Al Saldarini is director of flavor research for the Norda Company. We sit beneath a marquee emblazoned "Next to Nature, Norda" at the company's display booth. Along with 260 other corporations. Norda has come to the Dallas Convention Center to attend the 38th Annual Meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists. The center's exhibition hall is filled with about 4,500 food technologists (FT's) who mill around the elaborate display booths, watching promotional movies and slides, collecting free samples, glancing at brochures and inspecting the various appurtenances of the industry whose job it is to flavor, color, fumigate, texturize, moisturize, stablilize, emulsify, propel, preserve, sequester, dehydrate, rehydrate, fortify, leaven, bleach, crisp and ripen the food we eat.

"Do you want to be really daring?" asks Saldarini, giving me a fraternal wink and taking a small bottle out of the cardboard box on the table before him.

"Here. Try this." He inserts a thin paper wand into the bottle and hands it to me, "a dab, just a dab on your tongue."

I brush my tongue with the most infinitesimal drop of the clear liquid on the wand. Slowly, my mouth fills with the strange intense glow of a disembodied peach.

Saldarini wears a black pencil mustache, a string tie, blue blazer, striped pants and two-tone, glossy plastic shoes. He is one of the nation's 200 or so "flavor chemists."

"It is an art," says Saldarini triumphantly. "It takes a good flavor chemist to get that peachiness, someone who might earn $60,000 a year. These are your topdrawer people. They're just like artists who can draw and paint. We can produce any flavor synthetically. Synthetics just explore what Mother Nature has already done," he continues, shrugging. "I know 'chemical' has become a dirty word. And we're attacked all the time on the basis of being 'artificial.' But even natural flavors are chemicals. It's all just a question of chemicals."

He pauses and puts his peach vial back into the box, which is filled with other flavor samples: asparagus, mango, lima bean.

"Take ginger. They used to grow it in Jamaica for ginger ale. But now these countries have tourists. They don't want to grow ginger. We just can't buy natural botanics the way we used to. Cherry bark for cherry extract is the same. And it's much more economical to use artificials. You don't need to refrigerate. No insect infestations. You don't have the bulk to ship. I'd hate to tell you about the bacteria and mold in some of this natural stuff."

While products using synthetic flavoring are required by the Food and Drug Administration to be labeled "artificially flavored," manufacturers are not required to list the specific artificial ingredients. The FDA has been criticized by consumer advocates for this loophole in its labeling regulations. The additive industry, however, defends the present FDA labeling policy, claiming that flavor chemistry is constantly refining and improving flavors, and that it would be impractical to print new labels each time a change is made.

"What about artificial flavors?"

"We make fragrances as well as flavors," says Saldarini, neatly dodging my question and reaching back into his box of potions.

He quickly extracts another vial and passes it in front of my nose.

"Did you get it? Did you get a whiff of that?" he asks.

The odor of honeydew melon, abnormally pungent, fills the air.

"No one really uses a honeydew fragrance. We just wanted to show we could do it," says Saldarini, smiling rakishly.

"We analyze the real thing, then synthesize it. We make all kinds of fragrances: fruit, coffee, pine. I don't know any fragrance we can't make. Most people just think of fragrances like in milady's toilet water. But we make fragrances that go into detergents, shampoos, deodorants, lip potions, cosmetics. Hey, have you ever noticed the way the inside of a new car smells? Sometimes these natural plastics smell real bad. Like we make babies' plastic pants smell good.

"And just look to the future," he adds. "Who will eat all that fish meal and soy flour without flavor and aroma? It tastes like hell!"

Slides of graphs, charts and math computations blink onto a screen at the front of the darkened meeting hall. Dr. Bernard Oser, a food technologist from New York, delivers the opening remarks for one of the Institute of Food Technologists' most controversial symposia, Benefit/Risk: Consideration of Direct Food Additives .

"We must accept the fact that consumers will not tolerate, without a struggle, denial of their rights to hamburgers, bacon, frenchfried potatoes, peanuts and alcoholic and artificially-sweetened beverages," solemnly intones Oser, as if enshrining a junk-food bill of rights.

