When the Campbell Soup Company asked consumers how strongly they agreed with the statement "My microwave is my friend," 42 percent said they "completely agreed."

"People don't talk about their vacuum cleaners that way," said Phyllis Levy, executive director of Campbell's Microwave Task Force.

Appliance affection aside, the microwave oven has come of age. It's as American as Mrs. Smith's Apple Pie In Minutes (only 10 in the microwave).

Serious cooks are no longer ignoring it, two-income households have come to depend on it and fast-food restaurants -- contending in a marketplace of busy eaters -- are having to compete with it.

Three simultaneous factors, it seems, have added to the microwave's popularity. Fears of the oven's safety have subsided, prices of the oven have declined and time for from-scratch cooking has decreased.

In 1980, 20 percent of American households owned a microwave. By 1986, that figure had tripled. And by 1990, experts predict eight in 10 households will own one.

On top of that, a 1986 Good Housekeeping survey indicated that half of all microwave owners want more microwave food products.

With those formidable statistics, it's no wonder that extensive technical research, packaging concepts and new product ideas weigh heavily on the minds of companies.

"From the producer's view, the sky's the limit. It's a pretty enormous trend," said Ellen Green, spokesperson for the National Food Processors Association.

"Almost anything where heating is a factor will eventually turn up as a microwave item," predicted Alan Miller, vice president of sales service of Sales Areas Marketing, Inc. (SAMI), a market research firm.

Convenient, hot food doesn't always mean quality food, however. The microwave phenomenon is big business, a matter of money more than taste or nutrition. Many of the products already hitting the market are just relabeled or reformulated versions of processed, packaged foods, the kind that give convenience foods a bad reputation.

Some microwave products cost more than their conventional counterparts, have cooking times that are longer than for normal preparations, or contain foods that have been notorious for poor microwave performance.

In addition, it's not always easy to tell what qualifies a product for "microwave" designation -- special packaging, a reformulation or just the "Microwave" hype -- since many conventional-oven products already include microwave directions.

Whatever course the trend takes, however, "microwave" is the marketing buzzword of the moment. Everything from Minute Rice to Pel-Freez Rabbit includes microwave directions.

Hot cereal, which went from regular cooking to quick cooking to instant cooking to Mix 'n Eat, can also be microwaved. (Have we entered split-second cooking?)

Microwave directions have given new meaning to old convenience foods (Cheez Whiz, Chef Boyardee Spaghetti-O's, Franco-American's canned gravies), and seem to be as prevalent on new products as claims of high fiber or added calcium.

While many of these products are simply the old versions with a "microwave" banner tacked onto them, the biggest boom has come with the introduction of products that have been specially designed for the microwave -- a $269-million-a-year business in 1986, according to SAMI.

Frozen microwave popcorn, first introduced by Pillsbury in 1978, then translated into shelf-stable varieties by other companies -- e.g. Orville Redenbacher -- has been one of the biggest winners in this category.

Pillsbury has recently introduced a microwave cake mix that comes with a microwave-safe cooking pan. According to Pillsbury spokesperson Marlene Johnson, the microwave mix is an entirely different formulation from the company's regular cake mix.

Nevertheless, you can also microwave Pillsbury's regular cake mix, although we didn't compare the two. We did, however, bake Pillsbury's regular cake mix in a conventional oven and cooked the microwave mix in the microwave. (The regular cake mix was lighter, softer and more moist. "Cooked dough" was how one taster described the rubbery microwave cake.)

The race is on, also, to develop the technology to successfully microwave commercially prepared fried foods. "Whoever comes up with it will make a bundle," said Bill Piszek, associate marketing research manager for Campbell's Microwave Task Force. Campbell's Levy said that the company's Microwave Institute, an umbrella group of marketers, food technologists and packaging experts, is currently trying to master the crispy coating.

Already, some companies are attempting this, with uneven success. A susceptor -- a layer of powdered aluminum laminated under plastic that absorbs microwave energy and heats to a high temperature without causing arcing -- is packaged with Pillsbury's Microwave Pizza and Ore-Ida's french fries, hash browns and Tater Tots. The silvery film is designed to brown the food, which it does, but that doesn't necessarily mean it makes it crisp.

Other companies have taken the approach of marketing products that go both ways -- in the microwave or a conventional oven. Stouffer's recently announced that it will be using a dual-oven tray for its entrees, side dishes and Lean Cuisine, and Swanson's Le Menu, with its high-grade plastic tray, can be popped into either appliance.

In addition to frozen foods, fresh and unrefrigerated packaged foods increasingly will be designed for microwave usage, predicted Robert McMath of Marketing Intelligence Services, Ltd., a research firm that publishes a new product newsletter.

Microwave coffee bags for freshly brewed coffee and microwave tea have been introduced in test markets, and McMath said that some wine cooler companies have even discussed the possibility of hot toddies.

