Even before there were two contaminated grapes from Chile there was Dr. Earl Mindell - an intense and opinionated nutritionist from California who for years has been warning Americans that their food is killing them.

"Unsafe At Any Meal" is Mindell's verdict about the state of the modern American diet and those four basic food groups: pesticides, preservatives, saturated fats and breakfast cereals.It's also the title of his most recent book, a book that was pretty much ignored when it first came out but is now, in the face of new food scares, getting national attention.

"Unsafe At Any Meal" does for Alar and hydrogenated soybean oil what Ralph Nader's "Unsafe At Any Speed" did for the Corvair 20 years ago.

"It's not just two grapes from Chile, it's the fat - that's what's killing Americans," observed Mindell, who was in Salt Lake City to promote a new vitamin product.

Mindell, also the author of "The Vitamin Bible," argues that it's almost impossible for Americans to get enough vitamins from the food they eat. The irony of American food, he says, is that most of it has been so robbed of nutrients that it has to be "fortified" with nutrients.

One vitamin that is particularly hard to get enough of, he says, is vitamin B-12. Especially at risk for B-12 deficiency, he says, are older people, whose stomachs no longer produce enough of a substance that permits adequate absorption of the vitamin into their bloodstream.

Certain drugs, such as birth control pills, also inhibit the absorption of B-12, as does excessive alcohol consumption and cigarette use, he says. B-12 is necessary for the normal metabolism of nerve tissue and is involved in protein, fat and carbohydrate metabolism.

The nutritionist is promoting a new product called Ener-B, a nasal gel that bypasses the stomach and supplies B-12 to the bloodstream via the nasal membrane. The vitamin is applied to the inside of the nose through a disposable applicator.

The energizing effects of Ener-B can be felt within 90 seconds, says Mindell. "You start to think clearer, as if a veil is sort of lifted." The effect lasts for three days, he says.

Mindell says that, like many Americans, he used to think that "if you weren't taking a pill something was wrong with you." That was 25 years ago, when he was working as a pharmacist and sampling too many of the wares, particularly the tranquilizers and sleeping pills.

That was when a colleague told him about vitamins, and Mindell has been a convert and a crusader ever since.

*****