At first glance, Victor Herbert v. the National Academy of Sciences looks like just one more lawsuit clogging the U.S. District Court docket.

Herbert, a leading nutrition researcher who heads the hematology and nutrition lab at the Bronx Veterans Administration Medical Center, is suing the National Academy of Sciences for allegedly plagiarizing some of his work on the Recommended Dietary Allowances -- the nutrition rules known as RDAs.

The lawsuit may be about plagiarism, but the debate behind the case is far more important: At issue is what Americans should eat daily to get the essential vitamins and minerals needed to maintain their health. The case, which was filed in February, is the latest round in a 15-year fight about dietary standards.

The main issue is whether some vitamins, such as A and C, can help prevent disease and should be consumed in greater quantities than previously recommended.

RDAs are nutritional recommendations for 18 essential vitamins and minerals. Anyone who reads a food label or the fine print on the back of a vitamin bottle sees values based on the RDAs.

First drafted in 1941 by the Food and Nutrition Board, part of the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council, the RDAs were established "to serve as a goal for good nutrition."

Updated about every five years, the RDAs serve as a gold standard for dietitians, food producers, marketers and, most recently, for health-conscious consumers interested in good nutrition.

The current fight began in 1985 during a review of the RDAs and pits so-called nutrition activists, a phrase coined by writer Elliott Marshall in the journal Science, against what activists call nutrition traditionalists.

Activists favor an aggressive approach to changing eating habits. They contend that nutrition can be an important tool in preventing disease. They believe it's time to shift the focus from minimum standards necessary to maintain health to optimal levels of vitamins and minerals to help prevent disease.

Activists contend that vitamins A and C, found in such foods as carrots and citrus fruit, may help prevent cancer. They favor general shifts in the American diet including reducing fat and eating more fiber.

Doing so is "important to reduce the risk of chronic disease," especially cancer and heart disease, said Peter Greenwald, the National Cancer Institute's director of cancer prevention and control, who points to benefits in cutting the risk of cancer and heart disease.

Nutrition traditionalists aren't so convinced, particularly when it entails population-wide recommendations. They view the pro-fiber stance as more of a crusade and contend that while fiber is an important part of a well-balanced diet, there is no conclusive evidence that it necessarily prevents disease or lowers blood cholesterol.

Nutrition traditionalists are not against lowering fat in the American diet but prefer seeing data from more patient studies, rather than relying heavily on population, or epidemiological, surveys to make this or any other nutritional recommendation.

"{The activists} look at the epidemiologic data and say, 'Eat more vitamins A and C to prevent cancer,' " said Herbert, who bristles at being labeled a nutrition traditionalist. "We look at the same data and say, 'Hold it folks!' "

Not that nutrition traditionalists deny the importance of vitamins. They're just not sure that scientific evidence points to a beneficial effect of raising daily intake for everyone.

Two new studies and an editorial published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine are likely to fuel the controversy. In one report, researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston found that Accutane -- an acne-fighting derivative of vitamin A -- helped prevent the formation of additional head and neck tumors in patients with oral cancer. But in a second study of skin cancer patients, another vitamin A derivative -- beta carotene -- was not effective in preventing new skin tumors.

If vitamin A proves to be effective in preventing cancer, it still won't necessarily mean that everyone should increase their daily dose, and that's where the most recent skirmish over the RDAs comes in.

In 1985, a 10-member committee of experts, appointed by the academy to update the RDAs, recommended that the daily requirements for vitamins A and C set in 1980 be lowered from 60 milligrams to 40 milligrams a day. Their decision was based, they said, on a lack of scientific evidence to support keeping the RDA for the two vitamins at the higher level.

But that recommendation would have placed the lower RDAs at odds with another academy report published in 1982 that said there was evidence that vitamins A and C in food help prevent cancer.

When the differences could not be resolved, the expert committee was disbanded by the National Academy's president, Frank Press. In 1987, Press named a subcommittee to edit the committee's work. When the 10th edition was finally published in October 1989, it included the higher levels for vitamins A and C.

"They cut out the science," Herbert said. "They are promoting pop nutrition and lining the pockets of {drug company} Hoffman La Roche, which sells $1 billion of vitamins A and C every year."

RDAs are often misunderstood by consumers and are frequently mistaken for USRDAs -- the recommendations found on an increasing number of food labels. Since labels are too small to include RDAs for all age groups, the Food and Drug Administration sets an average for everyone -- the USRDA -- which is what appears on a growing number of foods.

Yet when the average consumer tries to sort all this information, "it's extremely difficult," said Walter Mertz, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center in Beltsville.

This is in part because RDAs themselves are averages. The National Academy of Sciences defines them as the level of nutrients needed according to age and sex "for the maintenance of good nutrition of practically all healthy people in the United States."

For example, a normal adult needs between 5 to 10 milligrams a day of vitamin C, but the USRDA is set at 60 mg. to allow storage of vitamins within the body. At this level, the average adult could eat a vitamin C-free diet for about five months before stores would be depleted; at 40 mg. a day, stores last about three months.

Following a diet that meets the RDAs for an individual's particular age and sex doesn't guarantee health for every individual. Average levels of nutrients may be too high for some people and too low for others, and they don't cover the special nutritional needs of premature babies or people with metabolic disorders, severe infections and chronic illnesses.

This is one reason many people today reach for vitamin supplements to help them meet their individual needs for certain nutrients. Sales of vitamins and minerals run more than an estimated $1 billion a year in the U.S.

While once-a-day multivitamin pills that contain no more than 150 percent of the RDAs are generally safe to take, experts question whether they offer any benefit to well-nourished Americans who are likely to get a basic level of vitamins and minerals in a well-balanced diet.

What's more, high doses of certain vitamins can be dangerous. Oil-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K can accumulate in the body's fat stores and cause toxic effects. Minerals, including selenium and iron, can also be dangerous.

This is why many nutrition experts favor eating a variety of foods to meet the RDAs, rather than taking supplements.

"If you take a vitamin pill, you get exactly what is produced in the lab," Mertz said. But if consumers follow a well-balanced diet, he said, "they have a pretty good chance of getting just about everything they need."