Decoding the French: Why do they have such a thirst for UHT milk?

Despite being a country known for its culinary endeavours, France -- like other mainland European countries -- prefers long-life UHT milk to fresh. So, what's behind this gastronomic misnomer?

Decoding the French: Why do they have such a thirst for UHT milk?
Photo: AFP

It’s easy to understand why many foreigners in France find it rather strange that long-life milk is so prevalent in French supermarkets.

France is after all a country that’s known for putting taste before pretty much anything when it comes to food, so why favour a type of milk that’s generally less delicious and refreshing than the fresh stuff?

According to varied sources ranging from ( and The Times, anywhere between 90 and 97 percent of milk sold in France is UHT.

That’s an awful lot of long-life liquid, especially when considering that France is Europe’s second largest producer of milk after Germany (French cows produce a whopping 780 litres of milk every second).


Photo: AFP

So what does UHT stand for and why are the French so partial to it?

UHT milk gets its name from the ultra-high temperature process it goes through to be sterilized, giving it a shelf life of up to nine months, without even having to be refrigerated before it’s been opened.

UHT is in fact a more advanced form of pasteurisation, invented at Lille University in the 1880s by acclaimed French scientist Louis Pasteur.

His research also served to remove unwanted, ageing organisms from Gallic food favourites wine and cheese, so it seems understandable that France, as the first nation to reap the benefits of pasteurisation, would stick by the process.

The fact that the French have a somewhat proven reputation for having higher levels of hypochondria than other countries could also explain why milk that’s been sterilised of all germs is still the most sought-after (even though fresh milk is also pasteurised nowadays).

For the most part however it seems to be down to preference and tradition.

France after all isn’t the only country on the continent to choose long-life milk over fresh.

Belgium and Spain favour UHT overwhelmingly whereas in Greece and Finland it accounts for just one and two percent of milk sales respectively. In Britain, long-life milk consumption stands at around 8.4 percent and in the US UHT milk has never really taken off either.

For some nations, fresh milk is far more refreshing and tasty and the concept of storing it a cardboard box at room temperature – let alone drinking it warm – is bizarre, unsavoury and potentially risky.

For others, the watered down richness of milk that’s UHT is the only ‘milk taste’ they know, and its durability is more practical than the less readily available fresh produce.

If some outside commentators still find the French love of long-life milk a culinary misnomer, with a global shift towards UHT milk, they may have to start getting used to it. 



Member comments

  1. Bring back full cream milk or the golden top that use to be sold in the UK. My Sugar Puffs have never tasted the same using UHT.

  2. My first question is do the french drink a lot of milk? Growing up in america I always drank milk. Probably whole milk. Now we have 1% and 2% milk in addition to whole. 1 and 2% milk is watery. I do not drink it or use it in cooking. I always use whole milk. Who uses UHT milk? And how do you use it? I purchased it to add to my coffee, and have no idea as to what else to use it in. Is UHT milk whole milk that has been pasteurized?

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!