Washington runs on sweet talk. And lately, it seems, it's been even sweeter. Between controversy over aspartame, extensions of the moratorium on saccharin or reformulation of Coke, sweetener discussions roll through this city like Jelly Bellies.

Even last week, sweet stuff headlined a gathering of sugar growers, commodity analysts and agriculture specialists at the Mayflower Hotel for the International Sweetener Symposium. Almost 300 participants, most of them supporters of the current government sugar program, discussed the upcoming farm bill.

And then on Monday, the National Academy of Sciences released a report which concluded that cyclamates may act as promoters or cocarcinogens in the presence of other substances, but that they are not carcinogenic by themselves. The studies of cocarcinogenicity were done in animals and cell cultures, said the report, and scientists are uncertain how these results affect human health.

So, while your nearest vending machine may still look the same, big changes have been occurring in the sweetener business in recent years. Plus, there are always the same nagging questions, such as how to soften the brown-sugar rock in your cupboard, and the same sticky myths, like the one about honey being the nutritious alternative. Here then is a sweetener primer, a look at everything on everything sweet. From Cane to Corn -------

Artificial sweeteners have been in the limelight recently, but the complexion of the caloric sweetener industry has undergone massive changes. Perhaps the biggest change has been the growth of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a sweetener that is made by treating corn syrup with enzymes that convert part of the dextrose to fructose.

In 1984, 420 million bushels of corn were used to produce HFCS, according to the USDA. HFCS is substantially cheaper to manufacture than cane or beet sugar primarily because the raw material, corn, is cheaper to begin with, and in addition it yields several byproducts -- corn oil and feed for cattle and poultry.

In 1975, according to USDA figures, Americans consumed 118 pounds of caloric sweeteners per capita -- 76 percent of that was sugar, 4 percent was high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). In 1984, Americans consumed approximately 127 pounds of sweeteners per capita. This time, only 53 percent of that was sugar. HFCS had jumped from 4 to 29 percent of total caloric sweetener consumption.

The biggest use of HFCS -- two-thirds, in fact, according to the USDA -- is in soft drinks. And recently, all soft drink companies have approved total usage of HFCS for sweetening their nondiet products, according to John Stehr, manager of government affairs for A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co., a Decatur, Ill., corn refinery. The 'Best' Sweetener?

The players in the sweetener arena join sides depending on the issue of the moment. The growth of HFCS has understandably stunted the domestic sugar industry, creating competition between the two camps. Concerning the government's sugar program, however, they work together. Both industries fear the competition from foreign government-subsidized imports, according to Stehr. (According to Bill Frank of the U.S. Cane Sugar Refiners' Association, the HFCS industry stands to benefit from the sugar program because it can keep its prices below the inflated price of sugar, thereby increasing sales.)

And both contingents are feeling threatened by the growing consumer interest in artificial sweeteners. According to Fred Gray, a sugar analyst at the USDA, the consumption of noncaloric sweeteners has more than doubled in the past nine years. While artificial sweeteners still have a long way to go to catch up to sugar and corn sweetener consumption, they're "having a psychological impact" on consumers' perceptions of sugar, says Sarah Setton, spokesperson for the Sugar Association.

To counter this "impact," the Sugar Association has undertaken a $2 million advertising campaign based on the slogan "Use Real Sugar If You Know What's Good For You." The association's blitz hammered at the fact that packages of sugar "need no warning label," that sugar is "natural." Stressing that sugar has only 16 calories per teaspoon, the association says that claims that artificial sweeteners result in long-term weight loss have no scientific basis.

Keith Keeney, director of communications at the Calorie Control Council, a trade group that represents manufacturers of noncaloric sweeteners, said that "as part of a sensible diet plan, they're noncaloric sweeteners very useful in controlling weight." Keeney said that the council has "never taken the position that you shouldn't eat sugar."

Meanwhile, there is aggressive competition within the artificial sweetener market, especially by aspartame. According to Searle, there are presently 100 million people who have tried aspartame and it is being used in almost 90 food products. The company says that international sales of aspartame (of Equal, the tabletop sweetener and NutraSweet, the trade name for aspartame) went from $74 million in 1982 to $585 million in 1984.

A "professional newsletter" published by Sweet 'n Low touts every imaginable advantage of saccharin over aspartame. It fails to mention, however, that the Sweet 'n Low packet and every other product containing saccharin must carry a cancer warning.

