IF BATTLE lines are drawn between consumer, academic, industry and government groups, they evaporated in a puff of rational discussion during a two-day seminar last week entitled "New Challenges for Nutrition."

This fifth annual conference that included luminaries from all sectors of the food-policy world was cosponsored by Community Nutrition Institute, the consumer advocacy group, and Food Marketing Institute, the supermarket industry trade group. Members of these factions gathered to listen to and discuss everything from the buying habits of consumers to the plight of food stamp recipients.

The sessions juxtaposed such speakers as William Rice, the editor of the American Express' slick food magazine Food and Wine, with Robert Rodale, the editor of traditionally left-wing publications such as Prevention magazine; consumer spokeswoman Lois Salisbury from San Francisco's Public Advocate with Bill McMillan, assistant secretary of Agriculture; and Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.), ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs with Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Consensus, remarked conference participants, is difficult to reach, particularly in the field of nutrition and especially among philosophical foes. But if those who attended agreed on one point, it was probably that the challenge for food policymakers reaches beyond nutrition knowledge--that nutrition means nothing until it reaches the mouths of food recipients.

"I feel very strongly that it is not enough for scientists, nutrition activists and for the popular press to tell people what not to eat," said Rice. "We must encourage our fellow Americans . . . not only to buy the right foodstuffs, but to eat them."

Several approaches were presented for encouraging Americans to eat "the right foodstuffs." His readership, said Rice, has "a very short attention span for anything labeled 'nutrition.' " In his case, said Rice, the trick is to make the recipes special enough that readers will make them and eat them.

Dr. Jean Mayer, nutritionist and president of Tufts University, maintained that the administration's current nutrition policy is in "full retreat," like an army that has almost won and then lays down its arms and tries to help the enemy.

In the past, progressive nutrition policy has been a bipartisan effort, involving such unlikely partners as former President Richard Nixon and former Senator George McGovern. Now, said Mayer, the administration will effectively undo all the progress made in eliminating hunger by cutting the number of participants in all food assistance programs, particularly food stamps.

Acute malnutrition "essentially disappeared" by 1978, according to Mayer. It will reappear with cuts in such programs as Meals on Wheels, which not only feeds the homebound elderly but keeps them in their homes and out of institutions, effectively lowering health care costs. It does no good, he inferred, to have a country that produces a cornucopia of food, if segments of the population suffer severely from malnutrition.

Support for Mayer's premise came from both sides of Congress. Senators Eagleton and Dole agreed at least that the administration's food policy proposals cut too deep. Eagleton called the current nutrition policy "abysmal," and Dole said that proposals are "going too far" on budget cuts that affect vulnerable groups. The food stamp program, so beleagured by administration changes that occur almost annually, should be put "on hold" for a while to let workers catch up with regulation changes, he suggested. The program, Dole noted, will not be turned over to state jurisdiction under the New Federalism policy.

This business of American resources not being used to feed America's hungry is only half the irony, said Katherine Clancy, president of the Society of Nutrition Education. At the same time the administration cuts food assistance programs (more than $2 billion from the food stamp program alone), she said, it pays $2 billion for cheese to sit in warehouses. Clearly, food that could provide nourishment should not be ignored while feeding programs dwindle.

This administration, said consumer advocate Lois Salisbury, has not embraced the philosophy of protection and safety, though the American voter still depends on government to make sure he benefits from ethical practices within industry. Government has abandoned that role, she maintained, a situation which could jeopardize the wholesomeness of the food supply.

Some speakers advocated nutrition education as a way to motivate people to eat what is good for them. Supermarket representatives said such efforts as nutrition labeling of foods--even fresh ones--would help the consumer make wiser food purchases while allowing "freedom of choice."

Paul Bernish, a spokesman for Kroger supermarket chain, said that the food store was the natural forum for nutrition education. If supermarkets seize this public relations opportunity, he said, the nutrition information must have integrity so as to avoid the need for government intervention. Should such work be undertaken, it should proceed with the cooperation of academia (to make information available and to ensure that it is current), government (to establish education goals) and consumer advocates (to laud or criticize the efforts and to keep the goals in sight).

"In spite of the fact that there are more people interested in nutrition, in spite of the fact that they are better educated, most of them really don't do very much about eating more nutritiously," said Richard Laster, executive vice president of General Foods Corporation and chairman of Network for Better Nutrition, who offered a few of his own theories on why people don't choose to eat better.

First, the complexity of nutrition and healthful eating confuses people, said Laster. Second, there's the instant gratification syndrome working against the goal of a longer, healthful life. When faced with a choice of mashed potatoes and gravy or spinach, he cited as an example, many people choose the former, the goal losing out to the desire for immediate gratification.

In addition, the politics of nutrition demand that people take sides on particular issues, forcing rigid determinations of right and wrong when there may be more than two sides. One recent National Academy of Sciences release which warns that a diet high in fat may increase chances of cancer is just such a controversy. USDA's McMillan took issue with this report and maintained that its recommendations were based on uncertain evidence.

Little more than 24 hours had passed after McMillan's speech before Robert Rodale referred to the latest NAS statement as further support for what holistic health promoters have said for years. Man's diet should be a primitive one, he related, based on unprocessed foods that are low in fat and salt and high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. The latest recommendations from both the USDA and NAS support these beliefs, which were once regarded as far-out. What's more, he said, if the supermarket industry does not adjust to accommodate the new discoveries it will suffer from "Detroit disease"--insensitivity to a growing awareness for doing things more efficiently and effectively.

All of these issues are moot, however, if people still choose to exist on Doritos and Dr. Pepper. Dr. John Farquhar, director of the Stanford Heart Disease Prevention Program, said the final challenge is to get the knowledge (and food) out of the realm of academia and bureaucracy to the people whose lives it can change. His project examines whole families and their life styles, and seeks to alter potentially harmful familial habits through diet and other life-style modification.

"We need to pay attention to motivation," said Farquhar. "We need to learn how people think--what makes people decide the time has come for change and what allows them to achieve that change and maintain it."

New challenges for nutrition, summarized CNI director Rod Leonard, are to consider human rights and healthy habits in the future. Industry, consumer, academic and government representatives must keep in mind that food means nothing until it nourishes.