Have you ever read the side panel of a box of fruit-flavored gelatin dessert mix? One box of jelling mix stiffens two cups of liquid -- that means there is one tablespoon of powdered gelatin in the box. What else do you suppose is filling up that package? Sugar, an incredible amount, artificial color (did we really grow up thinking strawberries were day-glo red?), artificial flavor (some children have never tasted fresh peaches, or that dessert mold would never fool them), and several chemicals to stabilize, sweeten, tarten or otherwise alter the flavor and texture of the gel.

Is all this really necessary?

Did you ever wonder what people did for gelatin molds before Madison Avenue made this product into a household word? Gelatin is a perfectly natural product. It is a protein that is extracted by boiling bones and hooves of animals, then dried and powdered. You can buy unflavored, unsweetened gelatin in packages containing one tablespoon each in almost every supermarket, and in some natural food stores you can buy gelatin powder by the pound.

The easiest way to make a flavored gelatin for your family is to purchase a bottle of one of your favorite pulp-free juices (grape or apple work very well). Place 1/2 cup of juice in a small saucepan and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of gelatin powder over it. Allow to sit and soften, about 5 minutes. Now warm juice over very low heat for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring until gelatin dissolves. Stir in 1 1/2 cups more juice, blend well with a spoon, and pour into individual dishes or a single bowl and chill for several hours.

Delicious gelatin salads can be made by adding chopped apples and celery to exotic juice gels. The shelves of natural-food stores will inspire you -- pomegrantae, papaya, raspberry-apple, strawberry-apple, cranberry, tropical juice blends with no artificial colors or flavors. If these more pulpy juices and their cloudy gelatin results are unappealing to your family, strain them through cheesecloth before blending with gelatin. Or use these cloudy juices for whipped desserts or mousses.

To whip a gelatin mold, chill just until slightly thick, then beat with an electric mixer or a rotary beater until light and frothy. Return to mold or dishes. For a mousse, stir 1 cup of stiffly whipped cream into a partially set 2-cup gel. In either of these cases, the gelatin should be slightly thicker than a raw egg white before beating, or the gel will revert back to its clear texture before setting.

Fresh and frozen juices can be used also when making gelatin molds, except that if you use pineapple juice it must be canned or boiled to eliminate an enzyme that keeps the gelatin from stiffening. For small children, a finger food can be made by doubling the quantity of gelatin powder used -- 2 tablespoons for 2 cups of juice. Make certain the gelatin is thoroughly dissolved in half of the juice before stirring in the other half, then refrigerate in a straight-sided pan. Slice into squares when firm. This finger gelatin stays firm at room temperature for a long time, and is great for birthday parties. Grape and apple still seem to be the most popular flavors.

Any recipe calling for a box of commercial gelatin mix can be used with regular gelatin powder and sufficient additional sweetening. Flavor your cake, or pudding, or whatever it is you are preparing, with a tablespoon of fruit concentrate, available in many flavors from natural food stores.

My favorite gelatin desserts are made with fresh citrus fruits. Lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit all can be made with the addition of a little honey and salt into a juice that is then thickened with gelatin powder. Try tangerines for variety. Add chopped fruit, nut meats or sunflower seed to the partially thickened gel. Grate a little citrus rind in, too, for tartness.

You can make a mint gel as a basis for fruit salads, too, by pouring 1 1/2 cups of boiling waterover 1/4 cup crushed mint leaves. Let steep for 5 minutes and strain. Use this mint tea, sweetened if you prefer with 2 or 3 tablespoons honey, as you would fruit juice in the above recipes. This gelatin makes a good base for molded vegetable salads.

But here is my favorite: LEMON CARROT GELATIN SALAD (4 servings) 1 cup water 1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin Juice of 3 lemons Rind of 1 lemon, grated 1/3 cup honey 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 medium carrot

Sprinkle gelatin over 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Allow to soak for 5 minutes, then bring to slow simmer over low heat. Stir to dissolve. Remove from heat. Stir in honey, salt and lemon rind. Measure lemon juice; add enough water to equal 1 cup. Stir into gelatin mixture. Pour into 1 pint mold.

Refrigerate for about 1 hour, or until gel is about the texture of raw egg white. Grate carrot into mold; stir gently to distribute. Chill for another 2 to 3 hours, until set. Serve on crisp greens.