For investors looking to sink their teeth into food stocks in 2021, Beyond Meat (NASDAQ:BYND) and Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) are top brands that are both leaders in their fields. But they offer different menus, different models, and different outlooks for investors. 

Both companies struggled during the pandemic, but we're talking about the future -- which one of these consumer discretionary stocks is the better buy today?

Leading brands, different directions 

Beyond Meat was a hot IPO in 2019, and a decidedly non-tech one, unless you count food technology. It produces alternative meat patties and other meatless products, and revenue has skyrocketed as the products have increased in popularity. As recently as the first quarter of 2020, sales grew by triple digits. But demand fell as shutdowns dragged on.. In the third quarter, which ended Sept. 26, sales grew 2.7%. That's still an increase, but it does change the perspective on the company's growth prospects. The main headwind was foodservice, which declined 11% in the U.S. and 65% internationally,, but even retail channel sales grew only 39%.

Beyond Burger package in a shopping cart.

Image source: Beyond Meat.

Before the pandemic, Coca-Cola made an excellent showing, with 16% sales growth in the fourth quarter of 2019 and 9% for the year. In other words, despite its giant stature, Coca-Cola can still make a splash. It also says that it only has 10% of the cold beverage market in developing countries, which it considers 80% of the world. It has less than 1% of other beverages, giving it space to move into. But it has also shown that it is susceptible to global economic changes. Third-quarter sales decreased 9%, which was actually a nice improvement from a decline of 28.5% in the second quarter. About half of the company's sales generally come from the away-from-home category, a similar problem to Beyond Meat's. And while some of that moved into home demand, it showed in lower overall sales. However, Coke still reported $0.40 in earnings per share.

Coca-Cola remains the leading beverage company, with $8.7 billion in third-quarter sales, and it made quick restructuring changes to manage better in the current environment. 

Standing out in a crowded space

Beyond Meat is one of the biggest names in its field, but it faces strong competition from similar companies. CEO Ethan Brown has said that its products are different than competitor Impossible Foods' because Beyond Meat doesn't use genetically modified ingredients. But aside from customers who think a plant-based patty is a plant-based patty, there are many other manufacturers of similar products, such as Kroger's Simple Truth brand, Tyson Foods, and The Tattooed Chef

The company continues to launch new products and is introducing two new burger recipes in 2021. It certainly has some clout that helps it stand out in the plant-based patty world, and plant-based foods is a growing field. According to the plant-based foods association's most recent data, plant-based meat sales grew more than 18% in 2019, versus 2.7% for real meat sales.

Boy drinking a cola in a glass with a straw.

Image source: Getty Images.

Beyond Meat became profitable in 2019, but posted a loss in the third quarter. As for the fourth quarter, the company is still struggling with the loss of foodservice business as well as the slowdown of the stocking-up period at the beginning of the pandemic. Investors will be watching to see if can turn back to earnings sometime in 2021.

Coca-Cola also faces plenty of competition, but its brand has become so dominant over the decades that its name gives it a differentiated edge. PepsiCo, its biggest rival, performed much better than Coke during the pandemic due to its beverage and breakfast segments, and has been growing faster than Coca-Cola for a while. 

Coke also pays a dividend that yields 3.3% at recent prices and has been raised annually for the past 58 years. The dividend is probably the stock's greatest attraction, and management was sure to keep it up throughout the pandemic despite sales setbacks. 

The takeaway for investors

I'm not so sure either one of these stocks is a great buy today. I am wary about Beyond Meat's prospects, and Coke's still struggling through pandemic closures and competition. However, Coca-Cola still offers something for dividend investors, and it has plans up its sleeve to make a big comeback.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.