There are miles and miles of products and equipment at the annual Food Marketing Institute convention which offer a wonderful overview of today's retail and wholesale food industry.

In some ways it's back in the dark ages: Sex symbols in scanty costumes hawk a lot of the wares; men line up to have their pictures taken with a Playboy bunny.

The men who staff the displays always ask: "Can we help you girls?" But underneath these selling techniques, certain to put off professional women in the trade, serious business is going on.

What the food industry perceives as the public's demands is what there is plenty of: Products which appear to be selling nutrition, safety and health. Never mind if the industry's perceptions are not always accurate.

products labeled as "natural" or "preservative-free" abounded.

"Fresh & Natural" is ITT's latest entry into the bread market. Large letters on the wheat bread label proclaim: "No chemical or artificial presrevatives, 100 percent natural ingredients, 100 percent natural fiber," the latter probably an acknowledgement that the source of fiber in their Fresh Horizons bread is powdered wood pulp. Wheat bread is made of white flour and whole wheat flour.

The enriched white bread label reads: "No chemical or artificial preservatives, 8 natural ingredients plus unbleached enriched flour."

Steak Tonight, beef which has been flaked and formed into the shape of a steak, has "No Preservatives Added."

"We do not add any preservatives or coloring agents for eye-appeal since the best product is a natural product," says the label. Some might disagree with their definition of natural since Steak Tonight contains hydrolized vegetable protein, a flavor enhancer.

Bridgeford's frozen Honey Wheat bread dough is a new product developed in response to "young people who like the health thing and older people who see the bulk," says a salesman at the exhibit. The primary ingredient, however, is white flour. The label now says "No Preservatives Added." There never were.

Hawaii's own Passion-Orange Punch is also "All Natural." It's also only 10 percent orange juice. The primary ingredient is water.

La Naturalle-Truly Natural Nonfat Yogurt is the first Swiss yogurt in the U.S. without a chemical stabilizer. The promotional literature says: "The word natural is one which has been misused to the extent that it has lost its true meaning, but we added Truly Natural to denote its genuine significance." The yogurts are colored with beet juice and turmeric.

Lender's has two new bagels no the market: Wheat 'n' Honey and Raisin 'n' Honey. Both have "No preservatives added." Both are "New 'N Natural." The former is also "Hi-Fiber."

White Rock's Iced Tea Mix is "Natural Lemon Flavor." Minute Maid Lemonade Crystals "contain(s) no artificial flavors or colors."

Rondele, the American version of French triple creme, a very rich cream cheese, is "100 percent natural. There's no gum, processing or tartness," according to its promotional literature.

Smucker's has a Natural Peanut Butter, "containing only peanuts and salt."

"One of the key objectives of the promotional effort is to educate the consumer about the unique qualities of the product: that it is all natural, that it contains no artificial ingredients nor preservatives, no stabilizers or homogenizers, and that it must be stirred before using," says the literature which accompanies the free samples.

Dolly Madison has gone into the all natural ice cream, ice cream novelty and frozen yogurt lines in a big way. In addition, it is selling "all natural flavor" ice milk. All natural flavor should not be confused with an all natural product, though it often is.

The company tells prospective buyers that these products are necessary because of "consumer concern over food additives . . . All natural has also come to mean higher quality and more care in manufacture."

Cera-Meal, "a complete infant food containing wheat cereal, infant formula and mixed fruit" contains "no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives."

Shrimp-Mates from Treasure Isle are "100 percent shrimp meat - no artificial binders or fillers."

Van Brode, a small cereal company that does no advertising and sells a cheaper product than its well-known competitors, "relies exclusively on the most select natural ingredients to make naturally delicious cereals. No artificial flavoring or coloring. No chemicals or preservatives. Van Brode cereals are made by nutritionists, not chemists."

Some new Van Brode cereals are also sugar-frosted.

The low-calorie, low-cholesterol market has not been neglected either.

Diet Lite Pizza, which, incidentally, contains "no artificial anything," comes in three varieties: beef sausage, cheese and mushroom and cheese. Asked what made the pizzas low calorie, the young woman staffing the booth said that because the crust contained whole wheat flour it contained fewer calories. She was incorrect. However the toppings are made from skim milk cheese.

Yogurt pie from Sara Lee is "low in cholesterol, contains no artificial sweeteners" with "only 120 calories per serving."

Low-sugar spreads, i.e., imitation jams and jellies, are on the market from Smucker's because "there's been a lot of bad publicity about sugar," said one of the Smuckers, an owner of the firm.

Slim Set is a jelling mix for "homemade jam and jelly without sugar."

Vitamite, imitation low fat milk and chocolate milk is targeted to those who cannot drink milk. It should not be confused with low-cholesterol products since they contain hydrogenated coconut fat.

Then there are new products aimed at the expanding ethnic market, interest in convenience products and cost-cutting items.

In the tremendous market for Mexican fods, one item is meant for appeal even to those who might think they don't like Mexican food: Mexican Style Pizza. There are several varieties, made on a thick flour tortilla. The toppings are thickly Mexican: refried beans, Monterey Jack cheese, jalapeno peppers, enchilada and taco seasonings.

Two manufacturers of kosher foods have gone into the frozen convenience line and are gearing their products to the non-Jewish market. "A lot of people, rightly or wrongly, think our food is cleaner," said an official of Kineret Foods Corp., "because of the rabbinical supervision."

In addition to traditional chopped liver, potato latkes and gefulte fish, these companies are selling bagel pizzas, yogurt, fish stick dinners, glazed donuts and onion rings.

A manufacturer of frozen orange drink concentrate whose packaging is similar to Minute Maid is selling a product that contains only 50 percent orange juice.

Another juice company, Tropicana, is marketing juice drinks that contain only 15 to 20 percent juice, a departure from its pure juice image. A salesman for the company said it worried him a bit because "our name was built on pure juice but this is a little cheaper."

Then there's Color Corn, popcorn that has been colored artifically to produce a red, orange, yellow and green effect when popped.

The manufacturers of Heartland Granola have gone the granola market one better. Now they are puffing their granola, much like traditional puffed cereals.

Products for in-store bakery counters were everywhere. There are frozen doughs that need only a rising and a baking to finish; mixes that must be combined with other ingredients before baking and already baked goods. In order to counter the move to fast foods, many supermarkets are expanding their bakery departments but few of them are baking from scratch.

The answer to the canning lid shortage of a few years ago has been the creatrion of canning lid rings made of plastic and aluminum: they don't rust and are supposed to be just as durable as the standard variety.

"Ovenable paperboard" is the industry's answer to disposable containers for use in microwave cooking.

What happens to the thousands of dollars worth of display material that hasn't been given away as free samples during the convention? If you were so inclined, and a lot of conventioneers seemed to be, you could furnish an entire house with everything but the furniture and large appliances by engaging in the free-for-all that begins about two hours before the exhibition hall closes. People could be seen carrying plastic clothes baskets filled to overflowing with magazines, light bulbs, food samples, measuring sticks, pot holders, plastic collapsible drinking cups, even greeting cards. One woman swept the Mother's Day cards off the display even though few people are likely to have more than one mother plus a mother-in-law.

One woman with six shopping bags of goodies said she was driving back to Arkansas so there would be plenty of room. But another man, only half kidding, said he and his wife were flying home commercial; the loot was being transported on a chartered plane.