Shares of Heinz (NYSE:HNZ) just hit a 52-week high of $45, but have prospects at the ketchup and food producer really improved that much?

Investor sentiment has definitely improved since activist shareholder Nelson Peltz and his Trian hedge fund won two seats on the company's board. Further details of his initial recommendations can be found here, but basically investors have become increasingly optimistic that restructuring will allow for better capital allocation strategies to reduce costs and move resources toward growing the top line through improved product development. The end goal is enhanced profitability and earnings growth.

Indeed, in the company's second-quarter earnings results released last Thursday, management highlighted that operating income grew 10.2% and total sales advanced 3.5%, driven by strength at its ubiquitous ketchup and related Heinz brands -- as well as other brands such as Weight Watchers and Classico pastas.

However, total company net income fell 5% for the quarter, as discontinued operations charges dragged down total results. Operating cash flow ran slightly ahead of reported net income for the quarter, but was below net income for the first six months of the year. And free cash flow is lagging reported net income because of capex needs.

On an annual basis, Heinz generates high levels of operating cash flow, but the figure has decreased for the past three fiscal years and capex and acquisitions have eaten up a fair amount of internal capital generated. In similar fashion to other food giants such as Unilever (NYSE:UL), Sara Lee (NYSE:SLE), or Kraft (NYSE:KFT), Heinz has a track record for making dubious acquisitions and diversifying into new areas and product categories that have a questionable benefit on the bottom line.

Heinz has been accused of pursuing business ventures with less compelling economics than its core ketchup franchises, leading to a complicated corporate structure and slowing core growth. As a result, it is now pursuing controlling costs; making smarter, smaller acquisitions; and renewing focus on its most profitable and growing brands.

Judging by second-quarter results, it's hard to tell whether renewed management focus and activist shareholder recommendations have in fact taken hold. The recent stock move leads me to believe that any improvements that have taken place are now priced into the stock, so further upside will be challenging until more tangible benefits -- such as steady cash flow generation and consistent, visible top- and bottom-line growth -- can be seen.

Until then, investors can bank on the 3.1% annual dividend yield, although that is down from before, thanks to the recent upward move in the stock price. Right now, Sara Lee and Unilever are further along in their own company restructurings, with the former having jettisoned most of its non-core businesses and the latter still paying a hefty 4.6% annual dividend yield. Despite having further work to do, all three appear to be on the right track.

For related Foolishness:

Kraft, Unilever, and Heinz are all Income Investor recommendations.

Fool contributor Ryan Fuhrmann has no financial interest in any company mentioned. Feel free to email him with feedback or to discuss any companies mentioned further. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.