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Don’t be surprised if you see Seattle Mariners sensation Ichiro Suzuki downing an Ajinomoto Co. amino acid drink in the dugout at Safeco Field during a baseball game.

The Tokyo-based firm, a major manufacturer of amino acid products, has a contract this year with the team to offer Amino Vital powder and drinks as supplements to help prevent fatigue, increase the burning of fat during exercise and assist in muscle recovery.

Such benefits are also attracting athletes of other sports as well as health-conscious consumers.

“The market for amino acid products has grown dramatically in Japan,” said Takashi Miyama, chief of Ajinomoto’s Amino Vital department.

According to Ajinomoto, the amino acid food market in Japan amounted to 92 billion yen in 2002, compared with 26 billion yen in 2001. The company estimates the market could reach 130 billion yen by year’s end.

Ajinomoto recorded 17 billion yen in Amino Vital sales in the year that ended on March 31, compared with 10 billion yen the previous year. The company expects to reach the 20 billion yen mark by the end of next March.

Amino Vital comes in six forms, including powder for athletes, jelly for consumers and drinks for weight-watchers. The company will debut Amino Vital pills on Aug. 22.

“Compared with other companies in the amino acid market, we try to cater to the diverse needs of our customers by offering various kinds of Amino Vital,” said Takuji Yui, manager of research and development in Ajinomoto’s Amino Vital department.

Amino Vital’s diversity stems from data Ajinomoto has accumulated about amino acid since the company was founded in 1909, Yui stressed, noting the firm accounts for about 60 percent of the world’s medical-use amino acid market.

By capitalizing on its research, Ajinomoto in 1995 debuted Amino Vital Pro, codeveloped by the University of Tokyo, for dedicated athletes.

Ajinomoto, however, had difficulty selling the product initially because most athletes were unaware of the benefits of amino acid.

The firm got the ball rolling by giving Amino Vital samples to sports clubs, supplying drinks for runners in domestic and foreign marathons and holding seminars to brief drug stores on its products.

Amino Vital then started to take off, leading to an expanded product lineup targeting general consumers. 2001 was a turning point for sales.

That June, Fuji TV, in its popular weekend program on health issues, featured the merits of amino acid. Since then, Amino Vital has been a hit product for Ajinomoto, which is mainly known as a seasoning manufacturer, gaining fame for its flagship product monosodium glutamate, which is synonymous with Ajinomoto in Japan.

To further upgrade Amino Vital’s image, Ajinomoto signed an official sponsorship contract this year with the Japanese Olympic Committee, offering Amino Vital to athletes preparing for the 2004 Athens Games. The company has been providing information on its products to athletes since June.

Although amino acid is experiencing a boom in Japan that has boosted Amino Vital’s sales, Yui said Ajinomoto does not intend to rely on any fleeting popularity.

“We will continue efforts to expand the amino acid market in Japan by giving athletes and consumers useful information on the products’ benefits,” Yui said.

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