Unilever plc (NYSE:UL) has been known for years as a company that delivers steady, if unspectacular, sales and profit growth. The Anglo-Dutch giant kept the streak going during the third quarter, despite rising commodity costs that have dumped earnings at some other branded consumer-products companies, such as Kraft Foods (NYSE:KFT).

Third-quarter numbers
Sales were up to $10.2 billion euros, 1% higher than last year -- a 3.3% improvement when you factor out the effects of currency. Note that while U.S.-based consumer-products companies like Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) have been reporting gains from currency translation, the effect has been the reverse for European companies. Sales in constant dollars grew at low-single-digit rates in Europe and the Americas, but showed double-digit gains in Asia and Africa.

Reported operating profit was down 0.8% on a restructuring charge. Excluding this item, operating profit improved 0.3%. Earnings per share jumped 40%, thanks to significantly lower finance charges and an improved tax rate. Those aren't my favorite earnings drivers, but Unilever seems to consistently find a way.

Cost pressures contained
The company reported a large (2.5%) increase in raw-material costs during the quarter, but noted that pricing flexibility and expense savings more than offset the impact. Unilever also noted progress during the quarter in its drive to simplify its management structure and accelerate the pace of change. A few examples of this include a recent joint venture with Pepsi (NYSE:PEP) for Lipton ready-to-drink tea, further moves to develop three multi-country organizations, and the streamlining or closure of factories in four countries.

Buy, sell, or hold?
Investors were generally pleased with the results, bidding Unilever shares a couple of points higher on Thursday and Friday, while the rest of the market tanked on debt and oil-price concerns.

Over the past several years, there has never been a time when I would have cautioned against buying Unilever shares. The current valuation is rational at 17 times forward earnings, with a PEG ratio of 1.68 times the five-year expected growth rate. Over the years, investors have done well holding the stock. When I rated the "brand power" of the largest consumer-products companies a few months ago, I found Unilever solidly in the middle of the pack, though it lagged household names like Coke (NYSE:KO) and General Mills (NYSE:GIS).

I have argued that Foolish investors should consider consumer-products companies as a core holding in their portfolios. As a defensive stock with a tasty 3.6% dividend yield and upside potential, Unilever certainly fits that bill.

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Fool contributor Timothy M. Otte surveys the retail scene from Dallas. He welcomes comments on his articles, but doesn't own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.