KANSAS CITY — In a year in which the overall stock market rallied from a March plunge to record highs in the face of an economic downturn and the worst global pandemic in a century, grain-based foods shares lagged broader market indices by a wide margin. Though most of the 23 companies in the Grain-Based Foods Share Index benefited during the year from stronger-than-anticipated demand, the index eked out a gain for the year of only 3.7%.

Calculated by Milling & Baking News based on the share price performance of companies with significant grain-based foods businesses, the Grain-Based Foods Share Index closed 2020 at 28004, up precisely 1000 points, or 3.7%, from the 2019 market close of 27004. The modest gain in 2020 compared with an extraordinary 25% jump in 2019. The index was down 11.8% in 2018, up 0.7% in 2017 and up 14.2% in 2016.

The 3.7% advance was far short of a gain by the S&P 500 of 16.3%; the Dow Jones average of industrial shares, up 7.3%; and the Nasdaq index, up 43.6%. Like the rest of the market, grain-based foods shares fell sharply in March as the pandemic took hold and concerns about the economic outlook rose. At its low point in March, the Grain-Based Foods Share Index was down 20% from the December 2019 close; the Dow industrials were down 36%; the Nasdaq was down 27%; and the S&P 500 was down 31%.

The advance of 3.7% in 2020 of the Grain-Based Foods Share Index lagged the consumer staples sector of the S&P 500, though it eclipsed the 2.9% gain in the food products sub-sector of the S&P 500. The grain-based index did better than several other S&P 500 sectors, including energy, down 37%; real estate, down 5%; financials, down 4% and utilities, down 2%. Beating the grain-based index were information technology, up 43%, consumer discretionary, up 32%; materials, up 19%; health care, up 12%; and industrials, up 9%.

Of the 23 companies in the index, 14 posted gains and 9 sustained declines. Only 3 of the 23 companies had gains that equaled or topped the 16.3% gains of the S&P 500.

The top performing stock-price performance in the Grain-Based Foods Share Index was B&G Foods, Parsippany, NJ, with a 54.9% gain. Landing in the top spot for grain-based foods companies marked a complete reversal from 2019 when the company’s shares performed worst, sustaining a 38% decline. The year just ended was an eventful one for B&G Foods. The company’s financial results were strong. In the nine months ended Oct. 4, the company’s earnings were sharply higher, surging 82% to $120 million, versus the same period in 2019. Sales jumped 25% to $1.5 billion, boosted by the company’s strong presence in the center-of-store departments of supermarkets.

In October, B&G Foods announced it was acquiring the Crisco oils and shortening business from The J.M. Smucker Co. for about $550 million Kenneth G. Romanzi, president and chief executive officer of B&G Foods, called Crisco “an excellent complement to our existing portfolio of brands, including our Clabber Girl and other baking powder brands.”

“This acquisition is consistent with our longstanding acquisition strategy of targeting well-established brands with defensible market positions and strong cash flow at reasonable purchase price multiples,” he said.

A month later, though, Mr. Romanzi abruptly stepped down from the company and was replaced by David L. Wenner. Mr. Wenner was B&G Foods’ president and CEO from 1993 to 2014 and has been on the B&G board since 1997.

Scoring the second widest gain in 2020 was Hain Celestial Group, Inc., Lake Success, NY, up 54.7%. Hain has been on a tear the last two years, surging 64% in 2019, when the company was the top performer. Since the start of 2019, Hain shares have climbed 153%, nearly recovering severe setbacks sustained in 2018 — when Hain shares tumbled 64%. In August, Mark L. Schiller, president and CEO, described fiscal 2020 (year ended June 30) as a “great year for Hain with terrific results before the pandemic and great execution during the pandemic leaving us with tremendous momentum as we head into fiscal ‘21.” In the quarter that followed, Hain said it had picked up market share in tea, snacks and yogurt.

The third best performance in 2020 was posted by a company that will not be in the index in 2021 — Dunkin’ Brands Group, Inc., Canton, Mass. Dunkin’ shares surged 41% in 2020, following an 18% advance in 2019, when the company ranked 11 within the index. On Dec. 15 Inspire Brands, Inc. completed an $11.3 billion acquisition of Dunkin’, making Inspire the second largest restaurant company in the United States. Dunkin’ operates approximately 20,500 Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins outlets. Inspire’s other restaurant concepts include Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Jimmy John’s, Rusty Taco and Sonic Drive-In.

Lancaster Colony Corp., Westerville, Ohio, was fourth among grain-based performers in 2020, up 15%. A year earlier the company had the fifth worst share price change — down 10%. While the company enjoyed sales gains attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, the year was not without challenges. In its fiscal year ended June 30, the company’s net income was down 9% and was about unchanged excluding special items. In the first quarter of fiscal 2021, the company recorded an impairment charge due to Starbucks’ decision to stop serving Bantam Bagels bites, a Lancaster product, as part of a menu simplification. Still, the company’s Retail business segment saw a 17% sales jump in the first quarter, boosted by strong demand for frozen garlic bread, Olive Garden dressings and frozen dinner rolls.

