Slow ice cream sales caused by the poor weather were today blamed by Unilever for a “sluggish” start to the year, with results below market expectations.

The company also reported “very tough” conditions in the economy in Europe, as underlying sales growth in the first quarter was up 4.9%, below the 5.6% consensus forecast.

Sales of spreads were also slow and Unilever suffered by comparison to a strong Q1 last year.

The company said markets in southern Europe were “very weak” although conditions held up better in northern Europe with volume growth in the UK and France.

“Europe faced a particularly strong prior year comparator and whilst the overall performance was solid, the reported growth was held back by the slow start to the ice cream season and weakness in spreads,” said CEO Paul Polman.

Unilever’s turnover increased 0.2% to €12.2bn (£10.3bn).