NILA WALKER suffers from high blood pressure

Convenience foods contribute to the cuisine of Middle America. From Salem, Ore., to Worthington, Ohio, finalists in the Pillsbury Bake-Off represent a population that turns to prepared foods of all kinds to make everything from dinner to dessert.

But the Pillsbury Bake-Off people say that Middle America is becoming more nutrition conscious. "More whole grains, less red meat, more fruits and vegetables in cooking and baking continued to be evident," said the press release about this year's Bake-Off entries. "But the Pillsbury Company, which analyzes all its own recipes for nutrition and has guidelines for the amount of sodium acceptable," it continued, "found that many of the entries combined a number of high-sodium ingredients."

It appears that Middle American cooks can deal with the fat and sodium they can see, but when the substances are hidden in foods, they don't do as well.

Walker avoids "foods that I know are salty. It's all that hidden salt that gets you. My doctor says the AMA American Medical Association is trying to get more companies to label their products."

Nonetheless, Pillsbury entries were crammed full of canned mushrooms, canned corn, condensed chicken soup, beef broth and cheese (all ingredients that have "hidden salt") not to mention the sodium in the Pillsbury -- and virtually all other -- prepackaged products.

It seems that when you pay to have someone else do the cooking, there are health costs as well. Food processors add not only sodium to their products, but saturated fats as well.

According to those researching food composition for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there can be substantial differences in store-bought and homemade baked products. Homemade biscuits contain 195 milligrams (mg.) of sodium, biscuits baked from a mix (unidentified in tables) contain 262 mg., and (unnamed) refrigerated biscuits contain 349 mg. of sodium per serving. (Safe and adequate dietary sodium is thought to be between 1,000 and 3,000 milligrams daily. Those suffering high blood pressure are usually restricted to 1,000 mg. or below.)

Saturated fats complicate the issue. Food processors can choose from a number of fats in manufacturing their products; usually they rely on on the most available and most economical shortening. Thus exact amounts and combinations are a mystery because they are constantly changing.

By checking labels, a shopper will learn that corn muffins may contain a variety of fats. The biscuits you make from a dry mix could contain beef fat. The refrigerated crescent rolls might contain lard. And blueberry muffins might contain palm oil (a saturated fat which, along with coconut oil, is verboten on a low-cholesterol diet).

There's something to be said for reading labels. Pillsbury seems to be leading the way with its ingredient label panels, which show potassium and sodium content in addition to the conventional calories, protein, fat and carbohydrates. So at least the consumer can make informed choices.

If a shopper reads labels, he will also discover that Flako cornbread mix guarantees soybean oil is the only fat used. Aunt Jemima cornbread mix contains no added saturated fat, but it does contain a small amount of dry egg yolks. While Duncan Hines cakes contain no saturated fats, their bran muffins include palm oil.

In many cases, these ingredients represent superfluous additions to a conventional product. A Pillsbury Bake-Off finalist who uses crescent rolls for a pizza crust adds unnecessary calories and saturated fat to the finished product, which weighs in at a hefty 330 calories and 23 grams of fat per slice. Plain pizza dough is usually made with very little -- and usually not saturated -- additional fat.

Pillsbury finalist Lois Radford is philosophical about her beef pie entry. About the 1,130 mg. of sodium per serving she said, "It's like anything else, you just have to make the trade-off." The trade-off, she noted, means eating lower-sodium foods throughout the day. Her father has high blood pressure, she added, so she has always used caution when adding salt to food. All canned beef broth is really too salty for her tastes, said Radford, and the only time her family eats lots of sodium and sugar is when she buys processed products, which contain "too much salt and sugar."

Unfortunately, the day has not yet arrived that health and covenience pop out of the same package. Having eight rolls instantly at your fingertips with the slightest touch of a spoon compares favorably with mixing, rolling and folding.

The recipes below were tested using canned crescent rolls, homemade ("light style") crescent rolls, biscuits made from an American Heart Association recipe and pie crust made with unsaturated fat. Though the fillings were, by and large, delicious, tasters questioned the necessity of the dough. Nila Walker's Tex-Mex pie, for instance, would be quite good as a casserole topped with a little cheese. Lettuce or blanched cabbage leaves would make a much more appropriate wrapper for the baked egg roll filling.

If the crust still appeals to the cook, then he should use a greater proportion of filling to dough. A crescent wrapped around a tablespoon of filling was judged "too doughy." Keep in mind that one of the most effective antidotes for hypertension and heart disease is weight loss, so use as little dough as possible.

The crescent dinner roll recipe makes a wonderful addition to the repertoire of any dieter. While somewhat time-consuming, the dough refrigerates and freezes beautifully. If you are interested in convenience and low-cholesterol food, substitute flaky biscuit dough for dinner rolls. Consider using low-cholesterol cornmeal crepes or tortillas around the Tex-Mex filling.

Successful Bake-Off entries follow, along with doughs appropriate for special diets.

