Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company Unilever said its breadth of businesses and markets will enable it to ride out the tough environment in Europe.

This comes after the maker of products from detergent and soap to margarine and ice cream reported weaker than expected first-quarter growth.

Unilever posted underlying sales growth of 4.9% for the three months to the end of March. This compared to consensus forecasts of 5.6%.

It was a tale of two markets, with sparkling outperformance in emerging markets dragged down by weakness in the US and Europe.

The company's performance in emerging markets was in contrast to some of its consumer goods rivals, who have run into faltering demand in Latin America and Asia.

In Europe, however, sales fell 3.1% as consumer confidence was eroded by the economic backdrop, the company said. Performance was also affected by an unusually cold spring that hit sales of its ice-creams, which include Ben & Jerry's and Magnum.

Trading in crisis-ridden southern Europe had been particularly difficult, but northern Europe was not much easier, the company's chief financial officer Jean-Marc Huet said.

"We're improving and strengthening the competitiveness of our business but we have realistic expectations and just want stable performance from that part of our portfolio," he said.

Unilever's food operation slipped 0.5%, held back by its declining spreads business. Sales of products such as Flora margarine were driven lower by a tough promotional environment and consumers' increasing preference for butter.

Unilever - formed 83 years ago out of the merger of Dutch group Margarine Unie and Britain's Lever Brothers - has outpaced rivals in recent quarters thanks to its focus on high-growth regions such as Latin America and Asia.

It said today that growth in emerging markets - which now provides about 57% of turnover - was a better than expected 10.4%, led by sales of soaps, shampoos and deodorants such as Lifebuoy, Tresemme and Axe.

Some of the company's multinational rivals, meanwhile, have fared less well amid difficult conditions in the first quarter. Drinks maker Diageo last week flagged signs of slowing growth in markets like Brazil.

Procter & Gamble, the world's largest household products maker, yesterday downgraded its fourth-quarter profit outlook, citing factors including volatility in Venezuela, Argentina, Egypt, Syria and South Korea.

But Huet said Unilever had built-in resilience, supported by its broad range of markets, with no individual country making up more than 8% of its total.

He pointed to tough comparatives compared to last year and a 10.7% rise in its quarterly dividend as a sign of the company's continued confidence in its momentum.