KANSAS CITY – The food and beverage industry experienced another year of limited merger and acquisition activity as the economy remained sluggish.

“Overall, the activity was solid but would have disappointed many who expected the general economy to rebound quicker than it has,” said Matthew O’ Loughlin, a partner with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, L.L.P., who counsels public and private companies, investors and private equity groups in the food and beverage industry. “Other sectors, such as health care, technology and energy, have had more of the limelight in recent years, but there may be more of a move to consumer-focused companies.”

Emerging transaction trends in 2013 included an increased interest in natural and better-for-you brands. Post Holdings, Inc., St. Louis, invested in several nutrition-focused businesses, including Premier Nutrition Corp., a marketer and distributor of protein bars, shakes and supplements. Similarly, in May the Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., struck a deal for Plum Organics, a maker of organic foods and snacks for babies, toddlers and children.

Private equity firms showed heightened attention to food and beverage brands during the year. Among them, affiliates of Brynwood Partners purchased several food businesses, including Lightlife Foods, Inc., a maker of vegetarian foods; Joseph’s Pasta Co., which produces frozen stuffed pasta for the food service segment; and SnackWell’s cookies and snacks business.

Facing continued regulatory and macroeconomic pressure, many companies maintained a focus on controlling costs and managing core brands while shedding non-essentials. Unilever P.L.C. continued trimming its food portfolio with the January sale of the Skippy peanut butter brand to Hormel Foods Corp. Later in the year, Nestle S.A. revealed plans to divest some of its weaker brands, including its Jenny Craig weight management business to a private equity firm.

Some companies faced tough lessons during the year, including London-based Tesco P.L.C., which sold 150 Fresh & Easy stores to Yucaipa Companies L.L.C., a private investment firm, in September. Just five years after launching the concept in the United States, Tesco announced in 2012 it was conducting a strategic review of the Fresh & Easy format because the chain was not delivering an acceptable shareholder return.

The sale “showed how a very successful British company struggled with understanding the U.S. consumer,” Mr. O’Loughlin said. “But it was also the story of a company entering the U.S. market at a bad time in the economic cycle and the ultra-competitiveness of the grocery market.”

Looking ahead to 2014, Mr. O’Loughlin predicts stronger activity as economic indicators slowly improve. He also expects high valuations for strong performers as strategic and private equity players compete for companies. Additionally, strategic buyers may continue seeking bolt-on opportunities in authentic and natural brands.

Also in store, he added: “Underperformers faced with difficult options.”