Whether it's deep-fried, baked, boiled, smoked, microwaved, or warmed using a flameless ration heater, food will always be in demand. However, a straightforward, cookie-cutter approach to capitalizing on that fact of life simply doesn't exist. Even while end users gorge themselves with cherry pies until their hearts explode, a food company like Sara Lee (NYSE:SLE) can still go hungry.

The maker and seller of food, beverages, and household products certainly felt those hunger pangs in its fiscal fourth quarter. Revenues fell 9.8% to $3.2 billion on unfavorable foreign currency fluctuations and slightly lower unit volumes. After accounting for one-time charges, including a non-cash goodwill charge of $207 million, net losses totaled $14 million, or $0.02 per share.

How the cookie crumbles
Perhaps surprising to Sara Lee followers was the fact that it didn't report the volume and margin improvements that some of its peers have experienced. Unilever (NYSE:UL) grew volume by 2% in its latest quarter, and Kraft (NYSE:KFT) recently reported wider operating margins by 1.9 percentage points. Sara Lee's volume fell 3% and its adjusted operating margins contracted 50 basis points.

Furthermore, after Wednesday's announcement, investors dumped Sara Lee stock, sending shares down 10%. The sell-off leaves Sara Lee trading 30% lower than it did a year ago; meanwhile, over the same period, competitor Lance (NASDAQ:LNCE) has gained 23%, and J&J Snack Foods (NASDAQ:JJSF) is up 27%. Even Hormel (NYSE:HRL), which competes with Sara Lee in the meat department, has managed price appreciation of 11% in the past 12 months.

Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee? I don't.
A few things give me misgivings about investing in Sara Lee right now.

First of all, management has channeled spending away from media and advertising promotions into trade spending, meaning that instead of enticing consumers to buy Sara Lee's products, the company is focusing on giving distributors incentives to purchase its goods wholesale. Eventually, Sara Lee will have to bring media and ad spending back up, and its trading partners probably won't be keen on the prospect of seeing their incentives taken away.

Also, the company provided fiscal 2010 guidance of $0.84 to $0.90 in adjusted earnings per share. That target, which disappointed analysts, represents a mid-range growth estimate of only 3.5% over its 2009 full-year adjusted levels. That's obviously not too exciting.

Lastly, with many calling for a war against obesity, there's always a concern that consumers might stop reaching into their freezers for Sara Lee products. Put all those things together, and for me, it's enough to warrant avoiding Sara Lee.

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Fool contributor Chris Jones owns no shares of any company mentioned in this article. Unilever is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick and a Global Gains selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The way The Motley Fool's disclosure policy has behaved lately, it might not get any dessert tonight.