UHT milk: depending on what country you live in, it’s either an everyday household item or as foreign as pineapples in Anchorage. UHT milk has received ultra high temperature processing in order to kill spores (such as botulism) that are, or could be, in milk, thereby increasing the shelf-life of milk to 6-9 months. Milk that has been UHT processed can sit on the shelf, unrefrigerated. Once opened, it does need to be refrigerated and consumed within a couple of weeks. UHT processing heats the milk to 135°C (275ºF) for 2 seconds, which also decreases some of the nutritional value of the milk, in addition to rendering the need for constant refrigeration unnecessary. This is a benefit for countries that are always warm, like here in El Salvador. I have bought the fresh milk and it lasts for about three days in my refrigerator. It’s hard to say why, but several of us here have come to a conclusion that the milk isn’t kept in refrigeration during the entire journey from milk processing facility to the store, and as it’s transferred from the refrigerated truck into the store, it sits on the sidewalk for several minutes too long (especially when it’s 27ºC/85ºF out!)
Why did UHT processing begin? Primarily to be able to better ship milk, and for people to be able to stock up on milk without needing a huge refrigerator. This is why UHT milk is so popular in Europe, where people tend to have smaller apartments and thus smaller refrigerators. The UHT milk is packaged in aseptic containers, nice and rectangular and compact. UHT milk is also popular, as I’ve said, in warmer climates, or in areas where electricity can be unstable or disrupted by natural disasters such as hurricanes. Proponents of UHT milk site several advantages of UHT milk: its regular shape allows for greater efficiency in transport, plus before the aseptic cartons are filled, they are flat, which means they take up less space, which is another shipping efficiency. All of these efficiencies mean that less greenhouse gas is emitted. (I would argue that if they whole idea of UHT milk is to be able to ship the milk further, these efficiencies would then be negated…)
It seems to me that the downsides of UHT milk are far more numerous. To begin with, the entire process of heating the milk to that temperature is quite energy-consumptive. Furthermore, the UHT process inactivates good milk enzymes, leads to losses of amino acids and vitamins, and alters the flavor of the milk. That altered flavor has been called “cabbagy.” Yummy. And then let’s talk about the packaging: that aseptic container, a blend of paper, plastic and aluminum that cannot be practically recycled as yet, and is just about as bad as Styrofoam in how quickly it breaks down in landfills. Add to that the fact that scientists have found that phthalates and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals leach from the package into the milk, and you realize UHT milk is giving you a whole lot more than extended shelf life.
Maybe you’re thinking that it’s no big deal – you sure as heck don’t want botulism in your milk, so UHT milk is safer. Safer? I suppose. It would also be safer to stay inside your house and never drive a car or cross a street or fly in a plane. But the health benefits of fresh milk outweigh the perceived safety of UHT milk. It is impossible to make yogurt or keffir out of UHT milk because the milk is dead. Milk is not supposed to be dead. There are supposed to be active enzymes in milk, enzymes that support microscopic life. Lastly, there are rumors that the UHT milk once expired (an unopened/unsold) can be returned to the processing facility, reprocessed, and put back out on the shelves. I tried to get down to the truth of the matter. I found several scientific articles that briefly mentioned the reprocessing of UHT milk, and one short rebuttal by Tetra-Pak Europe (who manufactures the containers in which a large share of Europes UHT milk is sold) saying that such things are nothing but lies. My understanding is that if you turn your UHT milk over, there is a code on the bottom. Here, the code starts either with an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ followed by four numbers, one through five (one of them will be missing). If the code is B1235, that means your milk has been reprocessed nine times. If the code is A2345 then your milk is on its first go-round (and last, since you’ve bought it). Of course this seems a little more than kind of gross. But the technology is there. Of course, the technology exists to purify the effluent from sewage treatment facilities to meet safe drinking water standards, but that doesn’t mean we should do it, and it definitely doesn’t mean the general public will accept it. Milk reprocessing has been going on in China, and I’m sure it’s happening in other places, likely here in El Salvador too. But until I know for sure, I can still castigate UHT milk for the other, proven, milk atrocities.
When we get right down to it, the worst part about UHT milk is that it is the antithesis of the local farming movement. UHT milk guarantees your milk is not local, it guarantees you have no idea where the cows are living, or in what kind of existence. Buying fresh milk, the milk that always has been, and always should be refrigerated helps guarantee your milk is at least somewhat local. Buying from the farm itself is even better.