Soft Drink Competition Gives Milk a New Image

In the battle to refresh America, milk has not done well. Consumption has declined. Americans drink more than twice as much soda as they do milk.

So America's dairies are developing products that turn milk into, of all things, a soft drink. The symbol of 1950s wholesomeness is changing its image. Milk is going MTV.

Prepare for an onslaught from the likes of Crazy Milk, Moo Kooler, and Smilk. Borden's, Procter & Gamble, even Pepsi are pushing milk products with clever marketing. Ultimately, however, technology may determine how well the dairy industry can turn milk into an anytime, anywhere beverage.

In an effort to make milk more exciting to teenagers, most of these companies are adding flavors to it - orange, raspberry, chocolate, and more. At least one marketeer is taking something out of the milk. "It doesn't taste like milk," says a spokeswoman for Smilk, which hit Michigan store shelves last week. "It doesn't leave the coated feeling in your mouth that most milk-based products leave."

Milk's biggest limitation, of course, is its shelf life. Keep fresh milk out of the refrigerator too long and it spoils. Dairies have long wondered how to liberate milk from its prison in the kitchen refrigerator.

To keep up with the '90s on-the-go lifestyle, dairy processors are trying various technologies, says David Pelzer, a spokesman for Dairy Management Inc., a nonprofit marketing and education group for the dairy industry. One is ultrahigh temperature pasteurization (UHT). It's commonly used in Europe and allows milk to keep in unrefrigerated boxes for months.

Unlike traditional pasteurization, where milk is heated to between 144 and 149 degrees F for 30 minutes, UHT milk is subjected to twice the heat but only for 2 to 20 seconds. By storing it in aseptic packaging, which is separately sterilized, milk stays fresh for long periods.

The product hasn't caught on in the United States yet. Hershey Foods hopes to change that with its UHT lowfat milk and chocolate milk, which keep up to a year without refrigeration. On the market for a year and sold in packs of eight-ounce boxes similar to the juice-box packs now common in the store, the product is meeting Hershey's sales expectations, a spokesman says.

Another way to make milk last longer is to borrow the fizz from soft drinks. Literally. Joseph Hotchkiss, professor of food science at Cornell University, is working to add to milk the carbon dioxide that gives soft drinks their bubbles.

It's not as weird as it sounds. Researchers have long known that cows' milk has small amounts of carbon dioxide which processing techniques take out. So, Dr. Hotchkiss proposes to put it back.

Of course, he is adding only 1/100th as much carbon dioxide as a soft drink would have, so consumers wouldn't be able to taste it. Even at those minute levels, however, the carbon dioxide can slow dramatically the growth of various bacteria. The result is that milk can last days, even weeks longer, than it would otherwise.

The process is already used in processing cottage cheese and is doubling or even tripling its shelf life. The biggest challenge will be persuading the dairy industry to move to more expensive packaging that doesn't let the carbon dioxide escape.

So far, no one has suggested a pop-top can (but those hip dairymen are capable of anything.)

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