Meanwhile, advertisers of products that now contain only aspartame as a sweetener are quick to plug the fact that their products are "saccharin free."

And the Sugar Association is quick to encourage those who are questioning the safety of aspartame. " . . . we in the nutritive sweetener industry believe consumers need to know the truth about aspartame," said J.R. O'Connell of the Sugar Association at last week's International Sweetener Symposium. And the FDA and aspartame's manufacturer, G.D. Searle, contend that it is "one of the most throughly tested and studied additives ever approved by the agency . . . " ALoaded Bag of Sugar

There's more to a five-pound bag of sugar in the supermarket than a shower of soft white crystals. It's also packed with politics and economics. Here is an abridged version of how the current government sugar program, established by the 1981 farm bill, works:

Under the program, if domestic producers cannot get at least 17.5 cents per pound, they can turn over their sugar to the government and receive a loan for that amount. If the market price goes up, they may sell their sugar and pay back the loan. If it does not, the producers keep the loan and the government keeps the sugar.

However, because the U.S. levies duties on sugar imports that roughly equal the difference between the world price (about 5 cents per pound) and the domestic level (about 21.5 cents), producers usually are able to sell their sugar.

(Proponents of the sugar program contend that this world market price is actually a "dump" price that is well below the cost of production. The "dump" price, according to the Sugar Information Bureau, reflects the price of surplus sugar -- only 10 percent of world sugar production -- placed on the market by countries after normal production has been sold at higher, usually subsidized, prices. "Whether you're dumping it or not, it's a trading price and if you had a free market, it still wouldn't be as high as 21 cents a pound," said Frank of the U.S. Cane Sugar Refiners' Association, a group that opposes the sugar program.)

The pro and con arguments of the sugar program are extensive. Among the opponents of the program are those who use sugar -- manufacturers, refiners and groups representing consumers. These groups contend that the current loan rate is too high, resulting in high profits for many sugar growers and drastically inflated consumer prices, that it undermines the stability of Caribbean, Latin and Central American countries by reducing the demand for imported sugar, and that it is unequally benefitting what is only a small segment of the American farm community.

The sugar growers, on the other hand, are pleased with the current sugar program. They contend that the price of sugar to consumers is "fair and reasonable," that the program permits a stable price and steady supply of sugar in this country, that the cost of sugar does not affect the cost of products containing sugar and that sugar prices surged when the United States had no sugar program.

For more information on the pros and cons of the sugar program, the following publications are available. From the sugar growers' point of view, the brochure "The United States Sugar Program: A Consumers' Guide," is available by writing to the Sugar Information Bureau, Suite 202, 1341 G St. NW. Washington, D.C. 20005. For a consumer group's point of view, the brochure "A Consumer's Guide to Sugar Prices" is available from Public Voice, 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW. Suite 522, Washington, D.C. 20036. Label Readers Beware!

Most manufacturers do not disclose the quantity of sugar in their products. Nondiet soft drinks, for instance, contain anywhere between 9 and 11 teaspoons of sugar per 12-ounce can.

In addition, sugar has many names -- and more than one type of sugar is often added to products. Although ingredients are listed in descending order on the labels of food products by the amount used, this doesn't tell you the actual quantities of each.

A product that lists sugar as its first (most prevalent) ingredient may have less sugar -- or the same amount of sugar -- than one that lists two or three different kinds of sugar further down on the label. For example, Donkey Kong Jr. cereal, which lists "sugar" as its first ingredient, contains 3.25 teaspoons of sugar per ounce, according to Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The label of Super Golden Crisps, which reads "wheat, sugar, corn syrup . . . " contains 3.5 teaspoons of sugar per ounce because of the sugar in the corn syrup.

Here are some of the names that sugar goes by: High fructose corn syrup or HFCS, corn sweeteners, corn syrup solids, molasses, honey, sucrose, fructose, maltose, glucose, dextrose, lactose, maple syrup. Match Game

Match the sweetener and its description.

Confectioners' sugar, sucrose, aspartame, cyclamate, glucose, honey, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, saccharin, molasses.

(1) A long prevailing myth says that this sweetener is somehow nutritionally better than sugar. It contains slightly more calories than regular sugar, tends to retain moisture and browns readily.

(2) Granulated sugar that has been finely ground to a smooth powder and sifted.

(3) People with phenylketonuria, a genetic disorder, must avoid this sweetener.

(4) Raw sugar that has been partially refined by removing its surface molasses. Like sweetener number one, this sugar has a long prevailing myth attached to it that it is somehow nutritionally superior to table sugar.

