SEVERAL years ago, Campbell Soup Co. embarked on a new promotional campaign. Soup sales had been "suffering from general apathy and gradual erosion over a 14-year period," according to Herb Baum, Campbell's vice president for marketing. To give soup sales the shot in the arm they needed, the company focused on nutrition.

It wasn't a novel idea. Food companies, ever vigilant about keeping close tabs on consumer interests, know that health and fitness are attention getters in today's marketplace. That means nutrition sells products.

Baum said consumers surveyed by Campbell already believed soup was nutritious. Then, armed with company-sponsored research based on several government nutrition surveys, Campbell sought to confirm consumer opinion with television and print ads proclaiming that calorie for calorie, Campbell soups have more of certain nutrients than such common foods as grapefruit, apples, peanut butter and rye bread.

Speaking here last week at a food policy conference sponsored by two consumer groups, Community Nutrition Institute and Public Voice, and a supermarket trade group, the Food Marketing Institute, Baum presented a sampling of the ads. He said that in two years of telling people that soup is good for them, prepared soup sales on the West Coast, including those of other manufacturers, had "benefited dramatically."

For Richard Manoff, a New York consultant who has used modern marketing techniques to promote social causes like good nutrition, such news is not surprising. "The trend to nutrition marketing is strong," said Manoff. And, he added, nutrition "is selling today in significant, if not always enlightening, ways."

Manoff cited an ad by an industry group--the National Livestock and Meat Board--which stated that cold cuts contain less sodium than processed cheese. Manoff said processed cheese is one of the highest sodium-containing foods.

Manoff called the group's comparison misleading and said that unless consumers can get sound nutrition information from sources other than industry advertising, "we'll have people eating hog dogs because they contain less sodium than processed cheese."

National Livestock and Meat Board spokesman Thomas McDermott said that the ad was trying to point out that sandwich alternatives to cold cuts, such as cheese, are not necessarily lower in sodium. The ad does not say processed meats are low in sodium, he stated.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer lobby, disapproves of the way Campbell Soup is marketing nutrition. Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director for the group, said that the ads are truthful, but are confusing to consumers because they compare the nutrients in soup to other foods on a calorie-by-calorie basis, rather than a serving-by-serving basis, which is how most people measure the food they eat. CSPI is also concerned that the ads promote soup as "good food" even though an average serving of Campbell's soups contain 1,000 milligrams of sodium, Silverglade said.

Baum is aware of these criticisms. He noted that people have questioned the concept of nutrient density--measuring nutrients by calorie--on which the Campbell ads are based. He acknowledged that there is a "school of thought" that advocates nutrient comparisons based on a normal serving of the food. But, Baum said, nutrient density is a "very accepted way" of comparing the nutrients of different foods.

In addition, Baum said, Campbell is "sensitive" to consumer concerns about sodium and has reduced the sodium levels in the majority of its condensed soups to the lowest point at which test consumers still found the taste acceptable. The firm has also introduced a new line of low-sodium soups, the Campbell official noted.

Most new food products begin with market research, according to Robert Zogby, vice president and director of sales and marketing for Kraft Inc., and in the last few years, food manufacturers have perceived consumer desire focusing on nutritious products lower in cholesterol, sugar, fat and total calories. "The perceived needs of the consumer are defined, refined and then translated into new food product concepts," he told the food conference.

Manoff cited several examples of these new products: Libby's has an entire 12-product line of no-salt canned vegetables, Kellogg has put low-sodium Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes into its product line, and Borden's is introducing "Wise Lite-line Snacks."

The problem with some of these products, said Manoff, is that they are "frivolous foods" that many nutrition educators "decry." "Where is the advertising for fresh fruits and vegetables, the whole grains, the low fat milks, the basic and traditional mainstays of our diet until the age of television obliterated them from public view?" he asked.

Manoff believes professional nutrition educators, with the assistance of government and the media, can bring that message to the public. He bemoaned the collapse last year of the Network for Better Nutrition, a coalition of nutrition educators, food marketers and manufacturers, and government officials that was planning a sophisticated nutrition education blitz. The coalition died after the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission pulled out.

Many professional nutritionists saw the FTC action as part of an overall government move away from food advertising concerns. In December, the FTC killed a proposal--pending nine years--that would have regulated a variety of health and nutrition claims made in advertising. These would have included claims that a product contains "no cholesterol" or is "high in polyunsaturates," even if it is high in saturated or total fat content, that a product is "natural" when in fact it is highly processed, or that a product provides "energy" when in fact it simply provides calories.

At last week's conference, Timothy Muris, former director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection and newly named director of the agency's bureau of competition, applauded the FTC decison to abandon the "food rule." Muris said the FTC has no nutrition experts and "went on a frolic" when it conceived the rule, which "would have produced nonsensical results," he said.

FTC Commissioner David Clanton has asked FTC staff lawyers to conduct a six-month survey of advertising claims made about fat and cholesterol content in a variety of foods. He called that portion of the food rule "the most significant . . . in terms of dealing with real health concerns." After the survey is completed, the staff will recommend whether the agency should initiate specific enforcement actions against a company--such as a prohibition of the advertising--if the ads are deceptive to consumers.