Rapid, low-temperature process adds weeks to milk's shelf life

Rapid, low-temperature process adds weeks to milk's shelf life

Increasing milk temp for less than a second eliminates bacteria left behind after pasteurization.

A rapid heating and cooling of milk significantly reduces the amount of harmful bacteria present, extending by several weeks the shelf life of one of the most common refrigerator staples in the world, according to a Purdue University study.

Bruce Applegate, Purdue associate professor in the department of food science, along with collaborators from Purdue and the University of Tennessee, published their findings in the journal SpringerPlus, where they show that increasing the temperature of milk by 10 degrees for less than a second eliminates more than 99% of the bacteria left behind after pasteurization.

Purdue University food scientist Bruce Applegate developed a simple process that reduces harmful bacteria in milk. Source: Purdue University/Tom Campbell

"It's an add-on to pasteurization, but it can add shelf life of up to five, six or seven weeks to cold milk," Applegate said.

Pasteurization, which removes significant amounts of harmful pathogens that can cause illness and eventually spoil dairy products, is considered a high-temperature, short-duration method. Developed by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century, the treatment gives milk a shelf life of about two to three weeks.

The low-temperature, short-time (LTST) method in the Purdue study sprayed tiny droplets of pasteurized milk, which was inoculated with Lactobacillus and Pseudomonas bacteria, through a heated, pressurized chamber, rapidly raising and lowering their temperatures about 10°C but still below the 70°C threshold needed for pasteurization. The treatment lowered bacterial levels below detection limits, and extended shelf life to up to 63 days.

"With the treatment, you're taking out almost everything," Applegate said. "Whatever does survive is at such a low level that it takes much longer for it to multiply to a point at which it damages the quality of the milk."

The LTST chamber technology was developed by Millisecond Technologies, a New York-based company.

Sensory tests compared pasteurized milk with milk that had been pasteurized and run through MST's process. Panelists did not detect differences in color, aroma, taste or aftertaste between the products.

Phillip Myer, an assistant professor of animal science at the University of Tennessee and a co-author of the paper, said the process uses the heat already necessary for pasteurization to rapidly heat milk droplets.

"The process significantly reduces the amount of bacteria present, and it doesn't add any extra energy to the system," Myer said.

Myer said the promise of the technology is that it could reduce waste and allow milk to reach distant locations where transport times using only pasteurization would mean that milk would have a short shelf life upon arrival.

Applegate said the process could be tested without pasteurization to determine if it could stand alone as a treatment for eliminating harmful bacteria from milk.

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