Packaged-foods giant Kraft (NYSE:KFT) reported third-quarter earnings after the market close yesterday. While earnings came in ahead of analyst projections, sales growth barely met target, which further demonstrates that the company is struggling to find ways to grow.

For the quarter, diluted earnings grew 12.5%, but sales advanced an anemic 2.3% to $8.2 billion.

Kraft did increase its full-year 2006 guidance range, to $1.86-$1.89 from the previous $1.78-$1.83. However, the upside is due to a couple of one-time gains, including $0.09 from redeeming an interest in United Biscuits and $0.10 from divesting Minute Rice.

Overall, I can't find much to get excited about when considering an investment in Kraft. It does pay a decent dividend, with a 2.8% yield. However, five-year growth numbers look average; sales have advanced 8.3% and net income 5.6% annually over this time frame, although operating cash flow has grown only 1.3% each year. And as of the last fiscal year, while annual sales have grown nearly 6% over the past one, two, and three-year periods, annual bottom-line growth for those same periods has been negative.

As one would expect from a slow-growing company in a mature industry, cash flow generation is strong, and operating cash flow tends to exceed reported net income. But again, the margin is not overly wide. About a quarter of operating cash is used up by annual capex needs, as the food industry tends to be capital-intensive due to the need to manufacture, package, and transport its products.

Kraft's stable of brand names is impressive, including the namesake cheeses, Maxwell Coffee, Kool-Aid, Crystal Light, Oreos, Ritz, DiGiorno, and Jell-O, just to name a few. It also licenses certain beverages under the Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) name, pizzas under California Pizza Kitchen (NASDAQ:CPKI), and even Taco Bell home taco products, owned by Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM).

Unfortunately, Kraft appears to have found a way to underleverage its brands and get caught with the image of having a bunch of slow-growing, unhealthy, fatty, sugary, or salty product offerings. Perhaps it's as much perception as anything; I mean, the majority of PepsiCo's (NYSE:PEP) products aren't exactly high on the nutritional side of things, but the company has proven a savvy product innovator and is focusing on developing the low-fat and reduced-calorie alternatives that consumers increasingly demand.

Right now, Kraft has more similarities to struggling food company Sara Lee (NYSE:SLE) than it does to a more consistent PepsiCo. Perhaps once it is spun off fromAltria Group (NYSE:MO), Kraft will be able to position itself for faster expansion ahead, but for the time being it remains a slow-moving giant with uncompelling growth prospects. At least investors are getting paid to wait for any future turnaround.

For related Foolishness:

Kraft is an Income Investor pick, while Sara Lee is a former selection of that service. Starbucks is a Stock Advisor recommendation.

Fool contributor Ryan Fuhrmann is long shares of Starbucks, but has no financial interest in any other company mentioned. Feel free to email him with feedback or to discuss any companies mentioned further. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.