Consumer stocks are now as risky as they've ever been. Unemployment’s historically high, consumers are spooked, and subpar earnings abound, as companies pay the price for lost competitive advantage or fiscal irresponsibility. But tough times can offer investors the best chance to buy stocks

Even if stock prices are low, investors still need to be careful. Many companies simply won't survive the recession in their current form. However, thinning the herd of weaker competitors should lead to big winners in the consumer space when the economy recovers.  In this article, I've highlighted two reasons to love ConAgra (NYSE:CAG), the producer of brands such as Hebrew National, Parkay, and Healthy Choice.

Eat this!
It's true -- consumers will continue to grocery-shop no matter how bad the recession gets, even if they have to carpool, ride the bus, or heaven forbid, walk. That adds a plateful of appeal to the packaged foods sector. But beware: Buying habits have changed, even when it comes to groceries.

And this, my fellow Fools, is reason No. 1 why I consider ConAgra a winner. The company's product lineup looks nicely balanced across premium and economy-priced brands -- positioning it to capture the business of former big spenders who are now dining at home, and the more tightly pinched pennies of those who can no longer pony up for premium brands. For example, it's got Orville Redenbacher as a higher-priced popcorn play, but also Act II. In the prepared meals category, certain consumers no doubt gravitate toward ConAgra's revamped Healthy Choice brand, while others reach for the ultra-popular Banquet name, where $1-and-up entrees help keep the wolf from the door.

Volumes steady while valuation lags
Compelling point No. 2 in the case for ConAgra merges company fundamentals with stock valuation. Of what do I speak? Feast your eyes on the peer-comparisons below:

Company

Market Cap

Dividend Yield

Forward P/E

Volume Performance*

ConAgra

$8.9 B

3.8%

11.6

flat**

H.J. Heinz (NYSE:HNZ)

$11.9 B

4.4%

12.7

(4.3%)

Kraft (NYSE:KFT)

$41.3 B

4.1%

13.2

0.2%***

General Mills (NYSE:GIS)

$19.1 B

3.2%

12.7

3%

J.M. Smucker (NYSE:SJM)

$6.1 B

2.7%

12.6

2%****

Data from Yahoo! Finance on Sept. 4.
*Year-over-year percent change based on most recent quarterly results.
**Reported volume increase of 7% estimated to be flat without the benefit of an extra week.
***Kraft reports volume and mix together
****Excludes J.M. Smucker's acquisition of Folger's

OK, so ConAgra hasn’t exactly galloped ahead of the pack in moving more products, but eyeing Kraft's and Heinz's performance, the company is certainly holding its own. Meanwhile, ConAgra's been assigned the lowest forward P/E of the bunch, which, in my opinion, accounts neither for its recent results nor its even brighter prospects. Just today, the stock enjoyed an estimates upgrade at UBS (NYSE:UBS) that shows higher consumer demand for frozen meals.

All said and done, I believe investors can realize a nice profit from ConAgra. It's losing its status as the Rodney Dangerfield of the packaged-food sector, and, well, finally getting some respect. (And maybe just a tad bit of love.)

What do you think?
We've made our Foolish case on ConAgra -- now it's your turn. Do you love ConAgra? Loathe it? Share your comments below.

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J. M. Smucker is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. H.J. Heinz is an Income Investorselection. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Mike Pienciak doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy is well-matched to any consumer budget.