Study after study has shown that stocks with low price-to-earnings multiples significantly outperform high P/E stocks. Research from my favorite investing guru, NYU professor Aswath Damodaran, pegged the outperformance at anywhere from 9% to 12% per year, depending on the study period. That's big money we're talking about.

But you already know that you can't just go out and buy the stocks with the lowest multiples. Companies can trade at dirt cheap prices for a number of dire reasons, including low growth prospects, skepticism about earnings, or high risk of bankruptcy.

These dangerous stocks can quickly crater. Buy too many of them, and you'll increase your own risk of bankruptcy!

Thus, for a company to be truly undervalued, Damodaran says in his book Investment Fables: "You need to get a mismatch: a low price-to-earnings ratio without the stigma of high risk or poor growth."

Of course, you're unlikely to find any high-growth, low-P/E companies out there. But Damodaran suggests setting a reasonable minimum threshold for earnings growth, such as 5%. There are also various ways to minimize risk, including staying away from volatile stocks or companies with dangerous balance sheets.

The screen's the thing
We're looking for companies with low price-to-earnings multiples, but also a relatively low amount of risk, and the potential for reasonable growth. Our screen today will cover the best value plays in the food and staples retailing industry, as defined by my nifty Capital IQ screening software.

There are 21 such companies with market caps topping $500 million on major U.S. exchanges. They have an average forward P/E of 17.3. Here are my parameters:

  1. To stay away from bankruptcy risk, I used Damodaran's suggestion and only considered companies with total debt less than 60% of capital.
  2. In hopes of capturing a reasonable amount of growth, I looked at Capital IQ's long-term estimates, and kept only companies expected to grow EPS at 5% annually or better over the next five years. Furthermore, I required at least 5% annualized growth over the past five years.

Only 11 companies passed the screen:

Company

Market Cap
(in Millions)

Forward P/E

Debt-to-Capital

Estimated EPS
Growth

Kroger (NYSE: KR)

$13,692

11.6

60%

9%

The Andersons

$705

11.7

47%

12%

Wal-Mart

$191,386

12.4

45%

11%

CVS Caremark (NYSE: CVS)

$47,803

12.5

23%

12%

Sysco (NYSE: SYY)

$17,599

15.0

39%

11%

Ruddick (NYSE: RDK)

$1,737

15.0

26%

12%

Walgreen (NYSE: WAG)

$37,773

15.3

14%

14%

BJ's Wholesale Club

$2,476

16.7

0%

11%

Costco Wholesale (Nasdaq: COST)

$30,766

20.6

16%

13%

United Natural Foods

$1,808

21.3

20%

16%

Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFMI)

$8,430

29.7

18%

15%

Data provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

There's quite an interesting jump in the P/E multiple with the last three companies in the table. Costco, United Natural Foods, and Whole Foods may very well be worth the premium price. If you're interested in nabbing low P/E bargains, however, better to concentrate your research in the top half of the table.

To further stack the odds on your side, Damodaran says you can eliminate any companies that have restated earnings, or had more than two large restructuring charges over the past five years. And if volatile swings in price cause you to lose sleep, consider only companies with betas less than 1.

What about companies in other industries? Check my archive for my past screening results, and watch this space for more over the coming days.

Fool analyst Rex Moore is on Twitter, but he's not a twit. He owns no companies mentioned here. Costco, Sysco, and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Costco and Whole Foods are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Global Gains selection. Sysco is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. The Fool owns shares of Costco, and Wal-Mart. 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.