour, anti-oxidant and anti-ageing activity (2).

    A small number of herbals reference basil as having immuno-regulatory and immune-enhancing effects (2, 3). Basil is understood to affect immunity on a cellular level and has also been shown to produce inhibitory activity to counter HIV-1 (5).

  • Research

    Growing basil plant (Basil plants (Ocimum basilicum)
    Growing basil plant (Basil plants (Ocimum basilicum)

    Many herbal medicines are under investigation in modern humans, in vivo and in vitro studies in order to discover antibiotic-resistant compounds in plants. There are currently no human clinical trials on basil. However, there are a number of in vivo and in vitro studies that focus on basil extracts or compounds derived from basil which demonstrate a variety of promising effects. 

    A clinical review of such studies was carried out to demonstrate basil’s therapeutic potential. The review found reports of the following properties to be legitimate; antimicrobial; anti-diabetic; anti-inflammatory; antioxidant; anti-platelet and anti-thrombotic. Additionally, a distilled water-based leaf extract of basil also showed strong antispasmodic activity – largely due to the action of eugenol     (5). 

    Basil also has anti-insecticidal properties. Immunomodulatory properties are also suggested – with one study indicating that basil has a cellular level of immunomodulatory activity including platelet anti-aggregant properties and inhibitory activity to counter HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (5). 

    Finally, an g in vivo study is included which demonstrates some neuroprotective activity of basil extract in rats. The study showed that basil reduced neuroinflammation in rats with induced cerebral MS-like manifestations. Basil combined with ursolic acid significantly reduced the cognitive deficit parameters for mitochondria-dependent apoptosis (a direct pathway for neuronal death in neurodegenerative diseases) (6). 

    Animal studies are not condoned by Herbal Reality, however for the purpose of including research from which some understanding of therapeutic actions can be confirmed and due to the lack of available human studies,     animal studies have been taken into account.

  • Did you know?

    Basil has several name derivations and beliefs associated with it. The common name basil may be derived from the Greek words basileus meaning ‘king’ or basilikon meaning ‘royal’. Because of its popularity, basil is sometimes referred to as the ‘king of the herbs’. 

    A Latin word, basiliscus, refers to ‘basilisk’ a mythical fire-breathing dragon who could kill with just a glance. According to Roman legend, basil is the antidote to the venom of the basilisk. The botanical name Ocimum is derived from the Greek meaning “to be fragrant”.

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    Basil is a tender herbaceous plant. Its leaves grow on opposite sides of square stems. The leaves are rounded, slightly cupped, and curve to form a point at the tip. The leaves are generally light green, although some varieties have reddish or purplish leaves. They can grow to between 30.5 to 125cm high, depending on variety and conditions.

    The flowers are small, usually white in colour and arranged along a spike that grows from the tip of the stem. After pollination, the flower falls off and four round, dry structures called achenes develop, each one containing a seed. The seeds are small, dark, and edible.

  • Common names

    • Common basil
    • Sweet basil
    • King of the herbs
  • Safety

    Basil is not recommended for use in medicinal doses during pregnancy. It is considered to be safe for use during breastfeeding (3).

  • Interactions

    None known

  • Contraindications

    None known

  • Preparation

    • Fresh herb
    • Dried herb
    • Tincture
    • Tea
  • Dosage

    • Tincture (1:3 in 45%): Take 4ml in a little water up to twice a day (3).
    • Infusion: To make a tea place 3 grams of dried material in one cup of boiling water infuse for between 10 – 15 minutes. This should be drunk hot twice a day.
  • Plant parts used

    • Leaf
    • Herb
    • Seed
  • Constituents

    • Volatile oil – α-Pinene, β-Pinene, Methyl chavicol, 1,8 cineole, Linalool, Ocimene, Borneol, Geraneol, B-Caryphyllone, n-Cinnamate, eugenol, chavicol and terpenoids.
    • Phenolic acids and flavonol-glycosides
    • Fatty acid composition – stearic acid, oleic acid, palmitic acid, linoleic acid, myristic acid, α-Linolenic acid, carpic acid, lauric acid and arachidonic acid (2).
    • Antioxidant compounds of basil are caffeic, vanillic and rosmarinic acids, quercetin, rutin, apigenin, chlorogenic and p-hydroxybenzoic acid (2).
Basil illustration
  • Habitat

    It is native to tropical regions of Central Africa to Southeast Asia (India, Pakistan, Iran and Thailand). It can be found growing wild in tropical and subtropical regions.

  • Sustainability

    Basil is not currently included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species database.

    Habitat loss and over-harvesting from the wild are two of the biggest threats faced by medicinal plant species. There are an increasing number of well-known herbal medicines at risk of extinction. We must therefore ensure that we source our medicines with sustainability in mind. 

