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What are we looking for?

Stocks in the defensive food, beverage and tobacco sector that have delivered solid capital gains for investors. This is a sector that tends to do well in good economic times as well as bad because demand is relatively inelastic for what we consider to be consumer staples. We ended up with this screen that looks at North American food, beverage and tobacco stocks that have at least doubled their stock prices in the past three years. Out of curiosity, we also added in a look at their forward price-to-earnings ratios, just to see how expensive they appear to be.

What did we find?

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This was a bit of a surprise. I had thought it would be more of a vice-stock list. But there are no tobacco stocks here (Philip Morris International Inc. and Altria Group Inc.'s prices rose in the 60-per-cent to 75-per-cent range and didn't make the grade) and only two alcoholic beverages companies.

One of them is Constellation Brands. This is one of the biggest names in North America, owning Canadian wine brands such as Inniskillin, Le Clos Jordanne and Jackson-Triggs, as well as the maker of Corona beer, Robert Mondavi wine and Tsingtao beer, which bills itself as "the number one branded consumer product exported from China." The other is the Boston Beer Co., which produces Samuel Adams and Grumpy Monk.

I was also expecting to find many meat and poultry producers that typically reflect mainstream North American consumption habits – but there are only two, Smithfield Foods Inc. and Pilgrim's Pride Corp., and they are relatively low on the list, and the cheapest as well.

Instead, the top of the table features companies that investors believe will profit from a diverse group of consumers who appear to be careful about what they put in their bodies.

At the very top is the Hain Celestial Group, which prides itself on its organic, nutritious foods. This is the company behind the Yves Veggie Cuisine brand of soy-based meat-alternative foods as well as Europe's Best frozen produce, Celestial Seasonings herbal teas and Rice Dream and Almond Dream dairy-free beverages.

Close behind is Boulder Brands, producers of Earth Balance margarine, popular among vegans and the lactose-intolerant because it contains no whey, and the Udi's and Glutino lines of gluten-free food.

Flowers Foods is another company that produces brands such as Nature's Own bread, which features zero artificial preservatives, colours or flavours, cholesterol or trans fats, and Barowsky's Organics. (It does also make the Tastykake line of snacks, which, let's just say, caters to a different set of consumer tastes.)

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Also on the list is B&G Foods Inc., which makes Dash seasoning, Cream of Wheat cereal and Baker's Joy.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. is the seller of the Keurig coffee machine and single-serve K-cups. Its stock traded for less than $18 a year ago. You can now buy it for close to $75.

So instead of turning up mainly old-reliable, boring, meat-and-potato stocks, this table instead shows some pretty pricey stocks that rely more heavily on the trendy, health-conscious consumer. (As always, please do your own research before buying any of these.)

One interesting inclusion on the list is Darling International Inc. This is a company that picks up used cooking oil, animal byproducts and bakery waste and resells them to producers of animal feed, pet food, fertilizers and soap.

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