Commercially prepared baby foods have been making headlines lately. Questions have been raised about their cleanliness, safety, nutritional value and price.

The most recent story appeared in The Washington Post on Jan. 6 under the headline: "Beech-Nut Seeks 'Natural' Share of Baby Food Pie."

That was the day the Baker/Beech-Nut company, which has 15 per cent of this country's baby food market, announced that it would no longer add salt to its products and that it would "eliminate added sugar from all but the products which require sweetening to balance natural acids." In addition, the company said: "We add no preservatives, no artificial colors, no artificial flavors and no flavor enhancers of any kind because they are not needed."

Beech-Nut's announcement brought immediate response from the other major manufacturers of baby food. Gerber and Heinz, who felt the public might "misunderstand" the significance of the action.

Beech-Nut's action is commendable, especially in light of the Senate Nutrition Committee report, which says if Americans want to live longer and have fewer nutrition-related health problems they must reduce their consumption of salt by 50 to 85 per cent and their comsumption of sugar by almost 40 per cent. But in fact, Beech-Nut Baby Foods has eliminated sugar from only four of its fruits, and will continue to offer these same varieties - applesauce, pears, peaches and pears, peaches and pears with pineapple - with sugar as well. According to the company's new products marketing manager, Peter Faber, the sugar-free fruits will only be "available on a limited basis."

Desserts will continue to contain sugar, though the amount will be reduced by as much as 50 per cent, according to Faber. No product will contain more than 9 per cent sugar, he said.

Earlier, Beech-Nut, which makes 131 products, had eliminated sugar from all of its fruit juices, cereals and some vegetables that had contained it, such as sweet potatoes and carrots. More startling then the removal of sugar however, is the discovery that the company felt it necessary to add sugar to vegetables at all, a practice engaged in by all three of the baby food manufacturers.

The removal of the salt from the products follows a recommendation made almost eight years ago by Dr. Jean Mayer, then professor of nutrition at Harvard University. Mayer, now president of Tufts University, said that salt is unnecessary and was added only for the benefit of the mother's taste buds, not the baby's.

In announcing the changes in the product composition the company implied that its foods once contained artificial colors and flavors as well as flavor enhancers. Faber said, "There were no artificial colors or flavors before and we never had any flavor enhancers."

The elimination of bacon and ham products containing sodium nitrite from the company's line of products was not mentioned in its press release but Faber said that had been done "a couple of years ago."

Shortly after Beech-Nut's announcement, the chairman of the board of the Gerber Products Company sent a Mailgram to the press stating that "information released earlier this week regarding natural baby foods may have led to serious misunderstandngs." Gerber has a 70 per cent share of the market.

The chairman, John Suerth, went on to say that of Gerber's almost 150 baby food products, there are 89 products without added sugar and 54 products without added salt. In addition Suerth said: "No Gerber baby foods contain any preservatives, artificial color or flavor enhancers. They are not needed."

In fact, until sometimes last year, the flavor enhancer hydrolized vegetable protein was used in at least four of Gerber's toddler foods, Beef and Rice, Beef Stew, Chicken Stew and Vegetable Turkey Casserole. Products containing it may still be found on grocery store shelves.

Gerber, like Beech-Nut, has eliminated sugar from four of its fruit - applesauce with bananas, pears, pears with pineapple and applesauce. The other fruits products continue to contain sugar. Unlike Beech-Nut, Gerber is not making a sugared version of these fruits as well. But like its competitor, all its fruit juices are sugar-free. Some of its vegetables, like creamed corn, also contain sugar.

Heinz, which has 15 per cent of the baby food market, is also on the no-salt bandwagon. According to company spokeswoman Beth Adams, "all 108 Heinz varieties will be without added salt. In addition, those without added sugar will increase from 58 to 72." Like the other baby food companies, most of the fruits will continue to contain sugar. Only applesauce, pears and pears with pineapple will be sugar-free. Sugar will be eliminated from the fruit juices and the dry cereals. Wet cereals, packed in jars, will continue to contain sugar. The amount of sugar used in those products which continue to contain it will be reduced. These reformulated products will appear on the grocery store shelves sometime late this year.

As quietly as the other companies eliminated bacon and ham containing sodium nitrite, Heinz did, too.

All these reformulations make it more confusing than ever to decide which, if say, commercially prepared baby food to use. It is more imperative than evern that mothers read the ingredient statements on the labels very carefully. While some Beech-Nut labels say: "Naturally good nothing artifical added," it is necessary to read the ingredients to use if the product contains either sugar or a form of sugar such as corn syrup.

Until Beech-Nut made a big promotional splash with its "Naturally Good" products, the other companies had said very little about the changes they had been making. Their reaction to the Beech-Nut move, however, was that it "isn't anything new."

Why, after years of agitation by such groups as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and nutrition activists, have the baby food companies decided to produce some sugar and salt-free foods? Possibly because baby food sales have been on the decline as mothers have begun to make it at home.

Beech-Nut's vice president for marketing told Advertising Age magazine that the decline in baby food sales was due to customer dissatisfaction.

This dissatisfaction may well be based on reports in the press dealing with the relative economic and nutritional value of homemade versus commercial baby food (homemade is cheaper and more nutritious). Then there was a Consumers Union study that showed that commercial baby food was not as clean as it ought to be. in addition, the fact that lead was leaching from the seams of the baby food cans into the fruit juices came to public attention.

This kind of poor publicity, coupled with the relative ease of making baby food at home with an inexpensive baby food mill or a blender and a rash of cookbooks dealing exclusively with food for babies, may have brought about the drop in sales.

Whatever the reason, manufacturers of baby food are determined to recapture their losses. It is much too early to tell whether or not they have gone far enough in reformulating their products to do so, or whetherit is too late for them to reverse the trend.