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Milk is perhaps one of the most staple foods in households all over the world. You visit any supermarket, and you'll see so many varieties of it - raw, pasteurized, ultra-pasteurized, and so on. For the average person, these labels can be quite confusing. You might even be wondering - which is the safest, tastiest choice?

Turns out, the kind of milk you choose involves more than just flavor. It's about safety, shelf life, and even those "good bacteria" you hear about. Pasteurization, that heating process designed to protect us, plays a big role.

In this article, we'll look at the difference between raw and pasteurized milk, and even learn about the various pasteurization techniques used. Because whether you're sipping it straight or pouring it over cereal, making an informed choice matters!

Raw Milk and Pasteurized Milk – What's the Difference?

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We mentioned all the different milk varieties on the shelves, from raw to ultra-pasteurized. But the biggest difference often comes down to a single process: pasteurization. So, let's dive deeper and see what sets these two types of milk apart.

  • Raw Milk: This is milk straight from the source – no heating, no processing. Think of it like milk in its most natural form. For many people, it is believed that raw milk retains all the natural enzymes and beneficial bacteria. However, keep in mind that raw milk has a shorter shelf life and needs to be refrigerated immediately after milking.
  • Pasteurized Milk: This is the most common type of milk you'll find in grocery stores. It undergoes a process called pasteurization where it's heated to a specific temperature for a set amount of time. While this process kills most harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses, it also causes a slight change in flavor and can also reduce some vitamins and enzymes naturally present in raw milk.
  • Did you know: Although the scientific pasteurization process was invented by French chemist Louis Pasteur (from where it gets its name) in 1822, the idea itself has been around since AD 1117! In fact, it's even documented in the Japanese diary Tamonin-nikki, written by a series of monks between 1478 and 1618.

    4 Methods of Pasteurizing Milk

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    When we talk about pasteurization, it's not as simple as just heating milk and letting it cool. In fact, depending on the specific temperature used and the time involved, there are actually 4 different varieties of pasteurized milk.

    Let's take a look at each one of them:

  • Vat Pasteurization
  • This is the original pasteurization method, where milk is heated in a large vat at a lower temperature for a longer time.

    While not as common for regular drinking milk, vat pasteurization is still important for making things like cheese, yogurt, buttermilk, and even some ice cream mixes.

    Recommended Temperature to be heated at: 63ºC (145ºF)

    Time heated: 30 minutes

  • High-Temperature Short Time Pasteurization (HTST)
  • HTST is the standard method you'll find for most store-bought milk today. It involves heating milk to a higher temperature for a short time using metal plates and hot water, and then rapidly cooling it. It's also called "flash pasteurization".

    Recommended Temperature to be heated at: 72ºC (161ºF)

    Time heated: 15 seconds

  • Higher-Heat Shorter Time (HHST)
  • This method is pretty much similar to HTST but uses slightly higher temperatures, shorter heating times, and different equipment. The advantage of this being that it can slightly extend the shelf life of the milk.

    Recommended Temperature to be heated at: Between 89ºC (191ºF) and 100ºC (212ºF)

    Time heated: Between 0.01 to 1 second

  • Ultra Pasteurization (UP)
  • Lastly, we have ultra pasteurization. UP milk gets a blast of extremely high heat for an extremely short time, giving you a product that can last for months.

    However, due to the high temperatures involved, UP milk can sometimes have a slightly "cooked" taste compared to other methods.

    Recommended Temperature to be heated at: 138ºC (280ºF)

    Time heated: 2 seconds

    Note: There's another, less common method called Ultra High Temperature (UHT). This is when the milk is heated and then hermetically (airtight) sealed. This type of milk is 'shelf-stable', which means it does not need refrigeration until opened.

    Comparing Milk Types – Flavor, Nutrition, Shelf Life

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    Now that you know the different types of ways in which milk is pasteurized, let's take a look at how they compare against each other, and against raw milk.

    Take a look at the table below to see the differences.

    Milk Type Flavor Nutrition Shelf Life
    Raw Milk Most 'natural' taste Potential for higher beneficial bacteria Shortest
    Vat Pasteurized Closer to raw milk Some nutrient loss Moderate
    HTST Pasteurized Standard milk flavor Minimal nutrient loss Good
    Higher-Heat Shorter Time (HHST) Similar to HTST pasteurized Similar to HTST pasteurized Slightly longer than HTST
    Ultra Pasteurized May have slightly 'cooked' taste Most nutrient loss Longest

    As you can see, there definitely is a trade-off between taste, health benefits, and shelf life when it comes to the type of milk you choose.

    While raw milk may have a short shelf life and needs to be consumed fresh, it surely is the winner when it comes to natural flavor and having the most beneficial bacteria.

    Learn more: How long does raw cow's milk last in the fridge

    Final Thoughts

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    Choosing the 'best' milk finally comes down to your personal preferences. Pasteurization offers a safety net, but if you're looking for that natural taste and health benefits, then raw milk is definitely worth exploring.

    Find a reputable local farm with high standards for hygiene and safety, and enjoy milk the old-fashioned way - pure, fresh, and yummy!

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