NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- No matter what your diet or eating preferences, if you're an investor, you can't ignore organic food any longer. Major food retailers Aldi, and The Kroger Co. (KR) announcing organic expansion plans. Costco  (COST) and Whole Foods (WFM) are moving billions of dollars of organic food every year. Investors: Ignore this trend at your peril.

The food retail sector is changing, and that means opportunities to invest. The industry is expected to register a 2% growth in same store sales in 2015. The food retail sector employs more than three million people, earning an average of $12.58 an hour and working an average of 28 hours per week.

The broader category food and beverage sector has grown less (3% a year) than the general economy (4% a year) from 1997-2013, but it declined less in the last recession, than the overall economy.

So, what are the best food retail stocks investors should be buying? Here are the top three, according to TheStreet Ratings, TheStreet's proprietary ratings tool.

TheStreet Ratings projects a stock's total return potential over a 12-month period including both price appreciation and dividends. Based on 32 major data points, TheStreet Ratings uses a quantitative approach to rating over 4,300 stocks to predict return potential for the next year. The model is both objective, using elements such as volatility of past operating revenues, financial strength, and company cash flows, and subjective, including expected equities market returns, future interest rates, implied industry outlook and forecasted company earnings.

Buying an S&P 500 stock that TheStreet Ratings rated a buy yielded a 16.56% return in 2014 beating the S&P 500 Total Return Index by 304 basis points. Buying a Russell 2000 stock that TheStreet Ratings rated a buy yielded a 9.5% return in 2014, beating the Russell 2000 index, including dividends reinvested, by 460 basis points last year.

Check out which food retailers made the list. And when you're done, be sure to read about which biotech companies to buy now. Year-to-date returns are based on June 2, 2015, closing prices. The highest-rated stock appears last.

IMKTA ChartIMKTA data by YCharts
3. Ingles Markets, Incorporated (IMKTA)

Rating: B+

Market Cap: $994.4 million
Year-to-date return: 32.3%

Ingles Markets, Incorporated operates a chain of supermarkets in the southeast United States.

"We rate INGLES MARKETS INC (IMKTA) a BUY. This is driven by several positive factors, which we believe should have a greater impact than any weaknesses, and should give investors a better performance opportunity than most stocks we cover. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its solid stock price performance, impressive record of earnings per share growth, compelling growth in net income, reasonable valuation levels and good cash flow from operations. We feel its strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had generally high debt management risk by most measures that we evaluated."

Highlights from the analysis by TheStreet Ratings Team goes as follows:

  • Powered by its strong earnings growth of 54.34% and other important driving factors, this stock has surged by 80.43% over the past year, outperforming the rise in the S&P 500 Index during the same period. Turning to the future, naturally, any stock can fall in a major bear market. However, in almost any other environment, the stock should continue to move higher despite the fact that it has already enjoyed nice gains in the past year.
  • INGLES MARKETS INC reported significant earnings per share improvement in the most recent quarter compared to the same quarter a year ago. The company has demonstrated a pattern of positive earnings per share growth over the past two years. We feel that this trend should continue. During the past fiscal year, INGLES MARKETS INC increased its bottom line by earning $2.28 versus $0.89 in the prior year. This year, the market expects an improvement in earnings ($2.85 versus $2.28).
  • The net income growth from the same quarter one year ago has significantly exceeded that of the S&P 500 and the Food & Staples Retailing industry. The net income increased by 36.8% when compared to the same quarter one year prior, rising from $10.46 million to $14.30 million.
  • Net operating cash flow has significantly increased by 54.59% to $63.73 million when compared to the same quarter last year. In addition, INGLES MARKETS INC has also vastly surpassed the industry average cash flow growth rate of -24.79%.

CASY ChartCASY data by YCharts
2. Casey's General Stores, Inc. (CASY)
Rating: B+

Market Cap: $3.4 billion
Year-to-date return: -3.1%

Casey's General Stores, Inc., together with its subsidiaries, operates convenience stores under the Casey's General Store name in 14 Midwestern states, primarily Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois.

