Unilever has seen sales volumes from its food division increase in the first quarter of 2012, a sign of recovery after a year of decline.

The company, which owns brands including Knorr stock cubes and Flora butter, today (26 April) reported a 0.4% increase in underlying food volumes in the first three months of the year.

A year ago, Unilever booked a 0.4% decline in volumes from its savoury, dressings and spreads arm. In the whole of 2011, Unilever’s food volumes fell 1.2%.

The increase in volumes in the first quarter of 2012 contributed to a 5.9% increase in underlying food sales. Turnover, which also included the impact of currency fluctuations and disposals, from the unit was up 5.5% at EUR3.59bn (US$4.76bn).

Unilever said “growth” from its savoury business was thanks to the “continued success” of its Knorr baking bags and the extension of its jelly bouillon technology into gravy.

An earlier Easter and price increases meant the company’s spreads and dressings business grew “strongly”, it said.

Unilever’s ice cream portfolio is grouped with its tea business in its “refreshment” division. It said the launch of Magnum in North America, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as the introduction of the Magnum Infinity range in Europe, helped its ice cream arm to grow.

The company reported underlying sales and volume growth from its emerging and developed markets. In total, turnover increased 11.9% to EUR12.1bn. Unilever’s underlying sales were up 8.4%, with underlying volumes rising 3.5%.

CEO Paul Polman said Unilever had made a “good start” to the year, which, he argued, “underlines the progress that we have made in transforming Unilever into a sustainable growth company”.

He added: “For 2012, we remain on track to deliver a modest improvement in full year core operating margin, weighted towards the second half of the year.”

Shares in Unilever on the London Stock Exchange had increased 2.89% to GBP21.39 at 09:22 BST this morning.

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Click here for just-food.com’s interview with Unilever CEO Paul Polman, held this week as the company published the first year of results of its Sustainable Living Plan programme.