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

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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211 thoughts on “Why Some Milk Is Not Refrigerated (and an explanation of UHT)”

  1. Caesar Luis Romero

    As an avid camper UHT is always the practical choice, especially when hiking ultra light—where only the most essentials are carried in an ultralight back pack.

    I found little UHT half ‘n half creamers in tiny pods for my coffee, because I like a hot cup of coffee with cream and sugar to start my day. I don’t need cold cream anyway.

    As for milk the same holds true since I put it into hot oatmeal and even in a bowl of cereal—that are sold on single serve boxes, because outdoors the milk is cool in the morning.

    Bon Appetit!

    Caesar Luis Romero.

  2. Europe? You’re talking about 42 different countries – UHT milk really is not popular at all in the UK, it’s also not very popular in Greece either (for example) and like others said, even the countries who do buy UHT milk the very first thing they do before consuming it is put it in the refrigerator..

  3. Lisa, a few of points to add. Firstly, to clarify again the milk is not used warm, we just pop it in the fridge before use. Secondly, because the milk is not required to be kept cold during production, transportation and shop storage there is less environmental impact as less energy is required for these three processes. As a final point there is less wastage, the longer shelf life gives additional time to sell and unlike fresh milk, if there is a failure in the distribution chain that affects the temperature the UHT milk is not spoiled.

  4. I use UHT milk exclusively because I like the taste more and it does not upset my digestive system as does regular milk. It lasts ten times longer in the refrigerator and I use it the same as regular milk in cereal, recipes, etc. Aditionally, it is much less expensive and I can sometimes find it the Dollar Tree Stores along with UHT Almond Milk. Can’t beat it.

  5. Luke – in Europe – clearly you don’t understand things about the issue. People don’t drink warm milk in Europe. The milk is stored that way on the shelf Typically we put the milk in the fridge and cool it to the same temp as your fresh milk then we open it and use it – same temp as yours :)

  6. My husband and I always purchase and enjoy UHT milk when we are in Mexico. He likes the taste better, and he feels that he tolerates it better than milk here (though I don’t know if there’s any relationship between UHT and lactose tolerance. I do purchase organic milk at home.

  7. You might have been looking for the wrong container. In a lot of European countries, fresh milk is sold in 1 liter bags.

  8. UHT milk tastes so weird – even chilled. Only option where I am visiting in Africa for a while. Use it in coffee & oatmeal. Cannot eat cold cereal with it! Guess if that is what you are used to – but, yuck!!!!!!!!

  9. In reality. All commercial milk undergoes pasteurization and all bacteria is killed. Even UHT milk is pasteurized (for convenience) before the Ultra pasteurization. The difference is that one machine with with 1500 gallon/h capacity is like 2 million dollars.

    The Ultra High is needed for killing spores, something that low temp pasteurization cannot archieve.

    I used to work at Parmalat.

  10. It makes absolutely no sense for milk to be in a fridge for several days, or weeks so that a consumer can buy it and drink it all in a total of 2-3 days tops.
    All throughout Europe, people eat their “good bacteria” through a little invention called “cheese” – and so should people in the US.

    I think in the USA there are several factors that need to be taken into consideration – the fridge industry (people were eating food for thousand of years before fridges were invented, do you know that? Often shocks Americans when I remind them that) – and agriculture and refrigerated trucks have solid deals, there are several industrial lobbys that anyways have very little consideration for the quality of products they make money selling as long as they can capitalize on every step of the production.

    Imagine how much freedom you gain by not having to refrigerate milk – you can take it with you for a picnic, travel with it, store it beyond your fridge’s capacity if you plan lots of cooking – oh and one of the better side effects is being able to buy it in smaller containers (for example to use in tea or coffee) to avoid wasting a whole bottle. When a product is easy to store, it’s easy to sell it in different sizes and formats.

    Another thing worth noting is that the USA has incredibly high percentage of diabetes in adults compared to European countries. There are several possible factors (omnipresence of high fructose corn syrup, “enriched” wheat products, less food education, junk food restaurants, less laws to cap presence of bad food, etc), but I think the types of milk and additives that are permitted in the USA are largely responsible for part of that number.

    The fact that a lot of options in the French store photo on your article are also organic proves a point in health and life standards in Europe being higher. And just because you can buy it at room temperature sure doesn’t mean you have to! It’s just more options as opposed to less options.
    Lastly, UHT organic milk is much more delicious!

    1. And that European arrogance toward and belittling of American culture and traditions is the reason that we will continue to eat what we want and how we want to. We’re quite known for that. Who wants to drink warm milk with cookies? Or warm milk with their cereal? It defeats the purpose of wanting to have milk in the first place! There’s nothing like a tall glass of icy-cold milk.
      A UHT shelf-stable milk is good only for an emergency supply on hand in case of a natural disaster or if you are simply out of milk and need some in a recipe immediately.

      1. Luke, as I am sure you know, there is a small thing called global warming. Keeping fridges full of a product that doesn’t need to be refrigerated from production to delivery is absolutely asinine and not necessary.

        Nobody ever said you couldn’t refrigerate UHT milk after you purchased it. Literally no one.
        I refrigerate it myself. All I said is that if the consumer has a choice between refrigerating and not refrigerating, then the product is better than a product with which you have no choice. And on top of this it doesn’t contribute to global warming as much as constantly refrigerated milk.

        Imagine if milk needs to be refrigerated from a farm in Portland all the way to San Francisco, and then someone goes and buy milk to put in the oven in a cake recipe – why the hell would all these resources be wasted to refrigerate it the whole time, from cow to customer – the customer could make a cake!

        Make sure that the absence of consideration for the environment that you define as “American culture” doesn’t lead the USA to be a wasteland in 30 years time, while other countries are doing what is right. Doing what is right for the planet is not arrogance, it is just logic. Or soon all the milk that the USA will be able to have is the one coming from Europe.

    2. “…(people were eating food for thousand of years before fridges were invented, do you know that? ”

      They were also dying of starvation and food borne illnesses at rates we would consider barbaric. Also, have you ever looked into the nutritional studies on ancient people vs modern ones? It’s pretty crazy how basic access to a variety of foods has lead to such drastically improved health outcomes.

  11. I lived for ~4 years in France and loved the convenience of ‘shelf milk’ since I could purchase a 10 pack at one go, it used to be cheaper than refrigerated milk too.
    still on the lookout for a suitable, budget friendly alternative in the U.S.

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