"We rate CASEYS GENERAL STORES INC (CASY) a BUY. This is driven by a few notable strengths, which we believe should have a greater impact than any weaknesses, and should give investors a better performance opportunity than most stocks we cover. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its solid stock price performance, impressive record of earnings per share growth, compelling growth in net income, good cash flow from operations and notable return on equity. We feel its strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had generally high debt management risk by most measures that we evaluated."

Highlights from the analysis by TheStreet Ratings Team goes as follows:

  • Powered by its strong earnings growth of 206.06% and other important driving factors, this stock has surged by 28.66% over the past year, outperforming the rise in the S&P 500 Index during the same period. Turning to the future, naturally, any stock can fall in a major bear market. However, in almost any other environment, the stock should continue to move higher despite the fact that it has already enjoyed nice gains in the past year.
  • CASEYS GENERAL STORES INC reported significant earnings per share improvement in the most recent quarter compared to the same quarter a year ago. The company has demonstrated a pattern of positive earnings per share growth over the past two years. We feel that this trend should continue. During the past fiscal year, CASEYS GENERAL STORES INC increased its bottom line by earning $3.27 versus $2.86 in the prior year. This year, the market expects an improvement in earnings ($4.49 versus $3.27).
  • The net income growth from the same quarter one year ago has significantly exceeded that of the S&P 500 and the Food & Staples Retailing industry. The net income increased by 210.7% when compared to the same quarter one year prior, rising from $12.65 million to $39.32 million.
  • Net operating cash flow has significantly increased by 122.51% to $56.47 million when compared to the same quarter last year. In addition, CASEYS GENERAL STORES INC has also vastly surpassed the industry average cash flow growth rate of -24.79%.
  • The return on equity has improved slightly when compared to the same quarter one year prior. This can be construed as a modest strength in the organization. Compared to other companies in the Food & Staples Retailing industry and the overall market on the basis of return on equity, CASEYS GENERAL STORES INC has underperformed in comparison with the industry average, but has exceeded that of the S&P 500.
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KR ChartKR data by YCharts
1. The Kroger Co. (KR
Rating: A+

Market Cap: $35.4 billion
Year-to-date return: 12.6%

The Kroger Co., together with its subsidiaries, operates as a retailer in the United States and internationally. It also manufactures and processes food for sale in its supermarkets.

"We rate KROGER CO (KR) a BUY. This is based on the convergence of positive investment measures, which should help this stock outperform the majority of stocks that we rate. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its revenue growth, notable return on equity, good cash flow from operations, solid stock price performance and impressive record of earnings per share growth. We feel its strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had generally high debt management risk by most measures that we evaluated."

Highlights from the analysis by TheStreet Ratings Team goes as follows:

  • The revenue growth came in higher than the industry average of 5.8%. Since the same quarter one year prior, revenues slightly increased by 8.5%. Growth in the company's revenue appears to have helped boost the earnings per share.
  • Powered by its strong earnings growth of 28.39% and other important driving factors, this stock has surged by 58.36% over the past year, outperforming the rise in the S&P 500 Index during the same period. Regarding the stock's future course, although almost any stock can fall in a broad market decline, KR should continue to move higher despite the fact that it has already enjoyed a very nice gain in the past year.
  • KROGER CO has improved earnings per share by 28.4% in the most recent quarter compared to the same quarter a year ago. The company has demonstrated a pattern of positive earnings per share growth over the past two years. We feel that this trend should continue. During the past fiscal year, KROGER CO increased its bottom line by earning $3.45 versus $2.90 in the prior year. This year, the market expects an improvement in earnings ($3.86 versus $3.45).
  • The net income growth from the same quarter one year ago has significantly exceeded that of the S&P 500 and the Food & Staples Retailing industry. The net income increased by 22.7% when compared to the same quarter one year prior, going from $422.00 million to $518.00 million.
  • The return on equity has improved slightly when compared to the same quarter one year prior. This can be construed as a modest strength in the organization. When compared to other companies in the Food & Staples Retailing industry and the overall market, KROGER CO's return on equity exceeds that of the industry average and significantly exceeds that of the S&P 500.

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