As for what consumers think of the taste of current microwave products on the market, Levy said that Campbell's market research indicates that consumers are most satisfied with pancakes, soups, hot chocolate and coffee. Consumers "weren't too thrilled" with frozen fried chicken, Levy said, and microwave pizza was at the bottom of the list.

Nevertheless, Piszek said that people appear to be willing to trade off quality for convenience. While pizza may have been at the bottom of the consumer satisfaction list, Pillsbury's microwave pizza product is a $40 million a year business, he said. Notwithstanding public perception, Campbell recently introduced a microwave french bread pizza from its Pepperidge Farm line.

Due to increasingly busy schedules that get working couples home for dinner late, "people are saying 'I want to be satisfied now,'" Piszek pointed out. "Maybe the chicken will be a little chewier," he said, but consumers appear to be willing to make the compromise to save time.

It's not just time that people want to save. "Trouble saving is just as important -- perhaps more," according to Mona Doyle of Consumers Network, a market research firm that regularly polls shoppers.

One-third of consumers who own microwaves cook soup in them even though the time saving compared to range cooking is only a couple of minutes, said Levy of Campbell. Consumers "like the convenience and ease of clean-up" with the microwave, she explained.

That appears to be the philosophy behind products such as microwave Rice-A-Roni, manufactured by Golden Grain Macaroni Co., a subsidiary of Quaker Oats. According to Golden Grain associate scientist Betty Soares, the item is formulated for the microwave with instant rice and pre-browned vermicelli. However, it takes approximately the same amount of time to cook in a microwave as it does on top of the stove.

The difference is that the microwave variety can be cooked in the casserole dish in which it is served, said Soares. The stove-top cook would have to transfer the rice from the saucepan to a serving bowl -- not a particularly arduous task.

But the customer pays extra for that convenience. An eight-ounce box of chicken-flavored regular Rice-A-Roni, which serves six, was selling at Giant last week for 82 cents. Chicken-flavored Rice-A-Roni for the microwave, which includes dried vegetables, comes in a 4 1/2-ounce box, which serves four. It was selling for 99 cents.

You pay for packaging, too. A 25-ounce Mrs. Smith's Pumpkin Pie In Minutes, which comes in a microwave/conventional oven pan, was selling for $3.29 at Giant last week. Mrs. Smith's 26-ounce conventional oven-only pumpkin custard pie was selling for $2.12.

Consumers don't like those added packaging costs, said Doyle of Consumer's Network. And that's "a strong perception," she emphasized. Consumers feel that microwave packaging "should just be there."

Manufacturers contend that labor and packaging materials add to their expenses. Soares of Golden Grain said that the instant rice used in the company's microwave Rice-A-Roni is more costly than the regular variety and that prebrowning the vermicelli adds labor costs.

Campbell's could cut its packaging costs in half if it made Swanson's dual-oven Le Menu tray just for the microwave, said Piszek. But given that 60 percent of households own microwaves, a microwave-only product would elimate 40 percent of the market, he added.

Microwave packaging is an area that is being closely studied, according to Dane Bernard, director of microbiology, packaging and processing at the National Food Processors Association.

Aside from the susceptor, manufacturers are working on packaging films that selectively absorb microwaves, Bernard explained. This covering could enable the components of a frozen dinner entree to be microwaved at different rates even though the entire dinner is contained on one tray.

Currently, frozen-entree manufacturers tackle this problem by precooking foods to different stages of doneness, although they "don't always do it successfully," Bernard said.

Manufacturers are also busy experimenting with container shapes (a hockey puck is the best shape for a microwave tray, said Campbell's Piszek, but clearly not the most attractive), seasonings and the shape of foods.

In the development of Stouffer's new microwave Dinner Supreme line, according to Barbara Krouse, vice president of product development and quality assurance for the company, attention was paid to the intensity of seasonings, because microwave cooking gives food less time to blend flavors. An example of a shape adaption was made in a side dish of potatoes in the salisbury steak entree, which were cut into rectangles to ensure better microwaving.

One variable that food manfacturers cannot control, however, is the varying wattages of microwave ovens. Thus, even companies like Stouffer's -- which tested its Dinner Supreme entrees in a test kitchen with 10 different microwaves -- hedge cooking times by stating that they are approximations.

Consumers don't mind this, according to Doyle. They realize they might have to "zap it a little more, zap it a little less," but it's all part of a message that tells them "you're not going to hurt this much." And for the consumer who doesn't know a lot about cooking, "it's a nice message," she added.

As for the future of microwave products, Doyle predicts that there will be a lot of new items that won't last long because consumers "will move on to something else and {then} something else."

"Who knows?" said Piszek of Campbell, which owns Vlassic. "Hot pickles could be the next craze."