France Is Obsessed with Raw Milk Cheese, So Why is French Milk Shelf-Stable?

No use crying over spilled milk – the French don't drink it anyway.

France Is Obsessed with Raw Milk Cheese, So Why is French Milk Shelf-Stable?
Credit: iStock/mediaphotos

Walk into any fromagerie in Paris, and the majority of the Bries, Camemberts, and crottins de chèvre that you see will have a little label indicating that they’re made with lait cru – raw milk. It’s an evidence, something that seems obvious to the French (and leads visiting tourists to stock up with reckless abandon). But head instead into your local Parisian grocery store, and you’ll encounter a different story entirely: liter bricks of shelf-stable UHT milk kept at room temperature, rather than the gallons in the refrigerated section we’re so used to encountering in the States.

Milk has been heavily pasteurized in France for decades (perhaps no surprise, as it was French microbiologist Louis Pasteur who patented the process in 1865). While American milk is pasteurized too – to keep for a few weeks – in France, it’s “ultra-high temperature” (UHT) pasteurized, heated to 275 degrees as opposed to the 60 to 100 to which American milk is. The resulting shelf-stable milk, which makes up 95.5 percent of all milk consumed in France, has a (frightening?) six- to nine-month shelf life.

While the discrepancy between a love of raw cheese, butter, and cream and UHT milk might seem strange, this distinction has quite a bit to do with the French attitude towards milk in general. Unlike cheese and yogurt which appear at nearly every French meal (the former immediately following the main, and the latter, despite what many of us would like to believe, given the French penchant for pastry, as dessert), milk just doesn’t appear on French tables all that often. Children will traditionally drink a bowl of warm milk for breakfast alongside their tartines of baguette slathered with butter or jam, and adults may enjoy a morning café au lait before heading off to work, but the glasses of milk we grew up drinking in America are an impossibility for the French, especially alongside a savory meal.

The French may have a point, from a health standpoint. As it turns out, cow’s milk just isn’t that good for you, especially when compared to fermented dairy like cheese and yogurt. 

One recent study from the European Society of Cardiology showed that eating cheese and yogurt may lead to a longer life, while milk drinkers have a higher risk of coronary heart disease and related mortality. The study, which examined the eating habits of over 600,000 people over the course of 15 years, found that drinking milk seems to increase the risk of coronary heart disease by 4 percent, a risk that is not linked with consumption of fermented dairy. And once-common links between full-fat dairy and heart disease continue to be debunked by studies – including a roundup of 29 published in 2017.

Fermented dairy, on the contrary, is good for you, according to the most recent research. One European Society of Cardiology study showed that consumption of cheese lowered mortality risk by 8 percent, and a new study of middle-aged, overweight Irish adults published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that eating full-fat cheddar cheese may even reduce cholesterol, as compared with reduced-fat cheese or butter.

While these studies don’t indicate that yogurt has the same heart-healthy benefits as cheese, other studies have shown that the live active bacteria (aka probiotics) present in yogurt are great for gut health and, by extension, for brain health… as long as your yogurt isn’t too full of sugar, which may negate these benefits.

“Yogurt, particularly Greek yogurt contain various probiotics, vitamins and minerals which may boost digestive health,” explains Dr. Peyton Berookim, MD, FACG, Gastroenterology Institute of Southern California Director. “I personally recommend yogurt for all of my patients who are taking antibiotics.”

In other words, a French-style approach to dairy may be better for your health: embrace fermented raw milk yogurt and cheese, and eschew milk whenever possible. But when you do need milk – in your coffee, with your cereal, in your favorite rice pudding recipe – which aisle should you turn to?

While UHT milk is (perhaps surprisingly) one of the more ecological choices, according to New Republic, owing in no small way to its lack of need for refrigeration, raw milk is another option at the opposite end of the spectrum that’s quickly becoming a staple in many health-conscious American households.

Despite being illegal for interstate sale in the U.S. since 1987, raw milk has exploded in popularity in recent years. In Washington State, licensed raw milk dairies have exploded from six in 2006 to 32 this year, Civil Eats reports, and despite government warnings that raw milk is more likely to contain dangerous pathogens, fans of the product point to proven health benefits. One 2007 paper, for example, indicated reduced instances of allergies and asthma in children who consumed raw milk.

“Raw milk can be more beneficial as it is loaded with healthy bacteria, digestive enzymes, antibodies, and vitamins,” explains Berookim, who notes that sourcing from a pastured, grass-fed cattle operation will make a big difference when it comes to avoiding pathogens.

“Although I don’t love dairy, some people can eat it without allergies or other health effects,” says naturopathic Doctor Elizabeth Trattner. “In my opinion, go with the most natural, and that is raw.”

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco