You would think in this day and age of American food-processing ingenuity there would be hundreds of imaginative items that made good use of the millions of bushels of apples grown every year.

You would think so, but it just isn't so. Of course, a fresh, ripe apple is already the perfectly processed, ready-to-eat package of flavor and nutrients. Nevertheless, discounting the obvious (apple juice concentrate, frozen apple pies, canned apple fillings), apples appear surprisingly seldom in supermarket items.

In 1984, for instance, more than 2.3 billion tons of apples were sold fresh in the United States. Another 1.8 billion tons were sold processed, but of those more than 1.7 billion tons were canned, pressed for juice or cider, frozen or dried, leaving less than half a billion tons of apples to be used for "other" purposes, according to figures cited by agricultural statistician James Brewster of the Statistical Reporting Service of USDA.

The figures are a bit slippery, however, as Brewster mentions, because frozen, dried or canned apples might very well be destined for further processing by cookie or cereal manufacturers, very few of which start off with whole fresh apples. The numbers just don't tell the story; what does tell the story are the items found on supermarket shelves.

"You don't find as many prepackaged, prepared apple products as you might think or as you might like to see," says Fred Corey, director of market development for the International Apple Institute in McLean. "But take any other fruit products, and you would find the same situation. Prunes, almonds, nuts are included in many home recipes, but you don't find them in many prepared items ready to take home. I would like to see the industry challenged to try more innovative applications." Sparkling Ciders

Why, for example, is there no apple soda pop? Because apples and apple juice cost the producer more than the artificial sweeteners and flavorings they already use, says Corey. "The artificial product can be produced so much less expensively than the natural product. If you could convey it in dollars, there are very few cents worth of ingredients in a soda pop product. This sort of thing will compete with the natural fruit juices.

"But we are beginning to make inroads," says Corey, referring to the growing popularity of sparkling apple cider, like Alpenglow, made by Virginia's Linden Beverage Co., or the sparkling cider made by California's S. Martinelli & Co. Sparkling cider is apple cider that is filtered for color and clarity, pasteurized to rid it of the yeasts that would cause fermentation, and carbonated for bubbliness. S. Martinelli & Co. has been making sparkling cider for more than 60 years; Linden Beverage Co. has been making it for five, but its volume has already shot up to 375,000 gallons annually.

"My grandfather started our company in 1868. He made a bottled, fermented version of the sparkling cider we make today," says Stephen C. Martinelli, general manager of S. Martinelli & Co. of Watsonville, near Monterey Bay. A nonalcoholic sparkling cider joined the Martinelli line in the 1920s, shortly before Prohibition forced the company to discontinue making hard cider. Although the hard cider was revived after World War II, Martinelli says that the stronger market appeal of the nonalcoholic bubbly cider made the company decide to phase out the alcoholic cider.

"We had to pay a champagne tax, but the government wouldn't let us use the name 'apple champagne.' And we didn't think we could sell it under the name 'sparkling apple wine,' which is what they were requiring. It's not practical to be in the wine business without having a whole line of wines. I don't think we will ever get back into the alcoholic beverage business," says Martinelli.

Although his grandfather raised the apples he pressed for his cider, Martinelli now purchases fresh apples from over 100 growers, primarily in the Sebastopol and Pajoro Valley areas of California. The flavor of his sparkling cider comes from the apple variety that predominates: "We favor our newtown pippin. We also blend other varieties like red and golden delicious, gravenstein, granny smith and bellflower. We use apples that are both sweet and tart."

Elizabeth Quarles, manager of Linden Beverage Co., which makes Alpenglow sparkling cider, says that her customers fall into three major categories: people buying nonalcoholic beverages to serve older adults and children; health-conscious people looking for preservative-free products; and, in growing numbers, adults who are themselves choosing to drink less alcohol.

"I'm constantly going to cocktail parties and finding chilled bottles of Alpenglow at the bar for those who would rather not drink," says Quarles.

One of her marketing quandaries involves the question of just where to encourage supermarkets to shelve her sparkling cider. In the produce section, with the apples? Near the wine? In the health food section? Along with the gourmet foods?

Some groceries, in keeping with the national drive to reduce drinking and driving, have organized display areas of specialty nonalcoholic drinks. "If people knew where to go for Perrier, for Martinelli's or Alpenglow, or for sparkling grape juice, they might buy more," says Quarles, who is trying to persuade more supermarkets to feature such areas. Apple Herbal Teas

Another way to drink the flavor of apples is in herbal teas, several of which use dried apples for their central flavor. Three major herbal tea producers (Celestial Seasonings, Magic Mountain and Lipton) produce apple-flavored herbal teas, and all are blends of herbs and spices chosen to enhance the fruity apple flavor.