The people here in the additive business criticize the present Food and Drug Administration regulations that force officials to ban substances because of a "possible" cancer risk, while overlooking the benefits that some substances may bestow on some or all users. Whether approving or banning an additive, the FDA is bound by the Delaney clause of the food additives amendment to the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This clause specifies that it is the FDA is duty to ban any additive that tests show may be cancer-causing to humans. The FDA is granted no latitude to weigh benefits against risks. Nor is it permitted to overlook a chemical substance in a given food, which is present in such a small amount as to be negligible. So not only is the FDA left with no way to integrate benefit/risk into its decisions on banning an additive, but the state of the art of finding a given agent in food, through sophisticated gas chromatographers and mass spectrometers, has meant that FDA officials can now detect parts per billion or trillion rather than parts per thousand or million.

Such developments have caused the additives and food-processing industries to lobby with even more fervor for replacing the old Delaney clause with new criteria that balance benefit against risk. But, of course, when food technologists speak of "benefits," they are not just talking about a substance like saccharin, which some people use because they can't eat sugar for medical reasons, or preservatives, which keep foods from spoiling and prevent disease. They also are talking about coloring, flavoring and texturizing agents, which promote "product acceptability." As Dr. Amihud Kramer, professor of food sciences from the University of Maryland and another Benefits/Risk symposium speaker puts it, these "benefits" include "assisting a food buyer in arriving at the key decision, 'to buy or not to buy' and 'to eat or not to eat.'"

Besides complaining about the public's obsession with cancer, food technologists also dislike one of the FDA's current methods of testing additives -- by feeding large quantities of them to laboratory rats. They point out that feeding rats massive doses of a given agent and then assuming that the agent alone is the cause of ensuing symptoms is a fallacy. Such methodology completely overlooks the more subtle interplay between the test substance and any number of other substances also ingested by the animal in his food, air, water or environment. A test animal may become diseased because of an "antagonistic" or "synergistic" effect caused by one substance reacting with another. But since there is almost an infinite number of antagonistic or synergistic combinations, there would have to be an infinite number of tests, a system that the food technologists would find no more workable than their critics would find the benefit/risk equation. As one technologist muttered to me under his breath at the end of a long discussion of new testing procedures, "What this country needs is a stronger white rat."

It is late afternoon, and I have been cruising the exhibit hall for hours. My mouth is confused by all the free samples I have been eating. I feel like a wine taster who has tried too many vintages. I also need a cup of coffee.

Attracted by two silver urns surrounded by uniformed waitresses, I walk over to a large display booth laid out like a small cafe. A placard above the entrance says ICI Americas (Imperial Chemical Industries), The Perfect Bearclaw. Behind the coffee urn, the words Span, Tandem, Tween, Muncol, Sorbo, Crystalline Sorbitol are written in large, colorful block letters. I have the sense of being in a non-English-speaking country.

"Let me get you a Perfect Bearclaw and some coffee," one of the waitresses says, scooping a flat piece of yellow pastry with apple topping out of a foil-lined cardboard box.

I pour the contents of a sugar-like packet into my coffee. The label introduces it as an ICI low-calorie, high-fructose, artificial cornbased sweetener. I reach for the cream or, more accurately, the "non-dairy coffee creamer."

I look down at my Perfect Bearclaw waiting on an ICI napkin. It does indeed look perfect, although not appetizing. Like so much else in this room, the Perfect Bearclaw is, in its way, a work of art. Like a photograph or a painting, it is a cloned bearclaw -- the marvelous progeny of that uniquely American need to imitiate reality by artificial means.

I take a bite. It is not unpalatable. My most distinct impression, however, is not one of taste, but of feel. The Perfect Bearclaw seems capable of defying those natural forces that work on a normal piece of pastry. It has no body timber. I lean it up against my coffee cup, and it wants to sag around the curvature of the cup as if it were Silly Putty.

I chew another piece. It is completely eventextured. There is no crust -- no hardened flaky surface that one almost unconsciously accepts in normal pastry. There is an all-pervasive moistness about this Perfect Bearclaw, which suggests it would not grow stale even in scorching desert heat.

