BREATHE a sigh of relief or wrinkle your nose: Garlic production and consumption in the United States is at an all-time high.That's the word from Jim Provost, spokesman for Christopher Ranch, the No. 1 producer of fresh garlic in the US in Gilroy, Calif., the self-proclaimed garlic capital of the world. From stir-fries to chicken pot pies, garlic is finding its way into more Americans' diets - and becoming more socially acceptable. According to the Fresh Garlic Association, annual US garlic production has risen from 48 million pounds in the 1970s to 250 million pounds today. Of that total, 50 million pounds are sold fresh while most the rest is dehydrated and used in processed foods such as garlic powder and salt. Good news for the strong-smelling herb that has led a double life for so long. The Allium Sativum, member of the lily family and close relative of the onion, has historically followed a course of popularity like that of many politicians: one day good, the next day bad. Worshipped and maligned, its main characteristic - a strong scent - has defined its very existence. This in turn has caused many people to regard garlic in a similar way they might regard a skunk: "It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't stink. " But that may be changing. Garlic seems to be climbing to a new level of social acceptance in this country - beyond the basket of garlic bread at your favorite Italian restaurant. Several factors account for the rising popularity, say producers and consumers. As ethnic restaurants - from Chinese to Middle Eastern - have become more commonplace, so has garlic, which is a staple for many cultures. The Chinese and Koreans consume more garlic per capita than other nationalities, Mr. Provost says. Many people spice up their food with garlic instead of salt and also perceive health benefits associated with eating garlic, says Provost, adding: "It might be the oat bran of the '90s!" Garlic has also received increased publicity from garlic festivals in the US, such as those in St. Louis and Cincinnati. Garlic capital Gilroy holds one every year the last weekend in July; 140,000 people attended this year. In San Francisco, "The Stinking Rose: A Garlic Restaurant" opened in July, emphasizing liberal and healthful use of garlic. And for garlic fans there's Garlic News, a quarterly newsletter from Sausalito, Calif. With so many people ga-ga over garlic, some predict the smell of garlic on oneself will not only be more tolerated, but become an olfactory status symbol. Then again, maybe not. Recently at the Produce Marketing Association conference in Boston, people stood in line to sample fresh garlic. "I love it, but my wife won't come near me for days after I eat it," admitted one man who covered his mouth while speaking and was "too embarrassed" to give his name. Those who overheard grinned sheepishly. But Paeko Bybee says she has a solution - literally - that eliminates the lingering odor of garlic. Mrs. Bybee is president of Dr. Sakai garlic, marketed as the fresh garlic that looks, cooks, smells, and tastes like traditional garlic, but does not give the user garlic breath. By soaking the bulbs in a secret solution bath, invented by Dr. Sakai in Japan, the bulbs lose some of their potency. The odor, so the company claims, will be gone as early as half an hour after you've eaten it. "Fresh garlic has a very aromatic smell, and people love that when you cook," says Bybee over the phone. "But after 30 minutes, nobody needs it. If you eat it every night no one will come near you." Still, traditionalists argue for the garlic Mother Nature makes. To that, Jack Kazanchy, corporate manager for Dr. Sakai, says: "Fine, if you want to stink, it's a free country." He has received thousands of letters praising the Dr. Sakai garlic. One reads: "You've saved my marriage."