Whenever I eat carrot cake I feel virtuous because I think it must be more nutritious than other desserts. Am I kidding myself?

ANSWER - Well, let's say you're picking a calorically expensive way to get your vitamin A. Recipes vary, and so does the nutritional value of carrot cakes. But in an average slice of typical carrot cake made with walnuts, you'll get 360 calories - and that's without icing. Sixty percent of those calories come from fat. If the cake included pineapple or coconut, the caloric count would be even higher.Yes, the carrots do contribute nearly half the Recommended Daily Allowance for vitamin A. However, by eating a 71/2-inch carrot, you'd get more than one-and-a-half times the RDA for vitamin A for only 30 calories.

A serving of carrot cake typically does offer somewhat more thiamin, riboflavin and iron than a slice of white bread.

Quick-bread carrot cakes might have a more favorable ratio of calories to other nutrients, but they're still no nutritional bargain.

QUESTION - One step I've taken to lower my cholesterol level is to eat more chicken and less beef and pork. Now a friend tells me that chicken actually contains about the same amount of cholesterol as these other meats. Could that be true?

ANSWER - It could be and it is - but it's only part of the picture. There's not much difference between the cholesterol content of these foods. However, two other dietary factors play an even bigger role in determining serum (blood) cholesterol level: the amount and the type of fat.

Instead of focusing only on the cholesterol content of a food, limit your total fat intake to no more than 30 percent of the calories you consume. The fat you do eat should be evenly divided among polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated.

Thanks to consumer demand, it's now possible to buy leaner cuts of beef. And pork manufacturers have managed to produce meat with a lower fat content than ever before. If you buy the leanest cuts, trim away visible fat, cook without adding extra fat and eat modest portions, you'll make headway in restricting fat intake. On the other hand, there is an advantage to chicken and turkey, provided you remove the skin before eating them: The fat they contain is not as highly saturated as that in beef or pork.

QUESTION - I keep hearing that dried peas are especially healthy. Why are they better than regular frozen peas? And is there any way of eating them besides in soups?

ANSWER - Dried peas, as with dried beans, are more suitable as a main dish than are fresh or frozen peas. They provide high-quality protein at relatively low cost and contain other nutrients, too. It's true they often appear in soups, which can be hearty enough to serve as the centerpiece of a meal. But they can be used in more solid dishes also.

The nutritional difference between dried and frozen peas is related to processing. Dried peas are denser. A cup has 230 calories, as opposed to only 105 in a cup of cooked frozen peas. The dried peas contain about 16 grams of protein; the frozen variety has only about half that much. Dried peas are also richer in potassium and iron.

When it comes to vitamins, though, drying takes a toll. Frozen peas contain more B vitamins and provide about half the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin C. Dried peas have no vitamin C, and come up short on vitamin A, while frozen ones contribute about 20 percent of the RDA. A brine solution often used in processing frozen peas can add to their sodium content, a point to consider if you're watching sodium intake.

QUESTION - Why are emulsifiers put in processed foods?

ANSWER - Like an actor who slips easily into different characters, emulsifiers perform a host of functions in numerous foods from bread to sausages. By altering the surface properties of ingredients, they allow them to combine more easily. For example, in making mayonnaise, egg yolk acts as an emulsifier.

Emulsifiers are widely used to help mix oil and water. In bakery products, they improve volume, moisture retention, uniformity and fineness of grain. They also retard staling and help condition dough. They improve the texture of pasta and inhibit clumping, of particular use when pasta is to be used in canned and frozen foods.

Emulsifiers are used to ensure proper texture in ice cream and to keep fat (which holds the flavor) evenly dispersed in process cheese.

1990, Washington Post Writers Group