"Cinnamon Apple is very popular. In fact it is our number-one herbal tea," says Monica Jorden, product manager of specialty teas for Thomas J. Lipton in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Jorden quotes figures from Nielsen's Consumer Sales Data indicating that Lipton's Cinnamon Apple herbal tea constitutes 8 percent of total herbal tea sales in the United States. That figures out to 80 million cups of Cinnamon Apple tea a year.

Why should this flavor be the most popular? "It's something that the consumer would have an idea about how it should taste. It's not an unknown," says Jorden.

In 1979, marketing managers at Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colo., told Marelynn Zippser, the company's new product development manager, that an apple tea would sell well. She doubted that she could find the right blend. "It's difficult to make apple into a real flavor pop like orange or cinnamon," says Zippser. "Apples are relatively bland."

Once she started blending spices and herbs with apples, she ran into another problem: In 1979 and 1980, no apple processor would believe that she wanted to purchase dried apples that hadn't been treated with sulfur dioxide, a preservative that reduces oxidation and discoloring as the apples dry.

"They kept saying the apples were going to turn brown," says Zippser. "And I kept saying, 'So what?' "

Increased consumer concern over the use of sulfur in salad bars has brought the problem to the attention of apple producers, however, and Zipser says she no longer has to go to great lengths to buy apples dried without the chemical.

"Our Sweet Apple Spice herbal tea ranges in sales from 10 to 25 percent of our total herbal tea sales, depending on geographic location," says John Roberts, president of Iroquois Grocery Products in Stamford, Conn., which owns Magic Mountain Herbal Teas. Some of the apples dried and powdered for blending in Magic Mountain's tea may come from U.S. orchards, but others come from Common Market sources, since Magic Mountain buys the tea already blended from Teekanne, a major herbal tea manufacturer in Dusseldorf, West Germany.

"Just as Antwerp can be the center of the diamond industry, West Germany is the center of the herb tea world, and we found it less expensive to buy blended teas from West Germany than to buy ingredients from various places around the world and blend them here ourselves," says Roberts.

But, while the herbal-fruit blend that makes up Magic Mountain's Sweet Apple Spice tea comes from Germany, Roberts says the idea to make up such a recipe originally came from the United States about five years ago.

"In Europe herbal teas have been much more of a tradition, but traditionally they tended to have a limited number of ingredients. The American market, we think, is the first to blend a lot of ingredients to get that balanced taste. The people who made these blends were shooting from the hip, so to speak. Our objective was to make apple the hero of this product, so we looked for other ingredients that would add body, a smooth finish, and would enhance the flavor of the apple."

The companion flavors that Magic Mountain chose are rosehip, cinnamon, lemon verbena, lemon grass and hibiscus, making an auburn-colored tea with an acidic, spicy flavor. Celestial Seasonings' Country Apple Herb Tea, with a bit more bite and a more floral flavor, combines rosehips, hibiscus, cinnamon, chamomile, chicory and nutmeg with dried apples. Lipton's Cinnamon Apple, more reminiscent of mulled cider than an herbal blend, combines cinnamon, hibiscus, chamomile, orange peel, rosehips, licorice root and dried apple with added natural cinnamon and apple flavorings. Apple-Enhanced Cereals ---

Raisin-and-bran cereal has been with us forever. But only in the last few years, perhaps urged on by the popularity of granola-type cereal products, have dry cereal producers started experimenting with other fruits in their breakfast fare. Most commonly, dried apple chunks are mixed in with bran or wheat flakes.

Post's Harvest Medley Flavor of Fruit and Fibre cereal combines chunks of dried apples, whole raisins, and sliced almonds with whole wheat and bran flakes. Kellogg sprinkles its Fruitful Bran cereal with chunks of dried peaches, dates, apples and whole raisins. Kellogg also produces Apple Raisin Crisp, in which whole raisins mingle with sweetened flakes made of a blend of rice, rye, corn bran, apples, salt, oil and sweeteners. Apple Raisin Crisp appears destined to fill a market niche among apple-flavored cereals, between the old over-sweetened standby, Apple Jacks (which uses apple flavoring, not real apples), and the new health-conscious high-fiber fruit-enhanced cereals.

While the boxes of the high-fiber apple-enhanced cereals shout out their nutritive value from the shelf, it is questionable whether the fruit added to them provides many of the nutrients listed on the side of the box. Celeste Clark, director of corporate publicity for the Kellogg Co., explains that vitamins and minerals are added to fortify the grain portion of Kellogg's cereals. "The nutritional value that you get from eating a cereal that contains both grain and fruit comes from them both, but because of the fortification I would think that the greater portion would come from the grain." Fiber, carbohydrates and flavor, of course, come from the added apples.

