Do you ever wander down the aisles of your local grocery store and wonder, “what's the deal with unrefrigerated milk (i.e. shelf-stable milk)” when you pass the almond milk strategically placed next to dry goods like cereals and crackers?
For years I've been skeptical of unrefrigerated varieties of both dairy and non-dairy milks left to sit on shelves for months on end. Something seemed off, as if these products weren’t as healthy as their refrigerated counterparts or maybe even just plain unsafe to consume in general.
Americans in particular don’t trust dairy products that claim to be safe to consume after 6-9 months on the shelf…and warm!!! Knowledge is power, and I want to break this all down so you can make the best choices for your specific needs and lifestyle.
Both shelf-stable and refrigerated varieties of milk (dairy and non-dairy) are all pasteurized. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, pasteurization is a process that applies heat to destroy pathogens in foods (similarly to the way white blood cells destroy pathogens like bacteria and viruses in your body).
Traditional refrigerated milks are pasteurized using a high-temperature short-time (HTST) method that heats every particle of the milk to at least 161 degrees F for 15 seconds using water and metal plates. After this process is has a “shelf” life of 5-15 days at most.
Non-traditional unrefrigerated milks, or “shelf stable” milks, are pasteurized using an ultra-high-temperature (UHT) method that heats every particle of the milk to 260 degrees F or higher for at least 2 seconds which extends the shelf life by 6-9 months before opening. This UHT process is also referred to as “aseptic processing” as it uses sterile equipment as well as sterile packaging.
"Dairy products that have been heat-sterilized and wrapped in sterile packaging do not require refrigeration as the sterilization prevents the milk from spoiling," says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, founder of NY Nutrition Group.
On an organic note, almost 100% of all organic dairy and non-dairy milks are UHT processed.
Some experts argue that heating both dairy and non-dairy milks to such high temps, as in UHT processing, kills off all the inherent nutrients that need to then get added back into the product. Moreover, the UHT processing changes the structure of the dairy milk protein casein making it even harder to digest (no wonder so many people are having issues digesting dairy milk these days)! SOURCE
So, what’s the deal with shelf-stable milk?
It’s super convenient in times of need!
If you know you need to have milk on hand for more than 2 weeks with limited refrigeration capacity (e.g. your dorm room or office cooler only holds 2 but you stocked up because of a kick a$$ sale at Costco)! Maybe you're embarking on a long road trip with only a tiny cooler on hand? A summer camping trip perhaps? Or maybe you're setting sail on an around-the-world voyage that you need to stock up for?
However, shelf-stabilized milks are slightly inferior from a nutritional standpoint and might even have an undesirable taste for those with sensitive taste buds due to the high heat processing.
If you have ample access to refrigeration and want the most wholesome, nutrient rich product with less nutritional supplementation my suggestion is to stick with what your grandma would approve of…traditional refrigerated milks!
But that's just my take on this matter.
What will you choose? Refrigerated or unrefrigerated?