January 21, 2024

Milk and milk

Growing up in France, my milk was not stored in the fridge. It came in cartons, and we only stored it in the fridge after it was opened. I never gave it much thought until I started traveling and couldn't find the same milk in a few different countries.

Then one day, while talking with my wife, I realized that what I considered milk is not what most of the planet considers milk, and that I've been living a lie for most of my life! So, what is it that I drank?

First, some numbers

France is the second-largest producer of cow milk in Europe, behind Germany. It produces 24.2% of the EU's milk.

It's also the 7th largest producer of milk globally, with a total of 24.2 million tonnes of cow milk.

Now, we know that French people like their cheese and butter, but how do they like their milk?

The answer is: slightly burned, with slightly fewer nutrients, please.

Enters UHT milk

95% of French people drink UHT milk. UHT stands for Ultra High Temperature processing. It's the most aggressive form of pasteurization for milk.

Pasteurization is the process of killing harmful bacteria to make the milk safer to drink and extend its shelf life.

There are mainly three different types of milk we can drink today:

  • Raw: that is milk straight from the cow.
  • Pasteurized: that's milk that's been heated to ~72°C for 15 seconds and then rapidly cooled to around ~5°C. The most common method is called high-temperature short-time, or HTST. It kills most of the microorganisms and makes the milk safe to drink.
  • Ultra pasteurized: that's milk that's been heated to ~138°C for 2 to 5 seconds then also cooled down, aka UHT. It kills all of the microorganisms, making the milk sterile.

There are a few other pasteurization methods, but UHT and HTST are the most common.

Raw milk is the most nutritious, but it's too dangerous to distribute at scale. So pasteurization has become the standard to ensure that people consume safe milk.

But why do we have 2 different types?

The short answer is: cultural differences.

The UHT technology was developed in 1893, but didn't really go anywhere until breakthroughs in packaging (notably Tetra Pak) were made, allowing the milk to be distributed in a sterile container.

Large companies like Parmalat from Italy started to push UHT milk in different European countries. The adoption from each country differed depending on the milk culture at the time.


France, like many other European countries, quickly adopted UHT milk at the same time convenience and processed foods gained popularity. In a country where milk isn't typically drunk on its own, the convenience of storing milk cartons for cooking was more valuable than the milk's fresh taste.

For many French people, the taste of UHT milk is the norm. It's what they've always known. Some would even say that fresh milk tastes like cows. It's also the only option available. In supermarkets, full aisles are dedicated to UHT milk, but only a handful of fresh milk is available.

United States

In the US, when UHT milk was introduced, Americans were reluctant to buy it because it was not stored in fridges. It felt less fresh and natural. So, most of their milk is HTST, although most of their organic milk is UHT due to longer supply chains and the fact that people who do not do their research are happy to pay more for milk that tastes bad just because it says "organic".

United Kingdom

In the UK, UHT milk is consumed by just 8% of the population. Many British people are surprised when they find out that French milk doesn't match the quality of French cheese or butter. But the UK's culture is different. Milkmen delivered milk to doorsteps until the 1990s, and adding milk to tea is a common preference. For most British, the slight convenience of UHT milk doesn't make up for its taste difference.

Other countries

Countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands also had milk delivery services and a more pronounced milk culture. So UHT milk didn't become as popular there.

Differences between UHT and HTST

Taste and Texture:

UHT milk often has a "cooked" taste, because of the high heat used in its processing. The texture is also slightly thicker and creamier compared to HTST milk.

HTST milk is closer in taste to fresh milk.

Nutritional Content:

The heat used in UHT can lead to a small loss of certain vitamins, such as vitamin B12 and vitamin C.

HTST is typically less impacted due to the lower temperatures used.

Shelf Life:

UHT milk can usually be stored for up to six months unrefrigerated if it remains unopened.

HTST milk usually has a shelf life of about 14-20 days and requires refrigeration.

Digestive and allergenic issues

The intense heat of UHT treatment can denature the proteins in milk, altering their structural arrangement. Although this doesn't necessarily reduce the nutritional value of the protein, there is an ongoing debate about how it may impact the milk's digestibility and allergenicity.

What now?

If you're drinking UHT milk, I'd encourage you to switch to pasteurized milk. It tastes better, it's just as safe, and its structure is less changed. Grass-fed milk is strongly advised too, but this may be for another article. Also, remember that we're not supposed to drink too much milk, despite what your government is telling you. Chances are, you're lactose intolerant.