Unilever has booked an expectation-beating increase in underlying sales as growth of its personal care division offset a “weak” food performance.

The Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant said today (23 January) that underlying sales in the period rose by 6.9% to EUR51.3bn (US$68.4bn), beating consensus forecasts of 6.5%. Growth was driven by an 11.4% sales gain in emerging markets, which now account for 55% of group sales.

Unilever’s bottom line also benefited from an easing of commodity prices for its consumer goods business, with core operating margin rising to 13.8%. However, in food, Unilever partially offset rising commodity costs by lowering its advertising and promotional spend. Fourth-quarter food operating margins were flat while gross margins were down, Unilever said.

Net profit for the fiscal year climbed 7% to EUR4.9bn, while operating profit rose 9% to EUR7bn.

“These results have been achieved in tough economic conditions, with volatile commodity costs and in an intensely competitive environment,” said chief executive Paul Polman.

However, Unilever’s food division has faced a number of challenges, including “difficult markets” and the company said that fourth-quarter growth was “weak”. Unilever revealed its spreads business saw sales drop on pricing and the group’s core savoury business was “sluggish”, despite efforts to revitalise the business by focusing on NPD. In contrast, dressings “continued to perform well” despite an increase in competitive behaviour, the group added.

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Unilever shares were up 2.82% in morning trade.