Despite being the inventor of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, Ajinomoto Co., Japan’s largest seasonings maker, is little known in the United States. But its amino acid business has been gaining ground in the growing U.S. market in recent years.

“Most Americans don’t have the slightest idea who we are. Many of them think Ajinomoto is a car company,” said Yuichiro Nakajima, general manager of the “nutraceuticals” division of Ajinomoto U.S.A. Inc. based in New York.

In Japan, Ajinomoto left its food-based brand image behind around 2001 when the so-called amino acid boom swept the country, with all kinds of beverages containing amino acids attracting health-conscious consumers.

While many of its competitors touted the fat-burning or fatigue-fighting properties of certain amino acids, Ajinomoto has targeted endurance athletes since 1995, when it launched its amino acid supplement, Amino Vital, which was later endorsed by the Japanese Olympic Committee in a tieup called the Victory Project.

After a period of test-marketing, Ajinomoto made a full-scale entry into the U.S. market in October 2003. The supplement soon won a following among professional triathletes, bodybuilders, cyclists and golfers, including PGA Tour golfers Stewart Cink and Sergio Garcia.

The product also received endorsements and was used in tieups with sports organizations, including the Seattle Mariners, the New York Yankees, U.S. Masters Swimming, and the New York Road Runners Club, organizer of the New York City Marathon.

But the big breakthrough came in July 2005, when Amino Vital signed an agreement with the U.S. Olympic Committee to become an official supporter of the 2006 and 2008 U.S. Olympic teams.

The move made headlines because the USOC has traditionally steered athletes away from nutritional supplements, fearing the athletes could be accused of doping.

Under the agreement, Ajinomoto tests, at its own expense, every batch of Amino Vital for substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The tests are carried out at a laboratory at the University of California at Los Angeles, the only U.S. lab approved by the agency.

“We normally ship our products as soon as they pass inspection, but because of our contract with the USOC, we must wait for a certificate from the UCLA lab before we ship our products,” Nakajima said.

“We want to emphasize that all athletes, from professionals to weekend warriors, can have total confidence in the purity of our products,” Nakajima said.

The supplement business also draws strength from Ajinomoto’s less well-known pharmaceutical operations. The firm, whose origin dates back to Kikunae Ikeda’s discovery of sodium glutamate in 1908, pioneered the production of crystalline amino acids. It now produces 60 percent of all pharmaceutical amino acid solutions used worldwide.

“The amino acids used in our products have the same quality as those used at hospitals, such as intravenous drips given to people recovering from surgery,” Nakajima said.

The sheer size of the U.S. nutritional supplements market — which many economists believe to be about five times bigger than that in Japan — is another attraction.

A report released in November by consumer research firm Packaged Facts estimates the U.S. supplement market will reach $6 billion (708 billion yen) by 2011 from an estimated $4.7 billion at the end of 2006.

The growth, in part, is fueled by aging baby boomers who are “big on supplementation” as a means of preventive health care and wellness, according to the report.

Asked if the amino acid boom will catch on in the United States, Nakajima said: “I certainly hope so. People in Japan have long seen Ajinomoto only as a seasonings maker, but Americans have no such prejudice, and see amino acids purely as the building block of proteins. We feel little resistance (here) in marketing our products.”

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