IN THE beginning, there was a cow. She grazed on green pastures and produced sweet, rich milk which, if left to sit overnight, formed a thick topping of cream. People used the cream on their oatmeal, and on their strawberries.

But man, as is his nature, set immediately to work trying to improve it.

There was a long wait while new technologies were being developed, but in recent years man has been so successful in his quest to modify, if not to improve, that there's very little cream on the market today a cow could call her own.

The 1982 shopper surveying supermarket shelves for something slightly reckless to put over strawberries has two basic choices: relentlessly standardized, ultra-pasteurized, emulsified and stabilized light-textured whipping cream, or something called "whipped topping," the main ingredient of which is likely to be water.

Fresh, plain whipping cream, thick and heavy, has to be searched out in specialty stores like rare mushrooms in a forest, forcing cooks who've happened on a cache of the stuff to issue poignant little bulletins to one another.

What happened to real cream? How did big business and big technology outsmart mother nature?

For starters, they researched and developed like crazy. And in the late '60s they finally came up with Cool Whip--a product that tasted a little like cream and looked a little like cream, but was much cheaper to produce since its main ingredient was water. It lasted practically forever on the shelf and came in a reuseable plastic tub. Besides all that, it came already whipped. The new product had a gargantuan first-year advertising budget; some say as big as that of the entire dairy industry for that year, and it took off like gangbusters.

Cool Whip and other new whipped toppings were "equipped with all the things modern marketing is designed to identify," says Glenn Witte of the Milk Industry Foundation, an association of producers and bottlers. "The fabricated products were developed to be flexible and convenient, and to have a long shelf life."

Fabricated they were. The ingredient label for Cool Whip, today reads "water, hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oils, sugar, corn syrup, sodium caseinate, dextrose, natural and artificial color." The only ingredient in that list even distantly related to a cow is the caseinate. Casein is a protein component of milk.

These ersatz products had a drastic effect on the sales of cream, which were deeply into a downward trend anyway. Whipping cream sales in 1962 totaled 174 million pounds. By 1972, they had dropped by about 30 percent, to 117 pounds.

Though whipping cream sales are a tiny fraction of the fluid dairy products market--usually half of one percent or less in supermarkets--the dairy industry wasn't ready to lose out completely. It needed, says Witte, to "make a product that would compete with the competition--to get it out, have it useable for as long as possible, and make it the best product in terms of functionality."

By 1974 the dairy industry had dusted itself off and was ready to fight back. In that year, with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration, the natural whipping cream was improved. The new product was ultra-pasteurized so it, like the fabricated kind, would last a long time. And it was blessed with the addition of emulsifiers and stabilizers so it would whip easily and stay whipped. Sales began a modest and slightly rocky ascent.

It's obvious why dairies and supermarkets loved the new ultra-pasteurized product. It allowed supermarkets several extra weeks in the race to move products off their shelves before the "pull date" expired. Longer shelf life meant fewer returns of unused products to suppliers. The food business knew it had a good thing, or at least a better thing.

But the advent of the new "improved" cream marked the beginning of the end for one more high-quality, low-volume, old-fashioned product.

The overwhelming majority of whipping creams on the market today are ultra-pasteurized, 30 percent butterfat, and include stabilizers and emulsifiers. Pre-1974 whipping cream was generally much higher in butterfat content, was simply pasteurized, and contained no emulsifiers or stabilizers.

What difference does all that make?

Ultra-pasteurization, which was allowed for the first time in the FDA's 1974 cream standards, means that the product has been thermally processed--heated or steamed--at or above 280 degrees farenheit for at least two seconds. Regular pasteurization takes place at much lower temperatures for varying lengths of time. The extremely high temperature of ultra-pasteurization destroys more bacteria and keeps the product fresh longer.

But high heat is stressful to the raw product, causing physical and chemical changes that aren't always positive.

A "cooked" taste is one result. Even experts are hard pressed to describe the flavor change, except to say that the product tastes "cooked" and somehow less fresh.

A "browning reaction," in which the natural lactose in the product caramelizes, is also much more likely in cream that has been ultra-pasteurized. Though you aren't likely to see a color change, the resultant taste difference can be compared to what happens to sugar when you melt and caramelize it.

The butterfat content in cream does two things: it adds flavor and richness, and it makes the product "whipable." Though under the right conditions it is even possible to whip skim milk, it is ordinarily difficult to whip cream or milk with relatively little butterfat and no stabilizers or emulsifiers.

