PORTLAND, Ore. – Kraft Foods Inc. said Thursday it plans to split into two publicly traded companies, with one focusing on its international snack brands like Trident gum and Cadbury chocolates and the other on its North American grocery business that includes Maxwell House coffee and Oscar Mayer meats.

Kraft is the latest in a string of U.S. companies, including rival Sara Lee Corp., to separate its business to cater to different niche markets. As companies increasingly look for ways to drive growth during a difficult economic environment, there’s been a major shift from thinking bigger is always better to a narrower focus on smaller businesses with a distinct group of brands.

The move surprised industry watchers because Kraft, the nation’s largest food maker, had long touted its scale and reach as its strength.

The two businesses will target two very different segments of the food market. Kraft’s grocery business, which sells products such as Oscar Mayer meats, Jell-O desserts and its namesake cheese, delivers estimated revenue of $16 billion. After the split, it will still be one of the largest food and beverage companies in North America.

Kraft’s snack business, by comparison, will be twice the size with estimated revenue of $32 billion and will focus on high-growth international business and the convenience stores, kiosks and other places where the small treats are sold.