Food companies are generally considered stable long-term stock investments, but shifting consumer tastes are forcing aging stalwarts to shift gears and creating fresh market opportunities to attract newcomers.

Let's examine three food stocks that highlight those shifting trends, and why investors should keep an eye on them as potential investments.

1. General Mills

General Mills (GIS 0.99%) sells more than 100 packaged food brands -- including Cheerios, Yoplait, and Häagen-Dazs -- in over 100 countries. But like many of its peers, General Mills has struggled with waning demand from health-conscious consumers and competition from smaller and private-label brands.

A shopper pushes a shopping cart through a supermarket aisle.

Image source: Getty Images.

The food brand giant has countered those challenges with three main strategies. First, it's refreshed its classic brands with new varieties and flavors. Second, it's diversified its portfolio by buying healthier brands like Annie's organic foods and entered the premium pet market by acquiring Blue Buffalo. Lastly, it's instituted strict cost-cutting measures and raised its prices, which offset its declining shipments while protecting its margins.

General Mills' organic sales stayed flat in fiscal 2019 (which ended in May of that year), and its adjusted earnings rose 4% in constant currency terms. But in fiscal 2020 (ending in May), its organic sales and adjusted earnings grew 4% and 12%, respectively, as the pandemic drove an "unprecedented increase in demand for food at home."

That momentum continued in the first quarter of 2021 (which ended Aug. 30), as its organic sales rose 10%, its adjusted EPS surged 27% in constant currency terms, and it raised its dividend for the first time in two years. It didn't provide any guidance for the full year, but analysts are expecting its sales and earnings to stay roughly flat -- which indicates its post-pandemic growth will gradually stabilize. With a forward P/E ratio of 17 and a forward dividend yield of 3.3%, General Mills should remain a sound defensive stock for a volatile market.

2. Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola (KO 0.78%) is best known for its namesake soda, but it actually sells more than 500 brands of drinks in over 200 countries. The company has struggled with declining soda consumption over the past few decades, but it's been offsetting those declines by expanding its portfolio with bottled water, tea, sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit juices, coffee, and even alcoholic drinks.

Prior to the pandemic, Coca-Cola acquired Costa Coffee, expanded its core brand with Coca-Cola Energy and Coca-Cola Coffee, and refranchised many of its bottling operations to strengthen its margins.

Those efforts had been bearing fruit: Coca-Cola's organic sales grew 6% last year, while its comparable EPS rose 1%. Unfortunately, the pandemic halted those strategies by shutting down restaurants and other brick-and-mortar businesses worldwide -- which caused its organic sales and comparable EPS to decline 14% and 16% year-over-year, respectively, in the first half of 2020.

Coca-Cola hasn't provided any guidance for the full year, but analysts expect its revenue and earnings to decline 12% and 14%, respectively, before stabilizing next year. The company will report its third-quarter earnings on Oct. 22, which might provide a clearer view of its progress throughout the pandemic.

For now, Coca-Cola's forward dividend yield of 3.3%, its reputation as a Dividend Aristocrat with nearly six consecutive decades of annual dividend hikes, and its reasonable forward P/E ratio of 22 should limit its downside potential until it recovers from the pandemic.

3. Beyond Meat

Beyond Meat (BYND -1.98%) has developed plant-based meat products over the past decade. The company claims its products require 99% less water, 93% less land, and 46% less energy than traditional meat products. It went public last May at $25 per share, and its stock now sits above $160.

Beyond Meat's "Beyond Chicken" at KFC.

Image source: Beyond Meat.

Beyond Meat rapidly expanded by securing partnerships with top restaurants and retailers like Yum Brands, Starbucks, Costco, and Walmart. That increased visibility sparked its meteoric growth: Its revenue rose 170% in 2018, accelerated to 239% growth in 2019, and grew another 96% to $210.4 million in the first half of 2020.

Beyond Meat isn't profitable yet, but its net losses narrowed in 2018 and 2019, then narrowed again year-over-year from $16.1 million to $8.4 million in the first half of 2020. That progress is encouraging, and it suggests Beyond Meat could generate sustainable long-term returns -- so long as diners continue buying its products and it fends off rivals like Impossible Foods.

That might be easier said than done, though, and Beyond's stock isn't cheap at over 20 times this year's sales. However, Wall Street still expects its revenue to rise 61% this year, then grow another 56% next year as it generates its first full-year profit. Beyond Meat is expected to post its third-quarter earnings in late October, so investors should see if this high-growth food stock can maintain its impressive momentum.