A SERIES OF eight full-page General Foods ads are either a "legitimate and conscientious effort" to get nutrition infromation to the public or a "distraction from the fact" that the company "produces a whole range of nutritionally worthless products."

The ads ran in nine cities this spring and summer in conjunction with the Dietary Guidelines published by the federal government. Reaction to them has been mixed. Some government agencies have given qualified approval to the effort.

General Foods reproduced the dietary guidelines, underline certain points, numbered them and then interpreted the guidelines in the margins of the ads.

The headline on the first ad read: "Sane Talk About Food and Your Health." This was followed by a note that "U.S. health officials release important new guidelines that can affect your diet for life. Start reading them below. They are reprinted for you by General Foods."

Peggy Kohl, vice president for consumer affairs, says the company decided to run the ads, part of their annual $400 million advertising budget, because they were consistent with the nutrition principles we uphold -- variety, balance and moderation." The chairman of the board, James Ferguson, put it another way, He told the trade journal Advertising Age that "GF had been looking for ways to go public with a strong nutritional campaign for a long time but the issue had been hung up on a 'good foods' versus 'bad foods' confrontation. as a marketer of highly processed manufactured food and desserts, GF could not win under those rules."

Ferguson said "variety, balance and moderation" suited GF. "'Not every food or beverage nourishes, but every product has a role, and all products are there because people want them . . . Awareness of good nutrition is not going to hurt us.'

Micahel Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a long time critic of General Foods, sees nutrition as the good guys versus the bad. "General Foods is a producer of junk foods," Jacobson contends. By running the ads, he says, "they are attempting to associate themselves with good nutrition. It's sort of innocence by association."

Joan Gussow, chairman of the program in nutrition at Columbia University Teachers College, is not quite as critical: "I think some of what they've done is useful. Unfortunately, where it most directly relates to their food and where they might damage themselves the most is where you find them hedging and using what I call diversionary writing."

Gussow is referring to two of the eight ads, those that deal with sodium and sugar, particualrly sugar.

The givernment guidelines make the point that each American uses over 130 pounds of sugars and other sweeteners every year. "This means the risk of tooth decay is increased not only by the sugar in the sugar bowl but by the sugar and syrups in jams, jellies, candies, cookies, soft drinks, cakes and pies as well as sugars found in products such as breakfast cereals, catsup, flavored milks and ice creams."

General Foods' comments on the first of the italicized points: "Is sugar that nature put there better than the sugar that is added to food? Many people think that naturally occuring sugar is better than added sugar. It is not. Fruits and honey contains both sucrose (table sugar) and other kinds of sugars. Your body appears to use all these sugars in much the same way, whether they come from nature or are added to food by man."

Gussow describes the company's comment as "a slipping away from and making a point that is less damaging to processed foods."

Says Jacobson: "General Foods makes an entirely different point. The government is not talking about whether naturally occuring sugars are better." On the contrary Jacobson said, "naturally occurring sugars are better because of the company they keep."

Linda Smith, nutritionist for Community Nutrition Institute, says General Foods' statements is "misleading because the sugar in products that is there naturally is usually less dense in relation to the other nutrients and fiber than the sugar added to foods, with the exception of things like dried fruits. When you add sugar to a product you are getting much more sugar and you could decrease it." In other words, with few exceptions, naturally occuring sugar is accompanied by more nutrients and fiber than sugar added to processed food.

Asked about the nutritional value of products such as Jell-O, Kool Aid Cool Whip, which contain few if any nutrients beyond sugar, Peggy Kohl says, "In a product such as Jell-O, you know how often it is served with fruits and vegetables and it is a refreshing dessert at the end of a meal. Cool Whip has very little in it but it is used as a topping for other foods, many of which carry nutrients."

Commenting on the second italicized point from the government guidelines, General Foods writes: "Are sugars in packaged food products such as breakfast cereals, catsup, flavored milks and ice cream more cavity-causing than sugars in other foods? As far as cavities are concerned, the form of the food and the pattern of consumption are what's important.

