With the U.S. stock market remaining close to unchanged for the year, investors have looked to emerging markets for ways to profit from rapidly growing economies. Yet while most investors are counting on the same few stocks to deliver gains, they might do better to focus on a different set of stocks that could benefit more directly from improving standards of living in emerging-market countries.

The crowded trade
By far, the easiest way to get into emerging markets is through exchange-traded funds. Many investors balk at buying shares of foreign companies, arguing that since so many of those companies are only thinly traded on U.S. exchanges, you can have trouble selling your shares if you change your mind about a given company. Both iShares and Vanguard have huge ETFs that invest in emerging-market companies, and given their popularity, it's easy to buy shares of those ETFs without fear of having trouble selling them in the future.

As Foolish international investing expert Tim Hanson recently talked about, though, the problem with big emerging-market ETFs is that they invest in all the same stocks, and those stocks aren't terribly representative of the most promising aspects of emerging economies. They tend to invest in big, government-influenced companies like China Mobile and Petroleo Brasileiro; big banks; and companies that do more business in the developed world than in the emerging markets they supposedly represent.

The better choice, Hanson argues, is to get on the ground and find companies that are making a difference within emerging-market economies. That's the only way you can feel reasonably certain that you'll actually benefit when things take off inside those countries.

Finding the better plays
One new ETF purports to do exactly that. The EG Emerging Markets Consumer Titans ETF focuses on consumer stocks that are leading the way within emerging-market economies. That makes the ETF a sector play rather than a broad-market investment, but its premise is that as emerging-market economies grow, their consumer base will grow as well, strengthening those companies that have a home-market advantage over foreign competition.

That is evident from the stocks the ETF owns. Ctrip.com (Nasdaq: CTRP), for instance, already has a strong history of revenue growth, but its status as China's leading travel portal could carry it much further. Chile's LAN Airlines (NYSE: LFL) builds on the travel theme, with the idea that as emerging countries become more prosperous, air travel will grow substantially. Its proposed merger with Brazil's TAM Airlines could build a Latin American powerhouse.

Developing countries will also increasingly seek to position themselves for world competition. New Oriental Education & Technology (NYSE: EDU) should thrive as more Chinese citizens seek to improve their training in English language and other educational programs in order to compete in global markets.

Meanwhile, some of the most solid investments you can make in emerging markets are in staples like food and beverages. FEMEX (NYSE: FMX) and AmBev (NYSE: ABV) are leading beverage companies in Mexico and Brazil, respectively, with inroads to selling well-known U.S. brands like Coca-Cola and Budweiser. Food companies Grupo Pao de Acucar (NYSE: CBD) and Brasil Foods (NYSE: BRFS) cover the entire food distribution network, with Brasil Foods producing and distributing meats and processed foods, while Grupo Pao de Acucar runs grocery stores to sell directly to Brazilian consumers.

True diversification
None of these companies are slam-dunk winners for investors. All of them will face increasing competition from well-established companies from the developed markets, especially as emerging markets take their place among the largest economies of the world.

Yet what these companies do provide is a direct play on the economic health of emerging-market populations. The question comes down to how you believe economic prosperity will affect emerging-market countries as a whole. If you expect the historical trend of huge inequality with stratospherically rich elite groups to continue, then consumer stocks aren't your best bet. But if you believe populations will benefit broadly from economic growth, as they did in the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s, then consumer stocks could skyrocket.

Investing in hot markets is hard. But if you take a different angle from the rest of the crowd, you might find yourself an even better investment.

Want to own the most valuable company in the world? Eric Bleeker knows which stock you should buy.

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.