NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Consumer-staples stocks have trailed the broader equity market during the past year. Investors have preferred cyclicals -- those that stand to benefit the most from a rebound in the economy -- instead of the steady consumer companies that make detergents, toothpaste and packaged foods.Now some fund managers are arguing that staples represent bargains. At a time when the S&P 500 trades at about 15 times this year's earnings estimates, many staples command multiples of 14 or less. "You usually find these companies selling at premiums to the market," says John Carey, manager of the Pioneer Fund ( PIODX). "After the rally, industrials and financials look expensive compared to consumer staples." Managers who favor consumer staples say the sector deserves a premium price because of its long history of steady growth. During the 10 years ending in 2008, earnings of consumer-staples stocks grew 8.5% annually, compared with 1% for the S&P 500. Over the years, consumers have continued to buy more snacks, toilet paper and cosmetics. Managers of Dreyfus Appreciation ( DGADX), longtime proponents of consumer staples, argue that the sector is poised to grow at a healthy rate for years to come. Much of the expansion will occur in emerging economies. Around the world, billions of people are becoming richer, Dreyfus notes. As soon as consumers get a few dollars of disposable income, they spend it on laundry detergent and soap. When a country's per capita gross domestic product passes $2,000, consumers begin flocking to buy disposable diapers and hairspray. At a per capita figure of $12,000, consumers enter a new stage, buying the full range of products, including dishwasher detergent and baby wipes. Only 1 billion of the world's 6 billion people have reached the top income level, so the growth of consumer markets can continue for decades. Dreyfus Appreciation prefers dominant companies with strong balance sheets. Because many consumer-staples stocks meet the criteria, the fund has a third of its assets in the sector. Holdings include Coca-Cola ( KO), Procter & Gamble ( PG) and Nestle ( NSRGF). Such steady companies have proved resilient in difficult markets, and that makes Dreyfus an ideal choice for conservative investors. The fund typically outperforms during downturns, and it has returned 1% annually during the past decade, beating the S&P 500 by a percentage point while taking less risk.