Inflation hasn't been a big deal in recent years, and economists expect an inflation rate of just 2.5% this year. But certain cost categories have experienced significant increases recently. Take food, for example. Its surging prices will obviously challenge many companies, but the good news is that some investors can benefit.

Here's what I'm talking about: Over the past year, corn and orange juice futures have roughly doubled. Coffee is up 13%. Bacon is up 17%; apples, 7.4%. Milk rose 7% last year and is expected to advance about 5% this year. Wheat surged by 35%, and tomatoes more than tripled in price. Sugar was recently at a 30-year high. Get the picture?

Rising prices = raising prices
To deal with the surge, many companies are passing along their price increases to their customers in the form of higher prices for their products. McDonald's, for example, plans to up its prices this year to offset some of the commodity increases it has faced. Kraft Foods raised prices on its Maxwell House and Yuban coffees three times in 2010.

But raising your products' prices isn't always the best move, particularly in this economic environment, where unemployment is still high and wages haven't been growing briskly. Companies risk losing business that way, which is why PepsiCo, for one, is approaching the issue cautiously. If companies hold prices steady, though, then their own bottom line gets whacked. It's a tricky business.

Food-price inflation is also dangerous for society, at home and abroad, as it can slow global growth. American consumers can get skittish amid rising prices and begin reining in their spending to some degree. But we still have it relatively easy. As blogger Stephen Simpson has noted, while Americans spend roughly 7% of their money on food, the corresponding figure in Thailand is 26%, while Nigerians spend about half their money on food and Tanzanians spend 71%! As Simpson puts it, "Consequently, a 10% rise in food prices is an annoyance to Americans, but a crisis to a large percentage of the world's inhabitants." In recent years, there have been food riots in various places around the world.

Winners with inflation
Fortunately, all is not lost. Some companies are making money aiming to boost farm outputs. Monsanto (NYSE: MON), for instance, is building stronger (though controversial) seeds. PotashCorp (NYSE: POT) and Terra Nitrogen (NYSE: TNH) sell fertilizers to boost crop yields, and Deere (NYSE: DE) offers equipment that increases farm productivity. Such enterprises are worth your attention, if you see increased farming efficiency as a critical concern.

Investors may also want to consider investing in these rising commodities themselves, perhaps with an exchange-traded fund. The PowerShares DB Agriculture (NYSE: DBA) ETF, for example, offers instant exposure to a basket of futures in coffee, cocoa, sugar, cattle, soybeans, corn, wheat, and more. The Market Vectors Agribusiness (MOO) ETF invests in shares of Monsanto, Deere, PotashCorp, and more than 40 other agriculture-focused companies, such as Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM) and Syngenta (NYSE: SYT). ADM is a giant involved in corn, oil seeds, ethanol, and more, while Syngenta focuses on seeds and crop protections, much like Monsanto.  

The future
Food-inflation worries may not be a fleeting concern. This isn't something tied to a single event. Our overall global food supply is simply shrinking in relation to demand, and basic principles of economics are taking over. As the world's population grows and new markets emerge, bringing with them stronger consumers, the demand for food will rise. Meanwhile, biofuels such as ethanol are also grabbing up growing portions of the food supply.

As you seek strong companies in which to invest, keep in mind the possible effect that rising prices can have on them. And consider looking for promising investments that can ease the problem or profit from it.

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This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.