(5) Sucrose crystals covered with a film of molasses syrup.

(6) A thick liquid concentrate produced in the refining of sugar.

(7) Also called dextrose, this sugar is the main form into which other sugars and carbohydrates are converted in the body.

(8) Although not legal in the United States, this artificial sweetener is used in about 40 countries, including Canada, where it is permitted only as a table sweetener and in drugs.

(9) Discovered in 1879 by a Johns Hopkins University scientist.

(10) Table sugar.

Answers: (1) honey, (2) confectioners' sugar, (3) aspartame, (4) turbinado sugar, (5) brown sugar, (6) molasses, (7) glucose, (8) cyclamate, (9) saccharin, (10) sucrose. Find the Sugar

Approximately 80 percent of our per capita sugar consumption is added to foods and beverages by manufacturers. That makes it difficult if you want to cut down on sugar. (The Sugar Association contends that "hidden" sugar is really not hidden at all, but is present for "specific purposes," acting as a preservative, a flavor enhancer or serving as a medium for yeast in baked goods.)

Below is a mini-chart, as excerpted from the Center for Science in the Public Interest's "Sugar Scoreboard" poster, on some foods where you'd least expect to find much sugar. Future Sweeties

If you think you have heard enough about aspartame, new noncaloric sweeteners are on the horizon. Since 1982, the FDA has been reviewing a petition for Acesulfame K, a sweetener discovered in Germany that is 200 times sweeter than table sugar. According to the FDA, it would be used in chewing gum, dry beverage mixes, confections, canned fruit, gelatins, puddings and as a table sweetener. It has already gained approval in the United Kingdom, West Germany, Switzerland and Sweden.

Other sweeteners, not yet approved for use in the United States, but are being studied, according to the Calorie Control Council:

*Thaumatin, amixture of sweet-tasting proteins from a West African fruit that is approximately 2,000 times to 3,000 times sweeter than table sugar. This sweetener, which has a licorice-like aftertaste, is approved for use in Japan and the United Kingdom.

*Stevioside, a sweetener extracted from the leaves of a South American plant that is 300 times sweeter than table sugar. It is used in soft drinks, chewing gum, tabletop sweeteners, fish sauces, syrups and pharmaceuticals in Japan.

*Dihydrochalacones (DHCs), sweeteners derived from citrus fruits. Neo-DHC, 1,500 times sweeter than sugar and synthesized from seville oranges, has the greatest potential for food applications, according to the Calorie Control Council. It has been approved for use in Belgium, Rhodesia and Spain.

*Cholorderivatives of sucrose are produced by altering the sucrose molecule, which results in a sweetness 5 to 2,000 times greater than table sugar. While the potential use of these sweeteners is in beverages, dietetic foods and orally administered pharmaceuticals, it is not currently approved for use anywhere.

*L-sugars, or left-handed counterparts of common sugars, which have no calories because the body can't metabolize them. This type of sugar gets its name from the fact that its molecules are arranged in a mirror image of conventional "right-handed" sugar. L-sugar has not yet been approved for use anywhere.

Meanwhile, this is how the more familiar artificial sweeteners stand:

*Cyclamates: Dominating the artificial sweetener market in the 1960s, this sweetener was banned in 1970 when tests showed that it caused cancer in laboratory animals fed with a mixture of cyclamates and saccharin. The company that manufactures cyclamate, Abbott Laboratories, petitioned the FDA in 1982 to remarket the sweetener in foods. The report issued Monday from the National Academy of Sciences was a result of a request made by the FDA that the scientific body review the carcinogenicity data on the sweetener.

*Saccharin: Made from petroleum-based materials and manufactured by the Sherwin-Williams Co., it has been consumed in the U.S. for more than 100 years. Questions about its carcinogenicity surfaced in the early '70s, eventually leading the FDA in 1977 to propose a ban on the sweetener in foods and beverages. The same year, Congress passed the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act, which both imposed a two-year moratorium against any ban of the sweetener and required that foods containing saccharin carry labels warning that it caused cancer in animals. Since 1977, Congress has "repeatedly extended the original moratorium," according to a FDA publication. The last moratorium, which expired this April 22, has been extended until May 1, 1987.

