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Save the World: Buy This Weird Milk in a Box

Unrefrigerated milk is good enough for the French

AFP/Getty Images

Milk, long an emblem of wholesomeness and virtue, has never been more controversial. Most American adults grew up believing they should drink three glasses a day, but recent research has implicated dairy in a host of health problems, from breakouts and indigestion to heart disease and cancer. Environmentalists worry about dairy farms’ carbon emissions. Animal lovers worry about the cows’ quality of life.

At the same time, milk skeptics have never had more alternatives. If you want a variant of traditional cow milk, you can choose from lactose-free, slaughter-free, organic, skimmed, semi-skimmed, pasteurized or raw. Goats and sheep produce milk, too, which some claim is healthier. According to Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones, only certain types of cows—Asian and African ones—make milk suitable for human digestion. Milk-like products made from almond, soy, rice, oat, hemp, coconut, or cashew all have their proponents and detractors.

Yet there’s one kind of milk that’s almost never mentioned in the United States—even though it’s the most popular type in many parts of Europe and South America, has a smaller environmental impact, a longer shelf life, and a similar taste and nutritional profile to regular cow’s milk. UHT milk—named after the “ultra-high temperature” process by which it’s treated, and sometimes called shelf-stable or aseptic milk—is briefly heated to about 275 degrees Fahrenheit and packed into sterile containers in which it can stay fresh, without refrigeration, for as long as six months. Most milk sold in the U.S. is pasteurized: It’s typically heated to about 160 degrees for a second to kill off bacteria and extend its shelf life, though it still requires refrigeration and expires within about a week. Pasteurization was invented in the 1930s; ultra-high treatment came along about 30 years later.

According to The Times of London, in 2007, UHT milk accounted for 96.7 percent of total milk consumption in Belgium, 95.5 percent of the milk drunk in France, and 95.7 percent of the milk consumed in Spain. Its popularity varies widely across Europe; it accounts for just one percent of milk sales in Greece, 2.4 percent in Finland, and 8.4 percent in Britain. There’s a growing market for UHT in Asia; Bruce Krupke, Executive Vice President at Northeast Dairy Foods Association, estimated that 70 percent of the milk sold in China is UHT.

American visitors to European or South American countries are often dismayed at the difficulty of finding fresh milk. “The French appreciate fresh vegetables, bread etc., but apparently not milk? How can that be?” asked one commenter on the travel site Eupedia. “There's something that has confused and bothered me ever since I got here,” confessed a blogger who’d moved to Belgium. “I thought it odd that all the milk for sale in the grocery stores was sold unrefrigerated”—even though Belgium is “full of dairy cows.”

Parmalat—the biggest distributor of UHT milk in Europe—introduced their product to the U.S. in 1993, but never quite cracked the American market. Americans who—unlike many Europeans—have traditionally had home refrigerators with plenty of space, just couldn’t get used to the idea of buying milk off a shelf; whether you’re looking for Lactaid or low-fat, you find it in the refrigerated aisles. Americans' association between freshness and refrigeration is so ingrained that, according to the New York Times, some soy-milk companies pay supermarkets extra to have their shelf-stable product sold in the refrigerated section. 

“Americans are used to getting fresh milk from a cow and consuming it within a week,” said Krupke. “That’s the tradition. That’s what Americans have been brought up on. Why would someone who can get fresh milk want to buy a shelf-stable product?”

One reason might be environmental. By lessening the need for refrigeration in supermarkets and convenience stores, UHT could reduce global warming. In 2007, the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced a goal that 90 percent of milk sold in 2020 should not require refrigeration.

Readers of The Times weren’t enthused about DEFRA’s proposal. “Wasn’t UHT milk invented by an association of hotels and boarding houses to make sure nobody used the tea-maker?” asked one commenter. Another letter to the editor compared the taste of UHT to “scorched cardboard.” Elsewhere in The Times, UHT milk is used as a marker of poverty and desperation. “How long would you queue in a fetid waiting room for a pint of UHT milk?” asks a story titled “Only the truly hungry get their food like this.”

Yet UHT’s reputation may be undeserved. Its nutritional profile is not so different from pasteurized milk. It contains less folate—a B vitamin important for fertility—but is basically identical in calories and calcium content. And there’s an argument for convenience; running out of milk could mean going to the cabinet for another carton, not running to the supermarket or drinking your coffee black.

The flavor is still up for debate, though. “The higher temperatures can lead to some slightly different tastes in the milk,” said Cary Frye, a food scientist at the International Dairy Foods Association. “They’re described as a caramel or cooked flavor. U.S. consumers are not used to that.” But if we can get used to drinking trendy beverages like coconut water, which tastes like soap, and kefir, which tastes like vinegar, we could probably adjust. Sarah Hague, an American who moved to France, did. “I gave up buying fresh milk,” she wrote on the blog “Rue Rude.” “I've since got used to the taste of UHT on cornflakes and in my tea. It was tough at the beginning, but hey, the human race is wonderfully adaptable, and I don't notice it any more.”