The higher butterfat content in old-fashioned heavy whipping cream accounted for its rich taste and texture. But butterfat is the high-priced component in cream, and manufacturers decided that health-conscious consumers didn't want so much of it anyway. FDA standards require a product called "heavy cream" or "heavy whipping cream" to be at least 36 percent butterfat.

The 30-percent-butterfat product on the market today just makes it into the FDA standards for "light whipping cream" or "whipping cream," which requires 30 to 36 percent butterfat. Thirty percent puts it at the lower limits of whipability.

Though there is disagreement in the industry, the National Dairy Council says that ultra-pasteurization also makes cream more difficult to whip and to keep whipped. But there is a twin answer to the twin problems of lower butterfat content and ultra-pasteurization: stabilizers and emulsifiers.

Added to virtually all ultra-pasteurized whipping cream, stabilizers and emulsifiers help the butterfat globules stay suspended, keeping the product fluffy. Stabilizers also help prevent the cream from separating during its long term on the shelf. Chefs and other serious cooks maintain they change the texture of cream, making it unnaturally smooth and viscous.

These bits and pieces of quality we've traded away have been mourned with sad little sighs, not with great yelps of outrage. For one thing, nobody stands by the refrigerator drinking cream out of the carton. Unlike milk, cream is generally used with other foods that might help to mask any strange or unpleasant flavors. And, as one government official pointed out, most manufacturers aren't going for the "connoisseur" market anyway.

But there are drumbeats on the horizon. People are buying two new cream products, both pure cream with no additions, and both very high in butterfat.

One, an imported cream from England, is 48 percent butterfat and comes in a little glass bottle. Since it hit Washington about a year ago, it has begun appearing in more and more groceries, mainly specialty stores, at several times the price of regular ultra-pasteurized whipping cream.

The other relatively recent marketing phenomenon, at least in large cities, is cre me frai che, a cultured heavy cream with 40 to 45 percent butterfat and a thick rich texture. Its taste is somewhat similar to sour cream, though nuttier and richer.

Cre me frai che originated in France, and has been imported for years to French chefs in this country. Until three years ago, according to Philippe Jallon, vice president of Fleur de Lait, a Pennsylvania company that makes cre me frai che, very little of it found its way to grocery store shelves.

But then a New Jersey company named Zausner's and Jallon began pushing cre me frai che as a consumer product. They appropriated some of the big guys' tricks by packaging their cream in a reusable plastic tub and including recipes so that bewildered home cooks would know what to do with it. Sales, Jallon says, have been climbing steadily ever since.

Although most dairies in the Washington area produce old-fashioned, non-ultra-pasteurized heavy cream, very little of it is sold at retail. Most of it goes to hotels and restaurants. High's is one dairy that still produces and sells the old-fashioned product in its stores. After a brief fling with the ultra-pasteurized product, High's discovered it didn't reduce returns or increase profits. Now the company is back to regular heavy cream, and is even beginning to promote it.

What's next in the strange world of marketing? Philippe Jallon's fear is that some giant conglomerate will come along and swallow him up. The big companies "wait until a market is sizeable and then they move in and they kill you," he said.

There is evidence that Jallon's worst fears may be materializing. Manufacturers, if not ready to leap into the cre me frai che market, are showing some inclination to get closer to the cow.

The latest development is a new product called Dover Farms Whipped Topping. It's made by General Foods, the company that brought us the original Cool Whip. But General Foods has this time discovered a way to improve on chemistry.

The new product is marketed just like Cool Whip, resides next to Cool Whip on the shelf. It comes in a plastic tub, just like Cool Whip. It looks and tastes like Cool Whip. It has all of Cool Whip's additives, plus salt and BHA, a preservative. But emblazoned across the verdant calm of its label's farm scenery is a banner proclaiming "with real cream."

The first ingredient is light cream, which doesn't exactly make the product like what grandma used to skim off the top of the milk jug, but does provide an intriguing window on what the corporate mind might have planned for us in the future.

We seem to be coming full circle. In the beginning there was a cow who produced cream. Then there was a manufactured product that acted a little like cream, then a cream that acted a little like a manufactured product. Now there's a manufactured product that wants to do a little of everything. Life imitating art, you might say.

Who wants to bet that somewhere deep in the gleaming stainless steel of a research and development lab the best minds in the country are plotting the next salvo in the corporate cream skirmish? It would be a high-quality, low-volume product, aimed at the connoisseur market.