Facing a Day-Long Blitz of Workshops and Exhibits, Issues and Aerobics Carole Sugarman Washington Post Staff Writer It's the cocktail hour, a time when Washington conventioneers are supposed to be carousing in hospitality suites, and members of the American Dietetic Association are stretching and bending to Barry Manilow music. After all, those in the business of food and health should know that aerobics are a far better way to end a convention day than bourbon and chips.

More than 13,000 members of the ADA -- the nation's largest association of nutrition professionals -- gathered at the Washington Convention Center last week for their annual chance to discuss, explore, rehash and learn more about the latest topics in nutrition.

In a maze of workshops, speeches, poster sessions and exhibitions, dietitians from hospitals, universities, industry and private practice faced issues ranging from fat and cholesterol to eating disorders, munched on soy burgers, played with computers and took aerobics even a step further with "stretch breaks" between program sessions.

Just as consumers are bombarded with nutrition pitches every day in their comings and goings, the dietitians were targeted in the exhibition hall. Close to 700 manufacturers, trade associations and organizations promoted their wares, plugging their positions with brochures, food samples and flashy displays.

Everyone wanted to jump on the nutrition bandwagon: From Hershey Foods Corp., a brochure called "Good Nutrition Makes Good Sense" with color photos of Hershey Kisses, hot fudge sundaes, pizza, eggs, broccoli, apples and nuts. Our chocolate products "have nutritional value and contribute to the overall diet since they are composed of such ingredients as milk, various nuts, sugar and chocolate," said the brochure.

The Salt Institute and the Glutamate Association were present, in company with the manufacturers of many low-sodium products. Cut down on fat, said the American Heart Association. The body needs fat, said the National Dairy Council.

And then there was the one-upmanship. "It is better to get fat from sources such as the nutrient-rich, no-cholesterol avocado rather than from animal, cooking or salad fats, or butter" said the California Avocado Commission.

If the exhibits are any indication, our future is in soybeans. Soybean oil. Soybean ice cream. Soybean meat. Products such as Legume "light and natural tofu entrees," which is branching out from health food and specialty stores into supermarkets. Colombo Yogurt has just come out with a tofu ice cream, and Checkerboard Farms is test-marketing an isolated soy protein meat product that, according to the man flipping sample burgers at the grill, is "targeted to the Yuppies."

In the battle of the sweeteners, G.D. Searle (manufacturer of aspartame products NutraSweet and Equal), Sweet 'n Low (saccharin) and the Sugar Association squared off in their booths and touted the advantages of their products over their competitors. They're "all taking a shot at Equal," said Kevin Davidson, product manager of Le Gout Foods, a company that is handling food service distribution of Equal, at a booth where conventioneers could take the "Equal Challenge" -- taste testing samples of sugar, Equal and Sweet 'n Low in little plastic cups.

At the Coke booth, a dietitian wondered how Tab reformulated with aspartame is selling. "Too early to tell," said the Coke representative. Another wanted to know how the sodium content varied between Diet Coke and regular Coke. Insignificant, said the company from its toll-free phone line installed at the booth. Diet Coke: 13 mg. per serving. Regular Coke: 7 mg. per serving.

Among items that may be cropping up in the retail market:

Frozen baked Idaho potatoes, which according to a Sun Supreme representative, cut down the cooking time by three-quarters; and Sour Cream Supreme, a new lower-calorie and lower-cholesterol product from Land 'O Lakes that thus far is available only to food service operations. It is just one of the new lower-fat products the company is experimenting with, according to two test-kitchen dietitians standing behind the samples.

Other trends? Becky Lankenau, program consultant for the American Heart Association in Dallas, said the association is getting many inquiries from restaurant purveyors wanting nutrition information so that they can better market products to their restaurant clients.

Two issues of special importance this year, said ADA spokesperson Ann Franczak, were the dietitian's role in the ethical issue of the terminally ill patient's right to refuse food, as well as how dietitians can prepare themselves in today's health care crunch.

In addition, the ADA issued a strongly worded statement at the conference condemning nutrition quackery, saying that unqualified diet and nutrition counselors are "threatening the well-being" of those who opt for unconventional medical care. The fitness boom of the '80s has created a dramatic increase in the number of unqualified people "hanging out their shingles" and cashing in on a vulnerable market, said the statement.

According to Franczak, the convention program emphasized sessions aimed at teaching member dietitians how to market themselves and "counteract the fiction." Marketing is an area that registered dietitians have never really had to deal with before, Franczak said.

In a conference room not nearly as big as those of the exhibitors, dietitians got a chance to show their wares. There was a sample diet program ("Tips to slow the rate of eating: Put your fork down after every third bite. Swallow food before adding more to your fork.") and several cookbooks, many of them self-published (we "don't have the publishing ins," said Joy Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian from Palm Springs, Calif., who wrote and published "The Guiltless Gourmet").

In the poster sessions, dietitians presented results from a multitude of studies. A New York University study on "The Effect of Lowfat, Whole and Chocolate Milk on Sixth Grade Students' Food Consumption and Acceptability" concluded that chocolate milk was significantly more acceptable than whole milk and whole milk was accepted over lowfat milk; making chocolate milk more available in schools would increase milk consumption. A study from Pennsylvania's Indiana University, using creamed chicken for the experiment, concluded that microwave reheated foods taste better than those reheated by conventional means.

Excerpts from some other studies included:

Caffeine, sugar and sodium were consumed in excess by women diagnosed as having premenstrual syndrome (PMS), according to a study conducted by two registered dietitians from the Women's Health and Diagnostic Center in Tucson. Also, the women were not consuming enough foods rich in calcium or vitamin B6. The study identified the women's dietary habits as the culprits of the syndrome.

A study of 100 pre-schoolers from high- and low-income groups revealed that their income differences had little effect on the quality of their diets. The study, done by a professor of foods and nutrition at Kent State University, showed that children from both income groups had inadequate diets. Children from both income households were not drinking enough milk or eating enough fruits and vegetables, and for both groups nearly 50 percent of their daily caloric intake was made up of fat.

In a study of two groups of overweight adults done by a registered dietitian at the Baylor College of Medicine, those eating soup prior to their meals lost pounds and maintained the losses, while the group of non-soup eaters gained back part of their weight loss. The soup took the edge off their hunger and provided a warm liquid to fill them up, said Rebecca Reeves, the dietitian who conducted the study.

The McDonald's booth was giving out brochures on the calorie, sodium and cholesterol content of its foods (Big Mac: 570 calories, 980 mg. sodium, 80 mg. cholesterol). The booth was packed with dietitians, because according to one, clients are "always asking questions" about McDonald's.

This may have been a tough audience to play to, for at least some of the exhibitors. A dietitian from New York asked Karen Walsh, consultant to Stouffer's, why the company's Lean Cuisine line contains so much sodium. She is reluctant to recommend it to her clients, said the dietitian.

Walsh said that the company has tried to decrease the amount of sodium, but the taste quality "goes way down."