*Aspartame. Discovered in 1965, it was first approved for use in dry foods in 1981 and for use in carbonated beverages in 1983. Manufacturers of refrigerated fruit-based drinks and frozen concentrates, aseptically-packed juices and other products are seeking approval for aspartame use. In its review of the petitions, the FDA is determining what effects of the proposed expanded uses of aspartame in foods will have on overall public consumption levels, according to the agency. Sugar Q & A

The Sugar Association answers some of the most frequently asked questions about sugar:

Is there a difference between sugar refined from sugar beets and refined from sugar cane?

No. Sugar cane, a giant grass, thrives in a warm, moist climate, storing sugar in its stalk. The sugar beet grows best in a temperate climate and stores its sugar in its white root. Chemically, sugar from both sources is the same. (Sugar beets are grown in 13 states; sugar cane in four states. Production figures, however, are evenly divided between the two types.)

How can brown sugar be softened once it has hardened?

To soften brown sugar that has hardened, heat it in a 250-degree oven. Watch it carefully and as soon as it is soft, measure the amount needed. When the sugar cools it will become hard again.

What is the best way to store sugar? Can it be frozen?

Granulated sugar and confectioners' sugar should be stored in air-tight containers to keep out moisture and to prevent caking or lumping. Sugar, when stored under normal conditions, has an indefinite shelf life and freezing is not necessary.

What is the difference between 6X and 10X confectioners' sugar?

The 10X is finer grained that the 6X. While the two products are interchangeable, many people prefer the finer 10X for cake decorating, uncooked candies and frostings. Diet Improbable

In the it-had-to-happen category . . . for those who have tried the ice-cream diet or the grapefruit diet, there's now a sugar diet. Carole Livingston, author of "I'll Never Be Fat Again," has written (the sequel?) "How to Lose 5 Lbs. Fast!," which includes diets for all kinds of eaters' habits, including those with a sweet tooth. A typical day's eating plan on "The Sweet-Tooth Diet" includes 2 chocolate chip cookies (small), 5 jelly beans (average size) and 1 small brownie (2 1/2 inches square by 1/2-inch thick). How Sweet Is It?

Compared to sugar, saccharin is 300 times sweeter, cyclamate is 30 times sweeter and aspartame is 180 times to 200 times sweeter. Caries Update

That sugar can lead to tooth decay is nothing new, but here is an information update from the American Dental Association:

*Fermentable carbohydrates other than sugar -- such as starches found in cereals, breads, fruits, vegetables and some processed foods -- may contribute to tooth decay as well, although the extent to which this plays a part is not yet known.

*The physical characteristics of the food are important factors. Sticky foods such as raisins, caramels, toffees, certain kinds of granola bars and sugars such as honey, molasses and corn syrup adhere to tooth surfaces and are believed to be more cariogenic than sugar-containing foods that pass through the mouth quickly.

*Frequency of exposure is an important factor. For example, sucking a hard candy for 10 minutes may be more detrimental to the teeth than drinking a sugary soda.

*When the food is eaten may be a factor. Consuming sugary foods as part of a meal may be less harmful than consuming them alone as a snack. Increased saliva production during mealtime helps neutralize acid production that helps lead to caries.

The ADA recommends: maintain a balanced diet, minimize the number of unnecessary snacks, restrict sweet consumption to mealtime, don't allow infants to sleep with sweetened liquids such as fruit juices, milk or formula, brush with a fluoride toothpaste and floss throughly each day and visit your dentist regularly. The Southern Desert

The atmosphere is humid and cloying, coating the skin like syrup on a candy apple. The smell of the air -- thick with molasses. This is the Sahara of Savannah -- the Savannah Sugar Refinery -- where millions of pounds of sand-colored sugar stuffed in rail cars and piled high in storage rooms are filtered into Dixie Crystals.

The raw sugar comes mostly from Florida, where, at a sugar mill, it has been crushed from the cane, first into juice and then into brown crystals coated with a film of molasses. This is the state in which it arrives at the Savannah refinery, the country's second largest, which produces 1 1/2 billion pounds of sugar per year.

Actually the procedure of refining sugar involves turning the raw product back into a liquid so that the impurities can be removed. The noise is deafening as a series of machines, controlled via computer, filter out the molasses and impurities, such as ash and organic salt. Test tubes of the amber-colored liquid sit in neat racks and are checked for proper color. Via giant vacuum pans, the liquid is then boiled back into sucrose crystals.

Like many manufacturers who produce private labels, Dixie Crystals manufactures sugar for approximately 30 restaurants (such as Burger King), food companies and supermarket chains.. Same refinery, different labels. It just goes to show you, sugar is sugar.