Consumer staples companies, including those focused on household products, food, beverage and related services, faced tough prospects throughout 2018. Trade disputes between the U.S. and China threatened to increase prices by putting pressure on producers, increased competition squeezed earnings, and general geopolitical turmoil rocked the market overall. On the other hand, the consumer staples sector is often seen as a stalwart even in times of volatility, given that it is comprised of companies offering goods and services seen as essential. This was enough to give some consumer staples companies an edge overall, particularly as other sectors declined late in the year.

Dozens of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) track the consumer staples sector in one way or another. These funds provide investors with easy access to a broad sampling of the sector. As such, when the consumer staples sector performs well, these ETFs typically reflect that. Though it was a tough year for consumer staples ETFs overall, there were a handful of funds which managed to not only beat the overall market in 2018, but also to generate positive returns.

Below, we'll take a closer look at the top five consumer staples ETFs in terms of overall performance for 2018. We'll compare these funds to the Consumer Staples Select Sector Index as a benchmark, which saw average returns of -10.2%.

1. ProShares UltraShort Consumer Goods ETF (SZK)

Returns for 2018: +31.3%

2.ProShares Decline of the Retail Store ETF (EMTY)

Returns for 2018: +9.4%

3. Global X Health & Wellness Thematic ETF (BFIT)

Returns for 2018: +5.4%

4.ProShares Long Online/Short Stores ETF (CLIX)

Returns for 2018: +4.7%

5. Invesco DWA Consumer Staples Momentum ETF (PSL)

Returns for 2018: +1.5%

ProShares UltraShort Consumer Goods ETF

The top-performing consumer staples ETF for 2018 is also the only such fund to offer leveraged inverse exposure to the sector. The ProShares UltraShort Consumer Goods ETF (SZK) offers -2x exposure to the Dow Jones U.S. Consumer Goods Index. This fund skews heavily toward food and tobacco. It is also highly illiquid, making it difficult to trade. Further, the fund is designed to be used for tactical trading purposes; because it is compounded daily, it tends to see its results skew when carried out over periods longer than a single day. Thus, it's unlikely that any investor would hold SZK for the entire year, though the fund returned more than 31% in that time span.

SZK launched in January of 2007 and carries an expense ratio of 0.95%. It has just $2.82 million in assets under management, making it a very small fund.

ProShares Decline of the Retail Store ETF

Claiming second place with an overall performance of about 9.4% for 2018 is the ProShares Decline of the Retail Store ETF (EMTY). EMTY offers a bet against the U.S. retail industry. It targets daily -1x exposure to retail companies headquartered in the U.S. and which receive at least three quarters of their revenue from in-store sales. Essentially, the ETF bets against brick-and-mortar stores in favor of online shopping. All component stocks in the EMTY portfolio are weighted equally, and the fund is rebalanced quarterly. Still, it is designed to be a short-term trading tool.

EMTY launched in November of 2017 and carries an expense ratio of 0.65%. It has $5.18 million in its asset base.

Global X Health & Wellness Thematic ETF

The Global X Health & Wellness ETF (BFIT) focuses on companies which meet its definition of health and wellness. Companies range from small- to large-cap in size and all are based in developed countries. One crucial criterion for selection in the BFIT index is a focus on revenue derived from objectives related to good physical health. This means that BFIT tends to target companies in the nutrition, fitness, apparel and weight loss subcategories. BFIT returned about 5.4% for 2018 overall.

BFIT launched in May of 2016 and carries an expense ratio of 0.50%. It has about $11.6 million in assets under management.

ProShares Long Online/Short Stores ETF

The fourth ETF on the list of top performing consumer staples funds operates under an unusual strategy. The ProShares Long Online/Short Stores ETF (CLIX) tracks an index of both long and short positions on U.S.-listed securities. Like EMTY, CLIX assumes that online shopping will ultimately spell the demise of the brick-and-mortar retail space. With this in mind, CLIX offer 100% long exposure to online retail companies and 50% short exposure to traditional, brick-and-mortar stores. This strategy paid off well for CLIX in 2018, as the fund brought in about 4.7% in returns overall.

CLIX launched in November of 2017 and carries an expense ratio of 0.65%. The fund has about $42.7 million in assets under management.

Invesco DWA Consumer Staples Momentum ETF

With returns of about 1.5% for 2018, the final ETF on our list is the Invesco DWA Consumer Staples Momentum ETF (PSL). This fund follows an index of U.S.-based consumer cyclical firms. The companies are both selected and assigned relative weight according to price momentum. The result of the selection mechanism is that PSL focuses mostly on small- and mid-cap companies, and the fund suffers occasionally from a lack of liquidity.

PSL launched in October of 2006 and carries an expense ratio of 0.60%. The fund has $161.8 million in its asset base.