Dividend payers deserve a berth in any long-term stock portfolio. But seemingly attractive dividend yields are not always as fetching as they may appear. Let's see which companies in the food industry offer the most promising dividends.

Yields and growth rates and payout ratios, oh my!
Before we get to those companies, though, you should understand just why you'd want to own dividend payers. These stocks can contribute a huge chunk of growth to your portfolio in good times, and bolster it during market downturns.

As my colleague Matt Koppenheffer has noted: "Between 2000 and 2009, the average dividend-adjusted return on stocks with market caps above $5 billion and a trailing yield of 2.5% or better was a whopping 114%. Compare that to a 19% drop for the S&P 500."

When hunting for promising dividend payers, unsophisticated investors will often just look for the highest yields they can find. While these stocks will indeed pay out the most, the yield figures apply only for the current year. Extremely steep dividend yields can be precarious, and even solid ones are vulnerable to dividend cuts.

When evaluating a company's attractiveness in terms of its dividend, it's important to examine at least three factors:

  1. The current yield
  2. The dividend growth
  3. The payout ratio

If a company has a middling dividend yield, but a history of increasing its payment substantially from year to year, it deserves extra consideration. A $3 dividend can become $7.80 in 10 years, if it grows at 10% annually. (It will top $20 after 20 years.) Thus, a 3% yield today may be more attractive than a 4% one, if the 3% company is rapidly increasing that dividend.

Next, consider the company's payout ratio, which reflects what percentage of income the company is spending on its dividend. In general, the lower the number, the better. A low payout ratio means there's plenty of room for generous dividend increases. It also means that much of the company's income remains in its hands, giving it a lot of flexibility. That money can fund the business's expansion, pay off debt, buy back shares, or even buy other companies. A steep payout ratio reflects little flexibility for the company, less room for dividend growth, and a stronger chance that if the company falls on hard times, it will have to reduce its dividend.

Peering into food
Below, I've compiled some of the major dividend-paying players in the food industry (and a few smaller outfits), ranked according to their dividend yields:

Company

Recent Yield

5-Year Avg. Annual Div. Growth Rate

Payout Ratio

B&G Foods (NYSE: BGS) 5.0% New dividend 179%
ConAgra (NYSE: CAG) 4.0% (5.1%) 56%
Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT) 3.7% 6.9% 45%
H.J. Heinz (NYSE: HNZ) 3.7% 7.9% 61%
Campbell Soup 3.4% 9.8% 47%
General Mills 3.2% 9.0% 44%
Flowers Foods (NYSE: FLO) 3.1% 25.1% 50%
J.M. Smucker 2.8% 15.7% 35%
Sara Lee 2.7% (11.8%) 80%
McCormick (NYSE: MKC) 2.5% 10.2% 38%
Lancaster Colony 2.3% (6.6%) 33%
Del Monte Foods (NYSE: DLM) 1.9% 18.9%* 22%
J&J Snack Foods 1.1% 10.6% 17%

Source: Motley Fool CAPS.
*Four-year growth rate.

If you focus on dividend yield alone, you might end up with B&G Foods and ConAgra, but they're not necessarily your best bets. They've both cut their dividends in recent years, and B&G's payout ratio is very steep. (To its credit, ConAgra has been upping its dividend since slashing it in 2006.)

So instead, let's focus on the dividend growth rate first, where Flowers Foods, Del Monte Foods, and J. M. Smucker lead the way. Del Monte doesn't have a particularly high yield right now, although its low payout ratio gives it potential for a rise in dividends in the future.

Just right
As I see it, Flowers Foods and Smucker give you the best of everything for a dividend stock. They sport yields close to 3%, healthy dividend growth rates, and reasonable payout ratios. Del Monte and its robust growth rate also look appealing, though the company's yield is considerably lower than the former two names I mentioned. All offer some solid income now, with a good chance of strong dividend growth in the future. Of course, as with all stocks, you'll want to look into more than just a company's dividend situation before making a purchase decision. Still, these stocks' compelling dividends make them great places to start your search, particularly if you're excited by the prospects for this industry.

Do your portfolio a favor. Don't ignore the growth you can gain from powerful dividend payers.

To get more ideas of great dividend-paying stocks, click here to read about "13 High-Yielding Stocks to Buy Today."

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Flowers Foods, H.J. Heinz, and McCormick are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy