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Milk Got You!

A guide to Milk in China. Find out why its possible to keep it at room temperature, why the expiration dates are so bizarre, and how to buy the milk you're looking for!


Milk Got You!

A guide to Milk in China. Find out why its possible to keep it at room temperature, why the expiration dates are so bizarre, and how to buy the milk you're looking for!


The news that my  friend Chris brought over 50 pounds of baby milk powder in his luggage from the states for his baby cousin living in China didn’t really surprise me.  We’ve all heard the horror stories involving contaminated milk in China. After the scandals involving contaminated milk powder in 2008, which caused the death of six infants and made thousands ill, most seem to be skeptical about buying milk. Since the incident, however,  Beijing has implemented vast new food-safety regulations and has strictly supervised their enforcement.

Then why don’t Chinese families drink milk?

Despite these new regulations, you won’t come across many Chinese families drinking milk on a regular basis. China actually has one of the world’s lowest levels of per capita milk consumption. Contrary to popular belief,  this low consumption of dairy products was not just caused by the 2008 scandals.  According to China.org.cn, approximately 90 percent of the Chinese adult population is thought to be lactose intolerant, or 乳糖酶缺乏 (Rǔtáng méi quēfá).  This means they have low levels of lactase, the enzyme that normally digests the sugar found in dairy products.

According to this article by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, the consumption for dairy products was also “hindered by high prices, caused by the lack of refrigerated transportation, inadequate household refrigeration, and limited production near coastal demand centers that  dated back several decades.”  The phenomenon is also said to be closely related with the Chinese eating habits, according to LookChem. The article cited a survey stating that 80% of Chinese families do not drink milk regularly, and 20% never drink milk at all.  China’s fast modernization has brought forth new opportunities for lower income families to buy milk, thereby expanding the market. Dairy products such as cheese and ice cream are now creeping in, opening up even more opportunities for foreign investors

So why is it warm?

When I first came to Beijing, I was confused as to why there were so many milk containers in the supermarket without refrigeration. My mother always told me, “Don’t leave the milk out! It will spoil!” To see dozens of milk cartons out in room temperature was a little too bizarre for my liking. I decided to do some research. It all has to do with a newer process of fermentation called Ultra-Pasteurization, or UHT. Instead of the conventional method of heating the milk to 74°C for 15 seconds, UTH involves heating the milk at a very high temperature for about two seconds. This, in turn, gives the milk a longer shelf life without the need to be refrigerated. Once you open the container, however, make sure to refrigerate it!

When does it expire?

If it wasn’t bizarre enough to see milk and dairy containers at room temperature, I was even more taken aback by looking at what I thought were expiration dates. All the dates I saw had passed, not by several days, but some by several weeks or even months! I was then later explained that the date printed on the containers were not the expiration date. Instead, this was the date that the product had been released. In order to find out the exact expiration date, you must look at the nutrition label. There, you will find days or months to add to the release date. This will tell you how long you have until it expires.

How do I buy the right one?

I grew up on cereal and milk for breakfast. Coming to China and realizing that most had no idea what cereal was frankly almost devastated me. I did not give up and finally found ridiculously over priced cereal. Somewhat satisfied, I went to the dairy aisle and got what I assumed was milk. It was white and was milky looking. As I sat down in my room and dug  in, I was appalled by the flavor in my mouth. It wasn’t the cereal, it was the white substance that was flooding it. With a disgusted face, I asked my roommate why the milk was so watery. Apparently, I had not bought fresh milk or skimmed milk. I had bought what is known as 奶饮 (nǎiyǐn), or flavored milk drink. If you’ve ever tried to buy milk in China, chances are this has happened to you more than once.  I learned my lesson and decided to research translations, finding the chart below.

Translations of the different typesof milk in mandarin

Even though we find some Chinese customs strange, many Chinese people find foreign customs even stranger. Read about it here!

Photo Courtesy of LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images