While the consumer movement may have lost some of its momentum in the past several years, author Beatrice Trum Hunter says people these days are making positive changes in their eating and buying habits.

The author of 13 books concerning the American food supply and how it affects our health, Hunter says she is glad to see people cutting down on fat, sugar, salt, alcohol and smoking and beginning to get a little exercise. Furthermore, she says they are beginning to read labels.

In town to speak at the annual meeting of the Federation of Homemakers, she discussed the past, present and future of foods.

Hunter is a soft-spoken advocate of the purest food supply possible. Although she readily points out some of the travesties perpetrated in the name of food over the years, she seems to have maintained a positive attitude about what can and should be done to ensure that the food we eat is safe and wholesome. For instance, she lauds Arthur Hayes, commissioner of the Food and Drug Adminstration, for pressuring industry to begin sodium labeling of processed food.

Yet sodium labeling is just one of several issues that will affect policy in the near future. Food safety is another, says Hunter. She believes, for example, that Congress or the regulatory agencies will have to resolve the saccharin problem.

"Clearly it is a weak carcinogen," but she doesn't "see that the moratorium will be over until there's a substitute," she says, referring to the fact that Congress prevented the FDA from withdrawing saccharin from the market in 1977. The moratorium has been extended twice; the latest one is due to expire in August 1983.

Many people are deceived into thinking that saccharin is absolutely essential for weight loss and health purposes, says Hunter. Actually, she continues, only one-third of the diabetics use products made with saccharin. Rather, she says, the "greatest users are children." The fact that saccharin usage is concentrated in this age group raises questions about lifetime exposure to a potential cancer-causing substance. She adds that hospital studies and animal experiments show that saccharin intake does not contribute to weight loss. Yet Americans consume an average of eight pounds of saccharin per year--and this is a sweetener with 300 times the sweetening power of table sugar.

Regulatory agencies have their work cut out for them, says Hunter. The practice of food irradiation, which prevents the growth of microbes and insects in spices and grains, has yet to be approved in this country, although the process is used in Europe. "The FDA struggles with this," she says, adding that the agency will have to resolve the issue in the near future. Since European manufacturers don't label that food is irradiated, it's difficult to regulate foods imported into this country. A spokesman for the FDA says that the practice is scientifically sound; that no radiation remains in food after it has been treated. The agency needs to develop rules for using the process in processing plants to ensure such things as worker safety.

As for the food color controversy, Hunter says the FDA faces another struggle since many people have been found to be sensitive to food dyes. "Ultimately they're going to have to deal with these problems." But she commends those industry members who have turned to natural products, such as turmeric, to color food.

In the future, the FDA will also be asked to define the term "light," predicts Hunter. As more people become interested in weight loss and eating lower-calorie foods, some food manufacturers are stretching the meaning of the word. Frito-Lay, for instance, produces "light" snack chips that aren't, in fact, significantly lower in calories than regular chips.

In defense of the regulatory agencies, however, Hunter says that as much as they may try to involve consumers in policy decisions, it is "difficult for the them to find consumers who understand the issues," of such complicated subjects as food safety and toxicology. But the agencies often reach out to the public, says Hunter; the FDA opens meetings, the U.S. Department of Agriculture teaches skills through the extension services.

While interest in some areas--such as restaurant practices--grows, she says, consumers suffer somewhat from the "ostrich head in the sand attitude." Immediate threats of job loss and nuclear war preclude consumer activity, she postulates. This administration perpetuates the problem, she says, because "there isn't much sensitivity to the consumer movement." Consumers do not form a united front, unlike industry which has a "tremendous network and tremendous resources."

Consumers who would like to influence the nature of the American food supply have several options--some as simple as choosing among foods with the most informative labels and using unit pricing, or committing themselves to work with consumer groups such as the Federation of Homemakers or the Consumer Federation of America.

Keeping in mind that industry tries to manipulate consumer tastes by creating a demand for a certain product, shoppers should be aware of the contents of new products.. For instance, new instant coffee products are sometimes stretched with chicory or postum--not necessarily bad for consumers, but something for which they should pay less than straight instant coffee. Although industry is not always enlightened, she says, it is very adaptable and will respond to consumer needs and demands. If the item doesn't sell, she says, it can't survive in the marketplace.

In her 20 years as a food supply watchdog, Hunter has seen issues come and go. More women breastfeed now, she says, and more pediatricians support breast feeding. But few other situations have improved.

More and more, according to Hunter, the food industry relies on "replacer foods" to supplement natural ones. An avid reader of food industry trade journals, she learns of such things as restructured mushrooms and nondairy sour cream and creamers replacing milk and cream in batters, custards and other processed foods--particularly those prepared by restaurants and other food services. "The consumer is being shortchanged," she says, "and the producers of food are being shortchanged."

To make sure we aren't shortchanged, Hunter would like to see us eating relatively unprocessed foods. Even protein isolated from soybeans contributes to an unvaried diet as industry relies on it more and more to duplicate foods and bolster nutritional value. Diets that include unprocessed foods are, ultimately, less threatening to our health.