Mr. Market is a relaxed fellow these days. The Dow Jones index hasn't dipped by more than 2% for almost six months, share volatility is low, and economic growth has remained steady for as long as investors can remember. No wonder food stocks are attracting so little attention.

As all Fools know, Mr. Market's moods can fluctuate considerably. But companies involved in the sale of processed and packaged foods and other consumer products tend to hold their ground during times of economic and stock-market uncertainty. That's because consumers must eat regardless of what phase we are at in the business cycle.

There are only a handful of key domestic and foreign companies to consider in the food space. Years of acquisitions have led to a consolidated industry and a few dominant players that dominate the landscape. This is good and bad from an investment standpoint; the remaining competitors generate ample and reliable cash flow to pay high dividends and for other corporate purposes. But because the industry is mature and competition is intense, there are minimal opportunities to buy market share and grow organically, or by internal means.

The above conditions are an ideal recipe for success to some investors, namely those interested in income and downside protection should the economy slow at some point going forward. Plus, food consumption should expand along with population growth -- at least a couple of percentage points a year. And there may be opportunities for even faster growth.

Of course, ample cash flow can be spent foolishly. Many food companies pursued the growth of market share at all costs and inadvertently entered weaker markets or unappealing product categories that added unintended fat rather than hoped-for muscle. As a result, companies such as Sara Lee (NYSE:SLE), Unilever (NYSE:UN) (NYSE:UL), and H.J. Heinz (NYSE:HNZ) have been jettisoning underperforming units to focus on higher-margin or faster-growing businesses. The strategy seems to be working at Unilever; its top-line growth is coming in higher than in previous years. That growth was only about 3.4% over the last year, but it improved by 7% in the recently reported fourth quarter. Sara Lee is seeing similar sales growth but still has work to do on cleaning up the bottom line, as does Heinz.

In contrast, Kraft Foods (NYSE:KFT) may be fresh on the acquisition trail once it becomes independent from parent Altria (NYSE:MO), while Paris-based Groupe Danone (NYSE:DA) is benefiting from a move to lower-fat and healthier foods.

In other words, food stocks have appeal even though they aren't expected to post overly appetizing top-line growth as a whole. The best strategy may be to invest in a couple of names to minimize the risk of a snafu from any individual company. For example, Unilever, Kraft, and Heinz are Income Investor recommendations. However, the more active investor may want to scratch further below the surface and make a judgment as to which has the best overall prospects. I'm currently eyeing Unilever, though I liked it much better in the low $20 range and have further tire-kicking to do.

For related Foolishness:

Unilever, Kraft Foods, and H.J. Heinz are all dividend-paying Income Investor recommendations. To see what other companies have been recommended to subscribers of the market-beating newsletter service, take a free 30-day trial today.

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