McCormick (NYSE:MKC) recently added some spice to its quarterly dividend, increasing from $0.24 to $0.26 a share. This marked the 24th year in a row that management has given shareholders a raise.

In the most recently quarterly earnings release, the maker of spices, Lawry's, Zatarain's and other brands reported an increase in both revenue and earnings compared to the year-ago quarter, along with an increase in gross margins. Year-over-year earnings increases have been common recently; bigger helpings of revenue have been rare.

Food companies are typically good income-producing defensive investments. Investors trade some upside in bull markets for the downside protection. For example, here's how McCormick has compared to the SPDR S&P 500 (NYSE:SPY) from the market high to the market low, as well as the combined bear and bull run. McCormick held up much better than the broad market during the decline, but didn't appreciate as much in the sharp rise we've seen from the March lows.

Time Period

SPDR S&P 500

McCormick

Bear Run Oct. 12, 2007-March 5, 2009

-54.7%

-12.1%

Bull Run March 5, 2009-Nov. 30, 2009

62.6%

20.5%

Combined Run Oct. 12, 2007-Nov. 30, 2009

-26.3%

6%

McCormick fits the profile of a good defensive stock, but are there better choices among its competitors? The Motley Fool CAPS stock screener can help find the answer. The screen was set to look for companies in the Food and Beverage Industry with: 

  • A market cap greater than $1 billion
  • A maximum P/E ratio of 20
  • A dividend yield of at least 2.5% 
  • Positive earnings and revenue growth over the past three years
  • A four- or five-star CAPS rating

You can run the screen yourself or tweak the parameters here. The screen returned 10 hits with six food producers, including McCormick.

Company

P/E (TTM)

Dividend
Yield

EPS Growth Rate
(Last 3 Yrs.)

Rev. Growth Rate
(Last 3 Yrs.)

Est. EPS Growth
(5 Yrs.)

Campbell Soup
(NYSE:CPB)

16.2

2.8%

4.44%

0.31%

8.7%

ConAgra Foods
(NYSE:CAG)

14.5

3.5%

31.27%

0.95%

8%

Flowers Foods
(NYSE:FLO)

16.4

3%

16.70%

11.39%

9.5%

General Mills
(NYSE:GIS)

16.1

2.7%

9.13%

7.03%

9.1%

H.J. Heinz
(NYSE:HNZ)

16.0

3.9%

2.39%

4.22%

6.9%

McCormick

18.0

2.8%

9.59%

5.69%

10%

*Data sources: Motley Fool CAPS Stock Screener, McCormick dividend yield adjusted to reflect increase, Est. growth rates from Yahoo! Finance. TTM=Trailing 12 months.

McCormick compares well with other CAPS four- and five-star food producers, and its slight premium valuation is supported by a higher estimated growth rate than its peers, and a long track record of dividend hikes. Flowers Foods and General Mills also look attractive, trading at discounts to the group, yet sporting healthy predicted growth, solid dividends and respectable three-year track records.

Screen results are just a starting point for further research, but these companies all seem like good candidates for investors looking to add some tasty defense.

What do you think? Is it time to put some groceries in your portfolio? Weigh in with a comment below or join the party on CAPS.

Fool contributor Russ Krull doesn't own shares of any stock mentioned in this article. H.J. Heinz and McCormick are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. The Fool owns shares of SPDRs. The Fool has a disclosure policy.