    The herb supplement industry is growing at a rapid rate and until recent years a vast majority of medicinal plant produce in global trade was of unknown origin. There are some very real and urgent issues surrounding sustainability in the herb industry. These include environmental factors that affect the medicinal viability of herbs, the safety of the habitats that they are taken from, as well as the welfare of workers in the trade.

    The botanical supply chain efforts for improved visibility (transparency and traceability) into verifiably sustainable production sites around the world are now certified through the emergence of credible international voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). 

    Read our article on  Herbal quality & safety: What to know before you buy  and Sustainable sourcing of herbs to learn more about what to look for and questions to ask suppliers about sustainability.

  • Quality control

    Concentration of volatile oil in basil cv. Sweet Genovese was higher after cultivation at 25°C than at 15°C. Drying and freezing results in loss of concentration and changes in the proportion of each constituent. The concentration of volatile oils in dried basil is significantly reduced after 6 months of storage. As with most herbs, particularly aromatic herbs, air drying leads to greater retention of the aromatic compounds (1).

    Herbal medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to buy herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from disreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.

    Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/botanical name is used and that suppliers can provide information about the source of ingredients used in the product.
    A supplier should be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration when the supply chain is unknown.

  • How to grow

    Basil plant (Basil plants (Ocimum basilicum) in a pot
    Basil plant (Ocimum basilicum) in a pot

    Basil is one of the easiest herbs to propagate from seed and it requires minimal care to cultivate a happy crop for use in culinary or medicinal recipes.

    Sow indoors in late spring, or outdoors in early summer. It is normally a reliable germinator and easy to over-sow, so don’t get too carried away. Depending on temperature, germination normally takes 1-2 weeks. If you are a well-organised kind of person, you might consider successive sowing every couple of weeks to give you a longer, staggered harvest period.

    Pot on to individual pots when the seedlings have a few ’true’ leaves. If you are planning to keep it in a pot, best to use one that is at least 10cm in diameter. Otherwise, plant into its final position with a spacing of 10-15cm between plants. If you are growing outdoors (in the UK), try to give the plant a sheltered sunny spot – a south-facing wall is ideal. If you don’t have a sheltered sunny spot, you may be better off growing it indoors – in a greenhouse, or a sunny windowsill.

  • Recipe

    Basil syrup (Ocimum basilicum)
    Basil syrup (Ocimum basilicum)

    Herb syrups are a wonderful way to preserve the freshness and flavour of aromatic herbs while making them palatable for all. They can also be used in culinary recipes.


    • 1 1⁄2 cups water
    • 1 1⁄2 cups sugar
    • About 20 sprigs of basil. You can include lemon rind, cinnamon, star anise, orange etc or keep it simply herby with basil.


    Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan, bruising the leaves against the side of the pan with a spoon. Place over moderate heat and bring to a simmer. Cover immediately to avoid loss of aromatic compounds.  

    Remove from heat and let stand for at least 30 minutes. Strain out the remaining plant material with a sieve, squeezing them into the syrup to extract their flavour. This syrup can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator for about 2 months or frozen for 3 to 4 months.

    You can find how to make different types of herbal preparations in our home herbalism section here.

  • References

    1. Tobyn, G., Denham, A. and Whitelegg, M. (2011). CHAPTER 22 – Ocimum basilicum, basil. [online] ScienceDirect. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780443103445000276?via%3Dihub [Accessed 6 Sep. 2023].
    2. Shahrajabian, M.H., Sun, W. and Cheng, Q. (2020). Chemical components and pharmacological benefits of Basil (Ocimum basilicum): a review. International Journal of Food Properties, 23(1), pp.1961–1970. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/10942912.2020.1828456.
    3. Menzies-Trull, C. (2013). Herbal medicine keys to physiomedicalism including pharmacopoeia. Newcastle: Faculty Of Physiomedical Herbal Medicine (Fphm).
    4. Wood. M. 2004. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Organs and Systems. North Atlantic Books, U.S.
    5. Purushothaman, B., Srinivasan, R.P., Suganthi, P., Ranganathan, B., Gimbun, J. and Shanmugam1, K. (2018). A Comprehensive Review on Ocimum basilicum. Journal of Natural Remedies, [online] 18(3), pp.71–85. doi:https://doi.org/10.18311/jnr/2018/21324.
    6. Garabadu, D. and Singh, D. (2020). Ocimum basilicum attenuates ethidium bromide-induced cognitive deficits and pre-frontal cortical neuroinflammation, astrogliosis and mitochondrial dysfunction in rats. Metabolic Brain Disease, 35(3), pp.483–495. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11011-020-00536-z.
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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