THEY THREW a party for health foods and everybody came. Members of the National Nutritional Foods Association (representing about 50 percent of the "health food" industry) wanted to strut their stuff; so, with the help of Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), they secured the largest hearing room at the Dirksen Office Building and watched almost 1,000 people sample from their "health food buffet" Feb. 24.

The NNFA said "the food tasting will show members of the Senate how legislation being introduced today [sic] will improve the quality of school lunches." Pell's office, however, said there was no connection between the food at the tasting and the senator's proposed amendment to upgrade nutrition in the school lunch program.

One NNFA representative said the tasting allowed them "to introduce senators and staff to food our industry produces." Included in that category are:

* A selection of carob candies that, according to the woman giving the samples, are no lower in calories than regular chocolate candies. She said carob was preferred to chocolate because it's lower in fat. Carob itself is is relatively low in fat, but this "Carafection" candy also contains palm kernel oil, a saturated fat which is unsuitable for low-cholesterol diets.

* "Apple Fries," a concoction of "real apples, unbleached flour, pure soybean oil, cinnamon." The package says the contents are "gently simmered to featherlight crispness. That's why Apple Fries have a 'just picked' flavor." Apple fries are to fresh apples as potato chips are to potatoes--somewhat oily, crunchy and crispy snacks.

The question loomed: What does all this have to do with Pell's amendment? A senate sources maintain that the timing of Pell's amendment proposal and the "food fair" was "purely coincidental," adding, "these folks are not necessarily providing food to the school-lunch program."

Representatives of the NNFA says these foods are not necessarily appropriate for school lunches. The goals of the industry, said Bob Grenoble, executive director of NNFA, are to provide foods that reduce sugar, salt and additive intake.

At the reception, the NNFA representatives werehanding out free food and blue folders containing such statements as, "The legislation bans the sale of certain snacks and soft drinks viewed as detrimental to good health from the school grounds. Distribution and sale of other items -- including nuts, fruits, juices and a variety of natural snack foods -- would be continued."

The NNFA supports Senator Pell's amendment that calls for "a nutritionally superior school lunch." Where their goals meet in practice, however, isn't readily apparent.

The Pell amendment calls for a school lunch plan to use:

* Unflavored low-fat, fluid milk;

* Two ounces of lean meat, poultry or fish or the nutritional equivalent of cheese, eggs or legumes or combinations of these foods;

* Two or more vegetables or salad;

* One slice "predominantly whole-grain bread" or bread product made with whole grain (including whole grain pasta and brown rice);

* Fresh fruit, canned fruit (packed in water) or any other item that does not contain refined sugar for dessert.

The proposal also calls for reducing fat, sugar and "salt" (as a primary source of sodium) as well as other provisions that are geared to improving the nutritive value of the school food service program.

So far so good. But how does one reconcile this philosophy with the food served at the NNFA "food fair buffet," which offered, among other foods, "corn nuts" -- heavily salted kernels of corn fried in palm oil (a saturated fat)? Delicious? Perhaps. Nutritious?

"If you're going to be a purist, you may not be in our business very long," said Dale Bennett, a health-food purveyor from Central Florida. "Everything in a health food store is not 100 percent healthy."

A man pushing tortilla chips -- 151 calories and 56 milligrams of sodium per ounce -- explained that "natural foods have a better assimilation to your body than processed food." Processors, he said, "pulverized the food," resulting in food "the body can't assimilate well."

That "doesn't make any sense," says Dr. Jean Mayer, president of Tufts University and former nutrition professor at Harvard University. "It's an inane statement." If anything, continued Dr. Mayer, processed foods may be absorbed better because most of the time substances such as roughage, which inhibit absorption, are processed out.

It's difficult to tell how close the manufacturers actually come to achieving the goals of the Pell amendment. Very few products contain nutrient labeling. The few that do reveal no special attributes of the food within. One dry soup contained over 700 milligrams of sodium per serving; seven ounces of pineapple-coconut soft drink contained 167 calories per serving, some of those contributed by saturated fat. Saturated -- or any kind of fat -- is rare in soft drinks.

Since the term "health food" implies that such foods are healthful, one would expect to see labels crammed with pertinent information on foods in this genre. Not only are many of these products devoid of nutrient labeling, even the ingredient labeling can leave something to be desired.

Talking about health foods not at the buffet, one health food salesman took issue with the ambiguous labeling on some items. He said that some bread products list "100 percent whole wheat" as their first ingredient. This implies, he said, that the wheat product is 100 percent whole wheat, and not that a fraction of the wheat portion consists of 100 percent whole wheat. Other packages that say "no salt added" on the front, sometimes show miso, soy sauce or some other high-sodium additive in the ingredient labeling.

Some labels are not only misleading, they are illegal. Labels that claim "no-salt added" -- on any food "health" or otherwise -- might violate labeling laws if they omit nutrient labeling. According to Eugene Newberry, chief of the case and advisory branch of the Food and Drug Administration, a package must provide nutrient labeling to back up any stated nutritional claims. In one week, four products that violated this law crossed his desk.

Producers in the industry seem to depend on the ambiguity of the term "health food" to imply superior nutritional value of the food.

At the "health food buffet," the popularity of Harmony Quality Foods' yogurt-covered raisins couldn't be denied (one blue-suited man took handfuls and shoved them into a plastic bag). These little "health food" morsels contain about 100 calories an ounce and 8.7 grams of fat; plain raisins contain about 80 calories and virtually no fat. The company's "date yogurt peanut butter bars," contain, according to the sales pitch, about 180 calories per bar (1 3/4 ounces). Palm kernel oil fattens the product.

The date yogurt peanut butter bars, much like the other dessert foods at the fair, use the newest of the "health" industry's buzz foods -- date sugar, made from ground dates, which contain 50 percent short-chain carbohydrates (fructose, glucose and sucrose).

Health food producers and lawmakers got a taste of cooperation, Washington style. Certainly, politics makes strange tablemates.