Photo by Suzannah Larke
UHT milk home
For many foreigners, the omnipresence of ultra-high temperature (UHT) milk in Spain elicits a monosyllabic reaction: why? Why would anyone—let alone seemingly everyone—buy milk in a box? It is a question rarely, if ever, asked by the local population; the pro- and anti-UHT milk camps are apparently divided along national lines. While UHT is the big seller from Cadaqués to Córdoba, it is virtually non-existent in the US and Canada—and on those occasions when a North American does encounter the product (for example, while on holiday in Spain) it is eyed distrustfully.
Seven out of 10 Europeans drink UHT milk regularly, according to a Canadian study on consumer behaviour published in 2005 by Pearson Toronto. But this general statistic belies vast variations among EU countries: in the UK only 8.4 percent of milk purchased is UHT; in France, the figure soars to 95 percent. But Spain, with 95.7 percent, holds first place, leading the world in both consumption and sale of the product.
There are various explanatory hypotheses. Some reference the hot, milk-spoiling weather or the prevalence of small living spaces and their attendant small refrigerators, which make it impossible to store more than one or two bottles of fresh milk at a time. Others name the increasingly hectic Spanish lifestyle—most people don’t have time to shop every day, and UHT milk can be bought in bulk and stored in the cupboard for months at a time. Whatever the cause, UHT milk is the dairy product of choice here. But is it healthy? And how is it different from fresh milk?
Firstly, all milk is pasteurised. This is the process by which liquids (including soups, juices, pasta sauces, etc.) are heated at high temperatures for a specified length of time, eliminating the harmful pathogens (germs) that would otherwise populate our beverages. While regular pasteurisation eliminates some, UHT (ultra-high temperature) pasteurisation eliminates all of them.
This bacterial genocide is accomplished by a simple difference in the process: UHT products are heated at a higher temperature for a shorter length of time (135°C for 1-2 seconds, as compared to 72°C for at least 15 seconds). Because the liquid is heated for so little time, it suffers no nutritional damage, though the taste may be somewhat compromised (advances in technology have improved this aspect of UHT milk, but many agree that fresh milk is far superior in flavour, if not in nutritional value).
Following this brief and intense heating, the now-sterile liquid must be packaged so as to prevent it from becoming contaminated after the fact—this means in a sterilised, air-tight container that admits no light (this last criteria is to prevent the breakdown of important nutrients like vitamins A and D). Preserved in this way, an un-opened container of milk can last for six to nine months.
The convenience-related benefits of this extended shelf life are obvious—so why are the citizens of certain nations so averse to the idea? It comes down to a matter of habit. If one is culturally conditioned to believe that milk must be fresh (and thus, bought chilled), it’s difficult to believe that milk in a warm box could be of comparable quality. But, in truth, there’s nothing particularly strange about, and certainly nothing wrong with, UHT milk. Many foreigners, however, still prefer the fresh stuff, and while ‘real’ milk can be remarkably difficult to procure, it’s not utterly impossible: Hacendado, the house brand of supermarket chain Mercadona, produces fresh whole and semi-skimmed milk as well as fresh cream; Letona, a Spanish brand that can be found virtually everywhere, also makes fresh whole and semi-skimmed; and web-based milk market lletonet.com sells fresh skimmed milk, whole milk and heavy cream, and they do free home deliveries of orders over €15.