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Kraft Still Comforts, Satisfies

Stocks in this article: KRFT MDLZ CAG GIS NSRGY

This is not to pick on ConAgra, which, in its own right, has overcome the sort of declining volumes and weak margins that have plagued the entire sector. When performance expectations are being set and, in this case, perceived as "unmet," it helps that investors have context.

More impressively, Kraft's disciplined approach has led to a 15% year-over-year increase in operating income. In many respects, this part of the operation has been overlooked given that the company has been consistently profitable. But it's no easy task to deliver mid double-digit profit growth in the face of weak prices and rising commodity costs. Not to mention the year-over-year volume declines the industry has suffered.

[Read: Food Industry Faces Labeling Changes]

Essentially, ever since the Mondelez deal, the deck has been consistently stacked against Kraft's management. That the brand was able to grow at all in the recent quarter amid a strict restructuring/cost-cutting program, should be celebrated, especially since this restricted the company's marketing effort.

I agree with Kraft's conservative stance facing its 2014 guidance. The question, though, is to what extent management can sustain this "simmering performance" without infusing cash into marketing/advertising budget?

With all of the companies being in the "same pantry" with respect to the challenging-but-improving packaged food environment, under-investing in areas like advertising/marketing can be the difference in market share gains or losses to rivals like Kellogg (K), Nestle and General Mills. It remains to be seen which one will be the first to sacrifice near-term profits for market share.

I realize I've been somewhat of a Kraft apologist. Truth be told, I was raised on Kraft's Macaroni & Cheese and remember all of the smiles it has put on my face. But that doesn't take away from the fact that this has always been and still remains a well-run company. It's a travesty that Kraft doesn't get the respect it rightfully deserves.

At the time of publication, the author held no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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