"We are optimistic that consumers will continue to want those types of ingredients that add flavor variety to their cereal. Apples is one of those ingredients," says Clark. Apple Cookies

Nobody would go to the cookie section of the supermarket to get vitamins, but cookie producers seem to be riding the same wave of fruit consciousness as dry cereal manufacturers. "Fruit is becoming very popular, and of course apples are big. I foresee more apple products for us," says Paul Clark, research and development director for Archway Cookies Inc., headquartered in Ashland, Ohio.

Archway produces four apple-flavored cookies already, with Apple 'n' Raisin being the best seller, according to assistant sales manager Robert Entenmann. It ranks eighth in all Archway Cookie sales, but far below all-time favorites like Oatmeal, Old-fashioned Molasses and Date-filled Oatmeal. A fifth apple cookie, Oatmeal Apple Bran, will appear in markets soon.

Into each one of its apple cookie recipes Archway incorporates an apple filling, made to its specifications by the Henry & Henry Co. of Buffalo. Although it does not specify apple sources or varieties, it does require that the apple filling be 85 percent apples, that it reach a certain solidity (thus sugar content) and a certain tartness or pH. Henry & Henry ships the apple filling to Archway bakeries in huge drums, and it is either blended into batter or folded into the turnover-style cookies according to Archway recipes.

Another new apple item on the supermarket cookie shelves is Nabisco's Apple Newton, a new interpretation of the age-old Fig Newton. It appeared just over a year ago, harbinger of two more fruit-filled Newtons, cherry and blueberry, which have been in stores now for only two months. As product manager Myra Hess tells it, apples were the number-one fruit that Nabisco marketers chose when they decided to expand their Newton cookie line.

"Fig Newtons have been around forever," says Hess, later specifying that they have "almost one hundred years of heritage." As she explains it, Nabisco began considering an expanded fruit cookie line in the early 1980s. "With fruit products becoming more and more popular, we thought there was an opportunity to expand our fruit-filled line beyond figs. Apple is certainly the most popular fruit, if you look at home baking, if you look at juice sales."

The only market worry Nabisco felt was the possibility of "cannibalizing" already steady Fig Newton sales, but in fact Fig Newtons still sell well, and so do Apples Newtons. "It's really been a plus business for us," says Hess. "Fig, if anything, skews to an older market, and apple has a younger family appeal." Fig Newtons still sell more than any other, but Apple Newtons seem to have found their own constituency.

Like Archway, Nabisco buys ready-mixed apple filling from a flavor house. It is prepared to certain flavor and texture specifications with a combination of diced apples, powdered apples, concentrated apple juice, and sometimes natural apple flavoring as well as sweeteners and spices. Hess described the apple mix as "primarily delicious apples blended with rome," saying that seasonal variations in apples make the recipe different every time. BOO HERNDON'S SPARKLING CIDER (Makes 1/2 gallon) 1/4 teaspoon wine yeast 1/2 gallon pasteurized apple juice

Sprinkle wine yeast into bottle of apple juice. Tip bottle upside down once gently to mix yeast with juice. Punch 2 holes in top of apple juice bottle or leave top on but not screwed tight. Leave in area of kitchen where you don't mind an overflow. Depending on kitchen temperature, fermentation may take place in 2 to 4 days. Once the cider has reached desired bubbliness, refrigerate and drink promptly. APPLE TREASURE COOKIES (Makes 4 dozen cookies) 1/4 cup softened butter 3/4 cup shortening 1 cup light brown sugar 1/4 cup light molasses 3 eggs 3 1/2 cups unbleached flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 tablespoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon cloves 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 6-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips 1 1/2 cups grated raw apples (2 medium to large apples)

1 cup chopped walnuts

Cream butter, shortening, brown sugar and molasses until fluffy. Add eggs one by one, beating after each. Mix together flour, salt, baking soda and spices. Add to batter, mixing lightly. Stir in chocolate chips, grated apples, and nuts. Spoon onto greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. INDIAN SUMMER CEREAL (4 servings) 1 large tart apple 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/3 cup quick (not instant) Cream of Wheat 1 cup water 3/4 cup milk 1 egg 2 tablespoons brown sugar 1/2 cup raisins 1/2 cup grated coconut 1/2 cup chopped pecans

Chop unpeeled apple into 1/2-inch squares, toss with lemon juice and set aside. Prepare Cream of Wheat according to directions on box with water and milk, cooking to within 1 minute of completion. Whisk egg in separate bowl and stir it into cereal. Add brown sugar, then stir in apple, raisins, coconut, and pecans. Cover and let set 3 minutes. Serve hot with milk.