VICTOR HERBERT'S poodle, Sassafras, is a member of the American Association of Nutrition and Dietary Consultants. Her red-ribboned certificate hangs on her New York doghouse.

Not to be outdone, Charlie, the Herbert family cat, is a member of the International Academy of Nutritional Consultants. His certificate says the tabby is "dedicated to maintaining ethical standards" for nutrition counseling.

Only the animals' name, address and $50 was supplied to each of the groups, said Herbert, a doctor and lawyer who recently wrote a medical journal article decrying those who sell nutrition credentials.

Henry Holcomb, the director of the Los Angeles-based group that Sassafras belongs to, said members must submit "background and credentials which are evaluated by our board of examiners." When informed that the application filled in by Herbert contained spaces only for a name and address, Holcomb said a "membership profile" should have been sent for a candidate to complete. "Herbert is against anything that's not orthodox medicine," Holcomb added.

Kurt Donsbach, president of the Kurt Donsbach University in Huntington Beach, Ca., which also runs the association that admitted the Herbert family cat as a "professional" member, said such members "must have adequate nutrition background . . . either a degree in the healing arts or a graduate of Donsbach University." The application asked four questions on professional background, but Herbert left them blank.

Unhappy eaters who are searching the area for nutrition specialists may not find animals bearing impressive-sounding certificates, but the two California groups that admitted Sassafras and Charlie also are the sole formal credentials used by several area "experts."

From hair analysts in the District, to "metabolic" consultants in Bethesda who determine nutrition based on body shape, to a megavitamin "doctor" in McLean with a purchased, correspondence school PhD, the Washington area is replete with a variety of unorthodox nutritional advisors.

"In no medical area is there more interest, more misinformation and more quackery," said Dr. George Demetrakopoulos, a Bethesda doctor with a master's degree in nutrition. He directs the Medical Nutrition Center and is one of the area's half-dozen M.D.s in private practice who specialize in nutrition.

Added Dr. Arthur Frank, a Washington internist with years of work in nutrition at the National Heart Institute: "It's a jungle full of almost criminal behavior."

The boom in interest about maintaining health and the foods we eat, coupled with a traditional lack of interest by medical doctors in nutrition, has resulted in a host of new "professions" springing up in the field, as well as a running argument about whether nutrition advisors should be licensed.

Because nutrition is a general field without specific licensing, almost anyone is free to hang out a shingle advertising himself as a nutrition expert. "There's no one who regulates anybody who gives diet advice," notes Hilda Stevan, executive director of the Maryland Board of Medical Examiners, summing up the situation nationwide. "It's really like, 'The consumer beware.' "

The result is a confusion of specialists and therapies entering an area already glutted with how-to books and testimonials. There's no easy road map for the consumer, and those involved with nutrition agree the problem is getting worse as America's self-absorption with body-shaping, longevity and diet increases.

Hospital dieticians, chiropractors, "holistic" dentists, health food salespeople, weight loss centers, wellness consultants and husband and wife teams selling franchised vitamin supplements door-to-door all offer a range of advice from personal menus to a diet-and-pill regimen to win you good health.

On the conventional side, the Red Cross and city and county health departments offer nutrition information and counseling. Some area hospitals, notably the Georgetown Diet Management Clinic, which is associated with the university hospital's internal medicine department, have expanded their standard service of helping about-to-be-discharged patients with special diets to counseling out-patients on eating disorders and nutrition during pregnancy.

"Unfortunately, there is not a well-established nutrition community that people can turn to," said Susan Berkow, a PhD in nritional biochemistry who is a consultant to the Georgetown center. "All people can do is ask their doctors anr a legitimate place. The problem is that until recently nutrition was considered with home economics, and the medical field avoided it." popular demand has changed that. Although the interest in the Washington area does not yet resemble that of California, ies make showy testimonials to their diet consultants, local practitioners of all persuasions say the nutritiooming.

"I lecture throughout the country," said Dr. Arthur Furman, a Brandywine, Md., dentist who advocatess the former chief of dentistry at Southern Maryland Hospital. "Pittsburgh, Boston, California, Chicago, the crowds are growing. People have come to rhat diet is the source of our illness."

