Investing in high growth dividend stocks is one of the best ways to generate consistent cash from your investments and build lasting wealth. However, not all dividend stocks are created equal. ConAgra Foods (NYSE:CAG), for example, doesn't look half bad at first glance with shares up more than 12% in the past year. Not to mention, the consumer packaged goods company has a fast-growing private label business that promises future growth. However, if you dig deeper you'll soon uncover a handful of reasons why ConAgra Foods is not the best dividend stock including mounting debt, an unsustainable payout ratio, and poor capital allocation.

ConAgra Foods is a packaged foods leader with top brands like Chef Boyardee. Source: The Motley Fool.

Fortunately, there are certain tools that investors can use to gauge the quality of a dividend paying stock before investing. Here's an overview of some of those methods and why consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) is a much better dividend growth stock today.

Understanding debt and dividends
Companies drowning in debt will inevitably have a harder time growing their dividend because, well, there isn't enough cash on hand to do so. This is the case with ConAgra Foods. In fact, ConAgra is one of the most highly leveraged companies in the food products industry today, with $8 billion in long-term debt on a balance sheet with just $133 million in cash.

To be clear, Procter & Gamble has a heavy debt load as well. However, unlike ConAgra, P&G is much better at generating exorbitant amounts of cash from operations. Procter & Gamble's operating profits, for instance, are roughly 20 times greater than interest payments. Therefore, the company should have no problem paying back debt.

Not to mention, P&G generated $10.1 billion in free cash flow in fiscal 2014, compared to $6 billion it spent in stock repurchases over that time. Moreover, unlike ConAgra Foods, Procter & Gamble has increased its dividend for the last 58 consecutive years at a compounded rate of more than 9% a year. This tells investors that management knows how to reward shareholders for extended periods -- a major plus for long-term investors.

Why payout ratios and yields matter
Payout ratio gives investors insight into whether a stock's dividend is sustainable. ConAgra Foods, for example, carries a payout ratio of 154%. This means the company paid out more in dividends over the past year than it earned. Over time, this is unsustainable. Procter & Gamble, on the other hand, has a more reasonable payout ratio of 58%. This tells us that for every dollar in net income the company earns, 58% is being paid out as a dividend. At this rate, P&G should be able to continue growing its dividend for many years to come.

Procter & Gamble is a leading consumer goods company with top brands like Tide. Source: The Motley Fool.

Aside from this, Procter & Gamble's dividend yield of 3.09%  is higher than ConAgra's 2.97% yield. This percentage is calculated by dividing the annual dividend by the stock's current share price. Procter & Gamble's yield, which is north of 3% is therefore favorable because it is both higher than the S&P 500's yield of 1.9%, yet not too high that the company runs the risk of having to cut its payout down the road.

Procter & Gamble's strong free cash flow generation, long history of rewarding shareholders, reasonable dividend payout ratio and yield, prove P&G is a much safer dividend growth stock for income investors today than ConAgra Foods.


Tamara Rutter has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Procter & Gamble. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.