Euro zone economic growth was slightly weaker than expected in the first quarter because of slower than anticipated expansion in Germany.

But the rate of growth in the euro zone was still the fastest in almost two years, data showed today. 

The European Union's statistics office Eurostat said gross domestic product in the 19 countries sharing the euro rose 0.4% quarter-on-quarter in the three months from January to March. 

Economists polled by Reuters had expected a 0.5% quarterly expansion. 

The growth in the euro zone economy is likely to have been helped by cheap energy and food prices, a weak euro and European Central Bank money printing so far this year. 

The quarterly expansion was still the strongest since the second quarter of 2013 and marks a steady acceleration over the growth rates in 2014. 

But German growth slowed by more than expected as foreign trade weighed on Europe's largest economy. Germany's economy grew 0.3% on the quarter after chalking up a 0.7% expansion in the final three months of 2014.

That undershot the consensus forecast in a Reuters poll for 0.5% growth. 

It was also far weaker than in neighbouring France, where the economy expanded by a surprising 0.6% on the quarter, its strongest rate in two years, and beating market expectations of a 0.4% expansion.

The euro zone's third biggest economy Italy grew slightly more than expected thanks to a pick up in domestic demand, fuelling hopes of a recovery this year after three years of recession. 

Italian GDP rose 0.3% following stagnation in the last quarter of 2014 and was flat on an annual basis. This was better that an average forecast of a 0.2% rise quarter-on-quarter. 

Meanwhile, Greece, struggling to secure more funding from international creditors in exchange for growth-boosting reforms, contracted 0.2%on a quarterly basis but grew 0.3% year-on-year.