(Hair analysis involves cutting two tablespoons of hair from the back of the neck and sending it to a laboratory where it's mixolutions and burned so that the mineral content can be analyzed and appropriate diet planned accordingly. Several companies, including one in Alexandria, provide computer print-outs of the hair analysr about $35, Furman explained.)

At least one hospital-based nutrition specialist considers hair analysis toMost medical doctors, however, agree with Dr. Frank, who says hair analysis is useless; "it gives you no infora M. Tauraso, a Harvard-trained doctor, eshewed the methods he was taught in school and now runs a nutrition ctive, dyslexic and learning disabled children aged 5 to 19 in Frederick, Md. He also travels the country, lecturing nurses on how to providen advice such as "milk being the most prominent cause of bed-wetting."

Tauraso notes, "If you want to get nutrition advice, you have to ge the medical profession. I send people to chiropractors."

The more visible sales efforts of groups preachiunconventional concepts has left the traditional sources of nutritional advice, such as hospital dieticians, fty. "The inflammatory claims are very attractive to people," said Gilda Knight, director of the American Socieutrition, which is an association of medical doctors trained in nutrition, although few are in private practice. "It's fashionable to blame the food supply, blars."

Rarely a month passes in the metropolitan area without a local hotel holding a well-attended seminar on an unconrition therapy. Many involve cancer--controlling the disease through foods, diet supplements or practices the Food and Drug Administration has branded unsafe andful, such as chelation therapy, which involves injecting a synthetic amino acid into the bloodstream to supposedly clean out the arteries. s of megavitamins "have falsely led you to believe the American food supply is deficient and you have to eat pills and potions," said Herbert, chief of the hematology andion laboratory at the Bronx VA Medical Center and a professor of medicine at State University of New York Downstate Medical Center.

Despite the confusing array of claims and tre, most doctors agree there is a need for nutrition specialists. Doctors often prescribe low-sodium or low-fat ng patients figure out what they're going to eat for lunch tomorrow.

"There's a tremendous need," said Dr. Demetrakopoulos, who said he's been "overwhelmed" since he opened up a private practice after 12 years of government research. "But there is so much funny business going on in clinics, people call us hesitantly, asking us if we're the kind of place that does coffee enemas or gives laetrile intraveneously."

Consumers who have complaints about nutrition advice they have received should contact the consumer affairs office of the Food and Drug Administration and their local city or county consumer offices.

If the complaint is against a doctor, or a person acting like a doctor in diagnosing illness or prescribing medicine, the local medical licensing board should be contacted.

The licensing boards rarely will get involved in cases that do not involve doctors.

Although a spokeswoman for the Virginia Board of Medicine said the board receives "many, many" complaints about the value of hair anahe board, like most in the United States, does not have the manpower, authority or inclination to find out wheng nutrition advice are harming the public.

"I have my hands full just with doctors," said P. Joseph Sarnel the D.C. Healing Arts Commission.

In Maryland, two cases still pending before the Commission on Medical Dioctors who use unorthodox nutritional therapy as part of their practice, said Avon Bellamy, director of the cose trying to choose a nutrition expert to give professional advice, Herbert says it is of supreme importance tth legitimate credentials. This is tougher than it sounds because the field is filled with dozens of classy-soions, institutes and academies, some of which are bogus.

Dr. Myron Winick, director of the Institute for Hulumbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, recommends any expert have at least a master's degree in nutrition from an accredited university.

The American Society for Clinicalrition, an association of 500 M.D.s who have medical training in nutrition, is located in Rockville and will refer callers to doctors in thearea, although most of its members are in government or university research, not private practice. Gilda Knight, its director, is at 530-7110. The American Dietetic Association's headquarters in Chicago, at (3180-5000, will refer callers to registered dieticians. People holding this credential have not necessarily taken graduate work in nutrition. d requirement is a bachelor's of science degree, one-year internship and completion of a qualifying exam.