When I moved to China eight years ago, I was shocked to see milk piled high on store shelves at room temperature, with expiration dates lasting longer than six months. How could this be safe or nutritious?
After milk is extracted from the cow (or sheep or goat), it is
pasteurized to kill dangerous bacteria and spores that can otherwise seriously harm or even kill people. In the process, milk is exposed to high heat for specific lengths of time.
Named after the famous 19th century French scientist Louis Pasteur, pasteurization also slows down the spoilage triggered by a different set of bacteria. However, this sterilization doesn’t kill all bacteria; that’s why milk must be kept cool and used within a couple of days after opening. Regular pasteurization heats milk to around 70-75°C for 15 seconds, but newer techniques heat it up to 150°C for five seconds.
This is called ultra-high temperature (UHT) milk. At 150°C, all harmful pathogens – including spores – are killed as well as the enzymes that can spoil milk, which is why UHT milk keeps for months. The milk also goes directly into the container after heating, eliminating contamination.
But what about nutrition? While there are some very minor changes, all of the major governmental and nutritional sites I’ve read – including the American Center for Disease Control (CDC), the European Union, and New Zealand – come to the same conclusion.
As summed up by the CDC, “all of the nutritional benefits of drinking milk are available from pasteurized milk without the risk of disease that comes with drinking raw milk.” While some reports say that milk enzymes are damaged even more with UHT processing, the CDC says that “the enzymes in raw animal milk are not thought to be important in human health.”
Most Europeans will find my initial hesitancy amusing, as UHT milk has been the most popular choice in most EU countries for many years. In China, it is available mostly imported in foreign and upscale supermarkets. Fortunately, it can be found on all major shopping sites in China.
Many of my patients and online readers have been desperate to find quality milk sources since the melamine scandal of 2008. UHT milk is a great choice, especially when it’s imported and organic; it’s a far better choice for toddlers than toddler formula, which no pediatric groups have endorsed over milk.
I buy imported organic UHT milk mostly as a safety precaution, but I am reassured by the fact that my family is drinking milk from grass-fed cows raised on farms that is 100 percent free of pesticides, heavy metals, and growth hormones. Given the uncertainty over food safety here, why not have peace of mind with your milk?
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