After a lack of big deals at the start of the year, Unilever’s sale of Ragu and Bertolli boosted overall M&A activity in UK food and drink in the second quarter.

At £1.77bn, the value of disclosed deals was 109% higher than in the first quarter and 16% higher than in the secod quarter of 2013, according to a new report by Grant Thornton.

The main driver behind the rise was the quarter’s biggest deal - Japan’s Mizkan Group’s £1.3bn swoop on Unilever’s Ragu and Bertolli pasta sauce brands in May.

“Continuing appetite is apparent among both potential acquirors and vendors in the food and beverage sector, driven by a more upbeat UK economy,” said Trefor Griffith, Grant Thornton head of food & beverage.

Company valuations were also on the rise thanks to buoyant equity markets and better availability of debt on borrower-friendly terms, he added.

Overall, deal volumes have been steady so far this year. The number of deals in the first half of the year rose by 5% to 80, against the equivalent period last year.

One of the busiest segments this year is soft drinks - accounting for 17% of deals. Activity has been driven by soft drinks companies looking to expand into faster-growing segments, such as Cott Beverages’ £47.7m purchase of Aimia in May and Purity’s acquisition of Firefly Tonics in June.

“Middle market companies are showing strong activity in building an optimal portfolio through acquisitions of complementary businesses,” said Griffith.