"For instance, dental studies show that cereals, including pre-sweetened cereals, do not increase the risk of cavities."

Both Gussow and Jacobson say the studies on which that statement are based were performed for companies with a vested interest in sugared cereals and claim they are "worthless." More recently, the National Institute of Dental Research has shown that in a rat-feeding study pre-sweetened cereals caused as many cavities as straight table sugar. (Oreo cookies caused 1 1/2 times as many cavities.)

The guidelines advise people to "Read food labels for clues on sugar content . . ."

General Foods takes off from that point to say: "Sugar is quite dense and therefore takes up less space than most other ingredients in a product. For example, when you read a pre-sweetened cereal label, sugars often rank high in the ingredient list by weight, but actually sugar takes up only a small proportion of the cereal in the bowl or the box."

"The problem with that," says Gusow is that "you ought to be comparing the density of spun sugar with the density of the cereal grain because the grain has been all puffed up with air. One of the reasons pre-sweets have a lower level of protein than other cereals is because the sugar displaces the cereal grain."

To Jacobson, General Foods and the government aren't talking about the same thing. The government is saying "watch out for different ways sugar is listed on the label. General Foods offers a brief trying to excuse the large amounts of sugar in food, i.e., even if it looks like a large amount it really may not be that much."

Says Kohl, "The amount of sugar helps keep the cereal crisp and the sugar is evenly distributed. When you measure it in grams per serving you are at 2 or 3 level measuring teaspoons."

When you measure the sugar pre-sweetened cereals in percentage terms you come out with figures such as 40, 50 and 60 percent.

The sodium ad is not open to as much criticism as the sugar ad, but some nutritionists still have problems with it.

The government's guidelines say: "Sodium is also present in many beverages and foods that we eat, especially in certain processed foods."

General Foods comments: "Do you get sodium from 'natural' foods and drink as well as from 'processed' foods? Meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese and other dairy products, and other foods from animal sources are relatively high in sodium well before you add seasonings to them."

"USDA emphasized processed foods," notes Jacobson. "General Foods emphasizes natural foods. One-quarter to half of all salt in the diet comes from processed foods."

General Foods says the fastest way to cut back on sodium is to use less salt at the table. Gussow says the comapny's "whole emphasis is on the use of salt in the salt shaker. That's very deceptive. The salt in processed food is where people don't know they are getting it. People know that potato chips and ham have a lot of salt, but they don't realize about condiments and sauces and other things."

In the ad which discusses alcohol, the company asks if alcohol has any nutritional value and says: "It contains no nutrients aside from calories."

Asked why General Foods didn't say the same thing about sugar, Kohl says:

"I can't give you any sensible answer to that. It certainly wasn't deliberate."

Kohl says most of the comments they have received about the ads have been "highly favorable from academia, nutritionists and consumers."

Says Assistant Agriculture Secretary Carol Foreman, "I am delighted they are running ads. It's far preferable to having them say 'Hell no, we won't go. We don't want government to say anything about nutrition." But Foreman adds, "I wish there were some other group that could also buy ads, like the College of Preventive Medicine or Society for Nutrition Education, and comment on the General Foods ad because I think the public would benefit."

Kate Clancy, a nutritionist with the Federal Trade Commission, says the ads are "a legitimate and conscientious effort to get nutrition information to the public." But she says, "if a single company is spending money they will want you to get the information they want you to have." FTC has been trying to work with private industry to fund some sort of nutrition education campaign.

Says Al Kramer, director of Ftc's bureau of consumer protection, "Without specifically endorsing those ads the idea of disseminating the Dietary Guidelines is something we would want to encourage, but not necessarily the way they were written."

Jacobson remains unconvinced. "The point that is coming across to a lot of people is that General Foods is concerned about nutrition. In professional circles this will have a much greater effect. They will think of General Foods as a concerned corporation, a company with a heart and will be distracted from the fact that it produces Jell-O, Kool Aid, sugar-coated breakfast cereals and a whole range of other nutritionally worthless foods."