The 50-kilo industrial drums rolling off the assembly line here have been shipped for decades to a global medical supplier of hospital IV fluids. Lately, though, this manufacturing site in Raleigh has been making a proprietary superfine white powder, which resembles confectioners sugar, for a different application: It’s the core ingredient for a new energy drink that on Sunday will make its national debut in more than 1,500 Target stores.
The drink, Amino Vital, is made by Ajinomoto, a Japanese company that has made pharmacy-grade amino acids in Raleigh for 35 years, but only dabbled in consumer sales of what many see as the next blockbuster health booster.
Amino acids are the chemical building blocks used by our cells to build needed proteins. They can be found in foods such as nuts, steak, cheese and eggs, but can also be extracted from plants and converted to powders. They’ve become popular with endurance athletes and weightlifters, and some nutrition and supplement companies are using Ajinomoto’s amino acids in their protein drinks.
Last year, Ajinomoto took its first stab at getting into the market with powdered formulations through costco.com, but the products were pulled after not meeting sales goals.
Target represents a second chance in the sports drink wars. The company has less than a year to prove itself.
“We know it has to sell well, or they’ll take it out,” said Jerry Piercy Jr., Ajinomoto’s associate director and business manager in Raleigh. “Target has goals for every section of their store. There’s obviously a long line of companies trying to get in there.”
Amino acid sales are not tracked specifically, but U.S. dietary supplement sales are expected to increase in the coming years, in large part because aging baby boomers are expected to create a surge in demand for health products that preserve muscle tone and mental clarity in advancing years, according to the Zion Market Research Firm.
Ajinomoto officials believe the key to Amino Vital’s success is getting the energy drink – which comes in blueberry, lemon and grape flavors – into the hands of non-hardcore athletes as a performance enhancer for everyday living, including kids involved in sports and older active adults.
Anyone who gives Amino Vital a try will not necessarily be a stranger to Ajinomoto’s products. The 100-year-old company is the world’s largest producer of aspartame, the artificial sweeter. It also developed the commercial production process for MSG, the flavor enhancer that’s fully written out as monosodium glutamate. Ajinomoto is the world’s largest producer of MSG and amino acids, as well.
Ajinomoto also sells frozen food brands José Olé, Tai Pei, Fred’s and Bernadi’s among others through its California subsidiary, Ajinomoto Windsor, acquired for about $800 million in 2014.
Ajinomoto’s promotional materials say that drinking about 16 ounces of Amino Vital will deliver an energy boost and mental alertness without the jolt of sugar or caffeine; drinking more Amino Vital after a workout will help sore muscles recover and rebuild faster.
That’s not the scientific consensus on the benefits of drinking amino acids. Gabriel Keith Harris, a professor at N.C. State University’s Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences Department, said amino acids are known to help people who have digestive problems and need supplementary nutrition. Harris said an extra dose of amino acids could potentially help athletes, but it’s not clear how they benefit an ordinary person who gets plenty of protein in a well-rounded diet.
Harris said the scientific research on the benefits of amino acids is scant, with small samples of people who take amino acids for short periods of time.
His colleague, nutrition professor Sarah Ash, said the anecdotal benefits of amino acids could be nothing more than a placebo effect.
Piercy said that the health benefits of amino acids are backed up by more than 60 years of scientific research and that Amino Vital has scientific studies to support the claims made on its package.
Ajinomoto opened its Raleigh manufacturing site in 1982, the result of a trip to Japan by then-Gov. Jim Hunt, who was promoting the state for Japanese business investment. The Amino Vital division, which was selling online and in specialty stores, moved to Raleigh in 2010 from Ajinomoto’s New Jersey office, which permanently closed April 1. Today the company employs more than 200 people at its Raleigh plant, which operates round-the-clock and provides free amino acid drinks to workers to improve their performance on the production line.
Ajinomoto’s amino acids are made from stalks and leaves that arrive in Raleigh in the form of liquid glucose, which is fermented to produce an amino acid broth, which is then filtered and purified into a white powder. The facility hisses and wheezes with oversize tanks and vats in various stages of amino acid production.
Amino Vital will be sold in Target at $19.99 a canister, with each canister containing 14 powder packets to make 14 drinks, or about a month’s supply. The first 15,000 canisters have been shipped to a Target distribution center, and the next batch is in production.
Ajinomoto is responsible for its own product promotion and will offer temporary price cuts and free samples at some 300 Target stores. Ajinomoto will also promote Amino Vital at sporting events and health and fitness expos, where sports junkies congregate.
“They really had to seek it out before,” said Ben Schoff, a Minnesota broker who lined up Ajinomoto with Target, said of customers who bought the product online or in specialty stores. “Now they have the convenience of being able to walk into a store in every state. Or they can order from Target.com and have it shipped to them.”