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)?

Sponsor Shoutout: Lunchbox Lovelunchbox love

Before I let you go, I have to make sure you know about our sponsor Lunchbox Love. Just in time for back-to-school, they are offering 16 new volumes of cards – including all new facts, jokes, trivia, and positive messages – that you can put in your child’s lunchbox each day. We started sending these cards in our girls’ lunches last year, and they honestly adore them. Our oldest daughter shares the cards with her entire lunch table and both girls routinely give us a hard time if we ever forget to add one to their lunch box before sending them off to school!

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

  • […] If you’re not accustomed to drinking UHT milk and possibly a little skeptical, you can read this helpful article for a breakdown of the facts and nutritional […]

  • UHT milk is the industry standard here in Brazil and pretty much your only option in most markets. You’d have to look really hard in any major city to find HTST milk, but I guess everything is possible. Parmalat used to be pretty much in control of the milk industry for a long time, but nowadays there’s an enormous variety of brands and ranches, which is great. But I never really cared that they were UHT. I guess we just don’t fret all that much over our food here. Hell, vegan restaurants aren’t even considered common here yet.

  • Ace Hamilton

    Good article.

    FYI “what your criteria is” should be “what your criteria are.” Criterion is singular, criteria plural.

    Just letting you know in case you want to change it. Feel free to delete this comment.

  • Lidia

    Shortly after moving to the US from Europe I got a carton of milk to keep in my pantry. Thought it was the UHT milk. Was very disappointed having added it to my morning coffee when it turned into a stinky cheese!

  • Kathryn

    I am blessed here in WA state to be able to find grass-fed, non-homogenized, low-pasteurized milk. I noticed that once we switched to this, my daughter’s dermatitis and allergies completely cleared up! It is more expensive, but I am willing to pay for the benefits it brings.

  • Inge

    I’m not very familiar with all the processes behind it, so this was an interesting article. All I can say, I love milk, but absolutely hated the milk I had in the US :p Hardly has any taste, very watery,…whether it’s more or less healthy, I love the milk we drink here.

    • Kevin

      did you try skim, 1%, 2% or whole/vitamin D Milk? Whole milk is much thicker and tastier then the other crap.

      • Taylor

        I’m an American living in Barcelona. My entire life I’ve hated milk (skim, whole, you name it) until I moved to Europe. I buy the non-refrigerated UHT milk and it’s delicious (even the low-fat)! It tastes like you imagine milk should taste (if that makes sense) and it’s not watery like US milk, as Inge says. Anyway, that’s my two cents.

  • […] tangent slightly, the problem then was fridge space. I learnt that UHT milk can be left unrefrigerated for months on the shelf. It just isn’t standard practice here in the US as Americans are not […]

  • […] you are curious about why – I’ll direct you HERE, Lisa explains the reason for boxed milk and what the differences […]

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