After months of publicity and years of debate about new, improved food labels, the issue has finally been settled.

As one of its last acts before it adjourned, Congress passed legislation that for the first time will require detailed nutrition information on all food packages. President Bush signed the measure into law last Friday, which means there will be a major change in how nutrition information is listed on food labels. EATING RIGHT

Currently the listing of calories, fat, carbohydrates and other nutrients on food packages is voluntary; about 60 percent of processed foods contain this information. Manufacturers are only required to list data on their packages if they make a nutrition claim, such as "low sodium," or if they fortify their foods with iron or other vitamins or minerals.

Aside from requiring such disclosure, the new rules would revamp the kind of information on the label. There will be more details about fat, saturated fat and cholesterol and fewer about minor nutrients, such as riboflavin, since vitamin and mineral deficiency is a relatively rare problem.

During the past year, the Food and Drug Administration and Congress had been running a relay race of sorts; the FDA had proposed similar food labeling measures in July, and there had been much discussion over who would end up setting the rules.

Although the new law is similar in many respects to the FDA's proposal, the agency's final regulations will have to conform to the dictates of the new law. The law gives the FDA the legal backing some observers believe the agency needed to require nutrition information on all food packages, while leaving many of the details of implementation up to the FDA.

Consumers shouldn't expect new food labels for a while, however. The law gives the FDA two years to come up with final regulations, with six additional months for manufacturers to comply. Some details will be subject to change, but here's a basic idea of what to expect in 2 1/2 years:

Nutrition information panel. The current list of calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates and sodium will be joined by saturated fat, cholesterol, complex carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber and the number of calories from total fat. Standardized serving sizes will also be established.

The FDA will determine which vitamins and minerals to list; last summer, the agency proposed requiring that calcium, iron and vitamins A and C be included.

The percentage of fruit or vegetable juice in beverages will also have to be printed. Currently, only makers of orange juice drinks must list the percentage of juice.

Fruits, vegetables and seafood. Supermarkets could voluntarily display nutrition information about the 20 most frequently consumed foods in each category. If the FDA determines that not enough supermarkets are doing so voluntarily, then the agency could make it mandatory.

Nutrition content claims. Terms such as "free," "low," "light," "reduced," and "high" must be defined by FDA. If a manufacturer makes one of these claims on its label, a statement must appear right next to it directing the purchaser to the nutrition information panel. The new law also sets criteria and restrictions for making claims about the cholesterol, saturated fat and fiber content.

Health claims. Manufacturers will be able to make claims that their products decrease the risk of a specific disease if the FDA decides that they are scientifically valid. The agency would review a list of diet-disease relationships and determine whether there is a link, such as between sodium and hypertension, calcium and osteoporosis or dietary fiber and cancer. If the FDA decides that consumption of calcium decreases the risk of osteoporosis, for example, then manufacturers would be permitted to make that claim if their product contains a significant amount of calcium.

uf defrrPreemption. One of the most contentious issues was whether states should be permitted to pass laws that could supersede federal statutes. Manufacturers lobbied hard against this and won a partial victory. According to the new law, states cannot enact nutrition labeling laws, but they can enact laws regarding health warnings on foods.

Exempt foods. These include meat and poultry products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; restaurant food; take-out products sold in grocery stores; infant formula; foods sold in small packages; foods with insignificant amounts of nutrients, such as tea, and products sold by companies with total sales of less than $500,000.

Eating Right appears on alternate Tuesdays.