Why Some Milk Is Not Refrigerated (and an explanation of UHT)

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When we were in Europe last month I shared how almost all of the milk options we saw in the supermarket are not refrigerated and are considered “shelf stable.” It stirred up quite a bit of discussion on Facebook


Have you ever noticed how some milk here in the US is not refrigerated either?

milk in US

Why is it that these small individual sized organic milk containers in the US aren’t sold cold? If you haven’t already noticed almost all the commercialized organic milk options here in the US are Ultra High-Temperature Pasteurized (UHT) – which is actually the same process widely used in Europe – but that still doesn’t answer why some versions are refrigerated and some aren’t. The only difference is the packaging. Just like the pictured Organic Valley “Single Serve” milk boxes, almost all European milk is UHT and put into what is called aseptic (i.e. sterilized) packaging. UHT milk can last for several months in this type of packaging without spoiling…at least until you open it at which point the shelf life does shorten and it does need to be stored in the fridge.

What is UHT (and is it good or bad)?

UHT stands for Ultra High-Temperature Pasteurization (also referred to as Ultra Pasteurization or UP) and means that milk is heated to about 280 degrees F for 2 seconds, which kills more bacteria (both good and bad) than traditional pasteurization therefore giving the milk a much longer shelf life before it spoils. Compare this to other milk here in the US, which is typically High Temperature Short Time Pasteurized (minus the “ultra” and shortened to HTST) indicating it has been heated to 165°F for 15 seconds. So which type of pasteurization is the better choice? Well, it depends on who you ask and what your criteria is…

Producers and retailers – and even some consumers – think UHT milk is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Just think of the cost savings if refrigeration is not required after production, during delivery, or once it arrives to the store – not to mention the extended shelf life. Also, in Europe many people don’t have the mega-sized refrigerators that are so common here in the US so having one less thing to refrigerate is pretty convenient. Apparently Europeans are fine with the idea of warm, shelf-stable milk, and since it is a rather practical choice that is the majority of what consumers purchase there.

Now here in the US I haven’t exactly heard people singing the praises for UHT. Yes, it may be more convenient, but from a health standpoint while the higher temperature kills even more potentially bad bacteria – the good bacteria unfortunately goes with itOne article even calls UHT milk “dead milk” – wow, that’s pretty harsh. I have to agree that I am a little leery of UHT even here in the state of North Carolina where raw milk is not legal for human consumption. I do have to say though that if organic UHT milk was the only organic option in my area – that is definitely what I would choose over conventional. What is your take on UHT milk (please share in the comments)?

milk options

So why isn’t shelf stable milk sold here like it is in Europe?

A large Italian food company called Parmalat actually tried to take the US dairy industry by storm with their little boxes of shelf-stable UHT milk in the early 90′s, but Americans were just not fond of the idea. The reason – we apparently still value the idea of fresh milk, although ironically enough if you are buying your milk from a big box organic dairy company it is likely not much “fresher” than the luke-warm milk sitting on the shelves in Europe (again the only difference is the packaging).

I am the first to admit I am guilty as charged. I was one of those “crazy Americans” searching high and low for refrigerated milk when we were food shopping in France. I just could not buy into the idea of the warm, boxed milk that lined the shelves. I looked at the labels and saw that they were UHT (something I am familiar with, but do try to avoid at home) so I kept looking and somehow managed to find one lonely brand that offered a few cold bottles of milk in the cheese aisle. I didn’t even look to see if that version was also UHT and just went with it because I was so pleased to be able to find what I was “used to” at home.

Check out my Milk 101 post to learn all about the different types of milk that are available here in the US (including low-fat vs. whole) and what kind our family chooses to drink on a regular basis (hint: it is not any of the choices listed in the chart above.) What kind of milk do you buy (and why)?

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I feel like these are a great way to make the “real food” lunches I lovingly pack just as fun as all the cartoon-laden packaged foods their friends might be eating. Sure, I could write my own little cards, but I could never be as creative as the Lunchbox Love crew. So I think it is totally worth the cost – plus since the cards come on fairly thick paper they could easily be reused a few times. We hope you enjoy!


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149 comments to Why Some Milk Is Not Refrigerated (and an explanation of UHT)

  • Kay

    The generalization of Europe in this blog was pretty bad, I understand that this is being written for an American audience but it really turns me off reading other articles because of the inaccuracies. From a British person living in Germany (or just a European)

    • Kay and Lillyn – According to my research “Seven out of 10 European milk drinkers choose [shelf stable] over regular milk” and that is also mainly what we saw in the 4 countries that we visited. This is in comparison to basically the opposite here in the US (which is also a big place with varying cultures from state to state). Point taken. I’ve updated the photo to read “Milk that is not refrigerated in Europe” instead of “Milk is not refrigerated in Europe.” Thanks for your feedback.

  • I always wondered how milk could be shelf stable. I don’t drink much milk, but I think I would prefer my dairy with some good bacteria. We have milk from a local dairy farm delivered to our house, I’m not sure what we would drink if we ever moved away.

  • Ashley M

    We’re stationed at an Air Force Base in Turkey, so when we get shipments of food for the store, sometimes they’re not the freshest. We have problems with milk going bad or just not being there, so I’ve gone to just purchasing UHT milk. I would definitely prefer it straight from a cow, but as that is definitely not an option everywhere, I just cut my losses. It was a strategic choice for me. It tastes a little different, but my kids don’t mind and they drink all of it anyway. It’s just nice to know that when I’m out of milk, I can always get more. I have a back up in the pantry at all times. And it’s organic and costs around a dollar per quart.

  • bobdog

    This is non-problem. Myself, I cannot drink any unprocessed milk, either the lactose ruins me for a day or some other constituent makes me drowse off for a couple hours. So, I process it myself into yogurt or kefir (or do both as I cannot drnk whey from yogurt, but can from kefir). Plenty of critters cultured.

  • Addressing your question of would you buy non-organic if UHT was the only choice…I’ve recently faced this myself. My personal decision is actually to buy from a local dairy that is not organic. The reasoning is that organic milk is better from a perspective of what the cows are eating – many smaller local dairies (at least in our neck o’ the woods) actually grass-feed their cows and adhere to “sustainable farming standards”. I would do my research on your own local dairies to find out where their milk comes from – it may not be organic…but at least it isn’t DEAD or STERILE. Good info here – thank you!

  • Melissa

    I’m moving to Germany with my husband and three young children. Can you give me some advice on what kind of milk to look for, especially since it’s written in German?

  • Carl

    Hi! The situation varies in Europe from country to country. In the UK and Ireland, fresh milk (not UHT) is clearly preferred and British and Irish people tend to find UHT milk quite disgusting. In the continent, you’re more likely to find UHT milk (and cream), and in Southern Europe it’s particularly difficult to find non-UHT milk. Part of the reason for this is the heat, I think, besides the convenience of not having to go shopping every day. Strangely enough, the countries more concerned with having fresh milk are the least concerned with fresh bread. In Southern Europe (and also France), everyone gets their bread every day, whereas in Britain sliced bread is very common.

  • Derek

    Like your site,However strongly disagree about Europeans preference to uht milk.90% of irish dairy farmers have grass fed cows all year round where possible unlike most of the U.S and southern Europe. I collect milk from farmers and most take their milk from the tank like they have done for years! No law against whole milk consumption in Ireland or UK. Cows are designed for grass in a field not a big U.S shed and being fed like a chicken.

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