I half-finish my Bearclaw and coffee. There is a lingering sweet-bitter taste in my mouth, which slowly becomes more and more intense.

Just as I am about to leave, Robert Marsh, ICI's corporate advertising supervisor, comes over and sits down.

"Hi, there," he says. "I saw you taking notes and thought I might be able to help you."

I ask him what main functions ICI's additives serve in food technology business.

"Well, take surfactants," he says. "Surface active agents. We make 'em. For instance, oil and water don't like to mix, do they? That's why they used to use egg white. It has lecithin in it, and it binds up the oil and water. When you want to build a food for sale, you run into its natural limitations. But I hate that word 'natural,'" he says, laughing quickly -- not thrilled to have even mentioned it. "I don't like that word because everything is natural. But now, if you bake a cake with eggs and if you haven't sold it the day you bake it, you're in trouble. It gets stale.

"Well, you've gone beyond the ability of your old cake recipe to meet your need. Then, let's say, you want to expand your sales territory. You've got to move that cake long distances. You've got to maintain the integrity of the product. So you get a surfactant, Polysorbate 60 (a solid-state, edible vegetable fat-water emulsion used in baked goods, frozen desserts and imitation dairy products as a substitute for milk and cream). We call it Span. It will help you bake a cake that will be almost the raises a finger and smiles) as good as the cake you used to bake for your neighborhood." He does not mention that Polysorbate 60 is one of many additives that the FDA has targeted for further study.

"Regular bread gets stale. Even in a humidifier, bread will get stale. And if you're baking hamburger rolls in Baltimore to supply the East Coast, you can't afford staleness. Let's face it. The greatest economy is mass production. I can afford to buy Arnold's and Pepperidge Farm. But most people can't.

"I love homemade bread," he adds after a pause, as if he knew that tactically it was time to sound some notes in harmony with the socalled natural world. "My wife still makes it with unbleached flour and all that jazz. But, hey," he says, changing course again, "have you ever noticed that when you bake bread at home no two loaves look the same? Well, we need uniform loaves for packaging. Some of our products will help."

"What would happen if we left this bearclaw right here on the table for a week?" I ask, pointing at the half-eaten piece of pastry before me.

"Well, says Marsh, "they were baked in Chicago two and a half weeks ago and frozen. Now, when it's thawed, it will remain fresh for about four days. Then the moisture will start migrating to the surface, like from the apple chunks to the pastry, and it will get mushy. Surfactants break down the surface tension between oil and water molecules."

"How does that work?" I ask.

"How does it work?" repeats Marsh, throwing his head back and laughing. "Well, now I'm getting in over my head. Can I send you something on it? That's 'cereal science.' The average person doesn't realize there is 'dairy science,' 'baking science' and so on. That's why we have these specialists. I mean food isn't simple anymore."

It is easy to forget that, even in the United States, it was not always as it is now. In the last quarter of a century, American ingestion of synthetic chemicals has dramatically increased to become a $485-million annual business. The amount of additives consumed by the average American has almost doubled since 1970 alone -- from a yearly average of five pounds to nine pounds. And each year, 4 million pounds of certified dyes end up in processed foods and the human stomach -- 16 times the amount in 1940.

From the inside of this convention hall filled with food technology, the Norman Rockwell scene of the beaming family sitting down for Sunday dinner around a dinning-room table adorned with a wholesome-looking roast, a bowl of vegetables, a dish of potatoes and a bottle of real milk seems as remote as milk bottles themselves. Almost nothing here suggests this concrete reality of food. Food itself to the technologists is almost a secondary consideration, a pesky raw material awaiting processing, like coal, iron or timber.

Coloring, flavor, aroma have become not natural phenomena but challenges for the food technologists to work out in their elaborate quest to transform one kind of foodstuff into a product that looks like another. And slowly, this food technology sleight-of-hand has created a gastronomical world in which processed food has become more natural in the minds of those who eat it than is unprocessed food.