If the exhibitors at the 1983 Potato Chip/Snack Food Association's Snaxpo convention get their way, children may abandon alphabet soup and learn to spell with potato chips instead.

Judging from the exhibits at the Sheraton Washington last week, it appears that the latest word in snacks is shape. Tortilla chips, corn chips and potato chips are extruded into letters, numbers, butterflies, footballs, playing cards, faces, stars, pinwheels. "By the end of the year, we hope to have 100 shapes," said Jan Dolstra of Crispy Snacks, a Huntington Beach, Calif., company.

His company's chips not only have, new shapes, Dolstra said, but they are make-your-own. The consumer does the final cooking by putting the shapes in a microwave, popcorn popper or deep fryer; the pellets puff up into snack-size chips. They will be sold with various flavor packets -- salted or unsalted -- such as carrot, celery or sweet potato.

Adams International, a Florida firm, displayed its "3-D Extruder," a machine that expels elephant, bunny and umbrella snacks from cracked wheat, rice or soy grits. And from a Dutch extruder manufacturer, there was a snack in tan and red made to resemble a strip of bacon.

While Dolstra said that shape is the newest gimmick "to get the consumer away from the traditional potato chip," other exhibitors at the convention agreed that nacho cheese or tortilla chips are still hot items. "We're still peaking with Mexican flavorings," said John Gibbons of Griffith Laboratories. And, said Harry Appleby of Mid-America Farms, an outfit that formulates dairy product ingredients for snack food companies, an onslaught of Mexican frozen food is on the horizon.

Salt also was represented. A few manufacturers brought their conveyor belt salters and salt content analyzers (industry exhibitors say potato chips measure 1 percent salt), and Morton Salt was displaying its Lite Salt product -- made with half potassium chloride, half sodium chloride -- for snack food applications. Griffith Laboratories had baskets of cucumber and onion potato chips made with potassium chloride.

While the industry is urging manufacturers toward voluntary disclosure of salt content, company representatives were not shy about voicing their salt opinions. "It tastes like hell," said Dick Pritchard of Morton, referring to food without salt. "It's a fallacy about snack food," said Gibbons of Griffith Laboratories. The quantity of salt on chips is "comparable to most food items. It's just that it's on the whole surface [of snack foods]," instead of inside the food, he said.

From deep fryers and conveyor belts, to computerized weighers and bag decorators, to delivery trucks and snack racks, practically every phase in snack food production was represented at the convention. There was even a talking telephone computer made by VCT Corporation of Arlington that substitutes for people in wholesale distributor orders.

For the diet-conscious snacker, there was Borden's new Lite-line cheese puffs, potato chips and tortilla chips. Borden has been working for six years to develop a lower-calorie snack, said company publicist Ilene Denne, and the firm finally came up with machinery that reduces oil absorption on the chip during deep-frying. The difference in calories isn't that great (Lite-line potato chips are 140 calories per one ounce service; regular Borden potato chips are 150 to 160), but Denne said the company is working on further reductions. The new products were introduced, Denne said, because the company felt they provided "enough consumer benefit to offer them now."

Among the other displays, there was Slim Jim's new product, Slim Jim Gold ("the steak of beef jerky"); salami seasoning and chili-flavored peanuts from Baltimore Spice; and Spicer's WheaTwists, made from whole wheat and yogurt.

And hidden among the endless rows of jalapeno dips and chips was a product brought from Red River Valley Potato Growers Association with a taste that might convert any anti-junk-food freak. This didn't come in a splashy bag or in a new shape. Sitting in a plain white box from a family-run company called Widman's Candy of Grand Forks, N.D., was a batch of potato chips -- chocolate-covered.