TEX-MEX BURGER PIE (6 to 8 servings) 1 pound ground beef 1/2 cup chopped onion 1/2 cup chopped green pepper 1 clove garlic, minced 2 teaspoons chili powder 8-ounce can tomato sauce 1 cup chopped tomato (drain if using canned tomatoes) 7-ounce can corn kernels, drained 1/4 pound sliced mushrooms, sauteed

1/2 recipe crescent dinner rolls

1 cup grated monterey jack or cheddar cheese

Brown ground beef in a large skillet and pour off excess drippings. Add onion, green pepper, garlic, chili powder, tomato sauce, tomatoes, corn and mushrooms. Cook until mixture is hot and bubbly. Roll crescent roll dough to about the thickness of pie crust, cut a piece to line the bottom of a 10-inch pie plate or 12-by-8-inch baking dish (this should take about 2/3 of the dough). Remove hamburger mixture from stove, stir in grated cheese and spoon into baking dish. Top with remaining dough, trimming excess. Bake at 375 degrees about 30 minutes, or until dough is golden brown. (As an alternative, forego using the dough, spooning hamburger mixture directly into baking dish. Top with 1/2 cup additional cheese.)

BAKED EGG ROLLS (8 servings) 2 teaspoons soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch 1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger 1 cup uncooked chicken, chopped 1 cup fresh bean sprouts 1/2 cup chopped scallions, tops included 1/4 pound fresh, sliced mushrooms 1 clove fresh garlic, minced 2 tablespoons parsley, minced Flaky biscuit dough or 1/2 crescent dinner roll recipe

In a medium skillet, combine soy sauce, cornstarch and ginger. Stir in meat and cook over medium heat about 2 mintues. Add sprouts, scallions, mushrooms, garlic and parsley and cook 2 minutes more, stirring continuously. Remove from heat. Roll biscuit dough about 1/4 inch thick. Cut into 4-inch squares. Tuck dough into muffin tins, fill each one with chicken filling and bring corners over chicken to enclose. Bake at 375 degrees about 20 minutes, or until golden.

LIGHT-STYLE CRESCENTS (50 rolls) 1 envelope active dry yeast 1/4 cup warm water 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar 1 cup skim milk, heated slightly 6 tablespoons egg substitute, or 2 eggs 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons low-calorie margarine, softened 4 1/4 cups unbleached flour, more or less 1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil mixed with 2 tablespoons skim milk

In a large bowl, combine yeast, water and sugar. Let stand 10 minutes. Stir in warm milk, 3 tablespoons egg substitute or 1 egg and 2 tablespoons margarine. Add 2 cups flour and beat with an electric mixer at medium speed for 2 minutes, scraping sides of bowl occasionally (or beat by hand until well blended). Stir in 1 1/2 cups remaining flour, or enough to make a soft dough. Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and knead about 5 minutes, adding remaining flour as needed, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Form dough into a ball and place in a lightly greased bowl. Turn dough so that it is lightly coated with oil. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.

Roll the dough on a lightly floured surface into an 18-by-12-inch rectangle. With the back of a wooden spoon (or some blunt instrument) spread 4 tablespoons margarine over 2/3 of the dough (starting on the right side and spreading toward the left). Fold ungreased third of dough over the middle, then the right side over the center (this layers the margarine in between layers of dough). Rotate the dough a quarter turn and roll into an 8-by-12-inch rectangle. Spread with 4 tablespoons of margarine and fold as before. Repeat the procedure once again. Dust with flour, wrap in plastic wrap (or aluminum foil, if freezing) and refrigerate several hours, if possible.

To shape, divide dough into five equal portions. Working with one piece at a time and keeping other portions refrigerated, roll out each portion into a circle about 9 inches in diameter and 1/4-inch thick. Cut circle into 8 wedges and roll up each wedge from the wide side to the tip. Form the rolls into crescent shapes by turning the ends in and place on an ungreased baking sheet. When all rolls have been shaped, allow to rest 30 minutes. Combine remaining egg substitute with oil and milk mixture. Brush rolls. Bake at 400 degrees about 20 minutes or until golden.

Note: The second rising is not necessary when you use this dough in above recipes.(Adapted from "Light Style: The New American Cuisine" by Rose Dosti, Deborah Kidushim and Mark Wolke)

FLAKY BISCUITS (12 2-inch biscuits) 2 cups sifted flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup vegetable oil 2/3 cup skim milk Sift flour, baking powder and salt together into a mixing bowl. Pour oil and milk into mixture and stir quickly with a fork until dough clings together. Knead briefly -- about 10 times -- then place dough on a piece of waxed paper and roll or pat into a rectangle about 1/2-inch thick. Cut with biscuit cutter and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 475 degrees for about 12 minutes.

Note: Dough should be rolled thinner for use in above recipes. (Adapted from the "American Heart Association Cookbook.")