Bunge, Ltd., St. Louis, scored the fifth widest gain in the index in 2020, up 14%. A year earlier, Bunge shares were up 8%, which left the company toward the bottom of performers in the index, 18th. The double-digit share price gain in 2020 mirrored strong financial performance. In October, Gregory A. Heckman, CEO, described third-quarter results (period ended Sept. 30) as reflecting “meaningful changes we’ve made with a more global integrated operating model, improved portfolio and increased financial discipline.” He said the company achieved record crush utilization across its global footprint and has shown agility in capitalizing on market opportunities as they have emerged.

The sixth through twelfth best performances in the index, with one exception, were posted by large consumer packaged foods companies. All have a major center-of-store presence. Gains posted for the group ranged from 6% to 11%.

Atop this sub-group, ranking sixth in 2020, was The J.M. Smucker Co., Orrville, Ohio, up 11%. The company’s shares were up 11% in 2019 as well, but the gain left the company as the 17th best performer that year. In the six months ended Oct. 31, Smucker’s net income jumped 28% and sales climbed 7%. In its most recent quarter, coffee sales rose 9% and retail consumer foods were up 12%. The company’s Uncrustables frozen sandwich line jumped 16% and Crisco Oils and shortenings performed well too. The latter business was later sold to B&G Foods.

Shares of General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, rose 10% in 2020, the seventh best performance. The advance followed a 38% gain in 2019, when General Mills was the fifth largest gainer. In the company’s most recent quarter, net income was up 19% from the same period a year earlier and sales climbed 7%. The company has benefited from the rising proportion of in-home eating during 2020, and Jeffrey L. Harmening, chairman and CEO, said he expects more of the same in 2021. Executives have credited the company’s strong supply chain, together with brand building and sales execution as key to holding or gaining share in 8 of the top 10 categories in which the company competes in the United States.

Archer Daniels Midland Co., Chicago, was the exception to cluster of CPG companies ranking sixth to twelfth in the index. ADM ranked eighth among grain-based foods companies in 2020 with an 8.8% gain, compared with a 13% advance in 2019, when the company’s ranking was sixteenth. The company’s third-quarter adjusted earnings per share in the third quarter were up 16% from the same period a year earlier. Juan Luciano, chairman, president and chief executive officer, hailed progress ADM has made in reshaping its business to become more profitable.

“Since 2017, Ag Services and Oilseeds has improved its capital position by exiting from no longer strategic assets, including 71 grain origination locations, 6 oilseed facilities, 14 Golden Peanut and Tree Nuts locations and 7 ocean-going vessels,” he said.

The ninth strongest performer in the index was PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, NY, up 8.5%. In 2019, PepsiCo shares rose 24%, again the ninth best performance within the index. In its most recent quarter, ended Sept. 5, Quaker Foods North America operating income rose 15%, revenues gained 6% and volume was up 4%. Sales of pancake mixes and syrup were very strong.

Rounding out the top 10 list was Kraft Heinz Inc., up 8%. The year before Kraft Heinz’ share price tumbled 25%, the second worst performance for the year. The company’s shares dropped 45% in 2018 and 12% in 2017. The company’s sales were boosted in 2020 by the effects of COVID-19 on consumer shopping behaviors prompting Miguel Patricio, CEO, to say, “Our momentum has been building, causing us to turn more to confidently optimistic.”

Seaboard Corp., Merriam, Kan., sustained the widest decline in the index in 2020, slumping 29%. The year before Seaboard shares were up 18%, a “middle of the pack” performance. Seaboard is a major player in the US pork market, and the company said it spent $117 million on property, plant and equipment during the first nine months of the year. In July, the company’s CEO Steve Bresky died suddenly at the age of 67. He was succeeded by Robert Steer, who had served as executive vice president and chief financial officer since 2011.

The second and third weakest performances in 2020 were registered by Bridgford Foods Corp., Anaheim, Calif., and J&J Snack Foods Corp., Pennsauken, NJ, respectively.

Bridgford, which sells product to the foodservice segment, said it has experienced a shift in business to retail from foodservice because of COVID. Additionally, the company said it has had to idle production facilities to keep its employees safe.

“As a result, we have experienced lower levels of productivity and higher costs of production,” the company said in October. “This will likely continue at least for the short term until the effects of the pandemic diminish.” Its shares fell 27% in 2019.

The business J&J Snack Foods, which is heavily tilted to public spaces like stadiums and arenas, was battered because of the pandemic. J&J shares were down 16% last year.