Milk: The little day-to-day differences between France and the USA

Milk: Differences between France and the USA

Milk: Differences between France and the USA

It’s not always easy to manage cultural differences in your daily routine, but there are also differences with the products and services you use in everyday life. The detergents are different, as are the maternity leaves and the summer camps. There may be products that can’t be found, a service that’s completely different, or even crazy prices. Once or twice per month, I will now discuss these practical matters, so feel free to share some ideas with me! For today, let’s talk about milk in the United States.

All expats know this feeling when they go shopping elsewhere for the first time. Honestly, I would never have thought that filling my shopping cart in the United States would take so much time. Yes, of course I knew that Americans didn’t eat the same foods as us. And yet…

Having worked in international marketing all my life, modifying umpteen product packages for markets in France, the Netherlands, Italy, etc., I didn’t expect to be shocked while perusing the shelves.

Let’s get back to milk. In Germany, where I was living before 2013, I would buy semi-skimmed milk, which happens to be a French favorite. Buying the same kind of milk here hasn’t been as easy as I would have thought.

The size of milk bottles in the United States

At first I was amazed by the size of the bottles: the standard size is the gallon, which is 3.8 liters. At the end of the day, I like this a lot as our family goes through a lot of milk.

Between breakfast cereal, muesli in the afternoon (my oldest daughter after school) and homemade chocolate creams, we need about 2 gallons of milk per week. There’s no need to return to the supermarket during the week, as my fridge is big enough for eight liters (2 gallons) of milk!

Milk in the United States

The fat content in American milk

After discovering the advantage of the larger bottles, I had to learn about the differences. Americans have the choice of four levels of fat. They have whole milk and skim milk like in France, in addition to two kinds of semi-skimmed milk. In France, semi-skimmed has 1.5% in fat. Here, we can choose between 2% (reduced fat) and 1% (lowfat).

French people can choose between whole milk and skim milk only.

Milk cap color codes in the United States

The color codes are also different. In both France and the United States the red cap is used for whole milk, but the other colors vary completely. Although having two varieties of semi-skim milk justifies having an extra color, I admit I draw a blank as to why there are two different colors for the same product. For example, the cap for American skim milk can be pink or light blue.

France-USA: Milk Color Code Comparison

Whole milk (3.5%)RedRed
Reduced fat milk (2%)Blue
Semi-skim milk (1.5%)Blue
Low fat milk (1%)Yellow or purple
Skim milk (0%)Pink or light blueGreen


There is no UHT milk in the United States!

Finally, one notable difference for most French people is that the milk here is not UHT but freshly pasteurized. You buy it in the dairy section, like in Germany. According to this article in French Morning:

“In France, more than 90% of milk consumed is UHT (pasteurized at Ultra High Temperature), … However in the United States, 90% of the milk sold undergoes only simple pasteurization. Therefore it must be constantly refrigerated and only lasts for about two weeks.”

It’s not exactly two weeks. Since 2009, a new technique allows milk to be kept fresh for a few weeks, however it doesn’t last as long as long-life milk. The fact remains that milk is kept in the fridge and it doesn’t taste like UHT milk.
Why is there no UHT milk in the United States?

In the same French Morning article, the former CEO for Lactalis in the United States provided an answer:

“The famous “milkman” is a piece of American history. Americans grew up with the tradition of fresh milk being delivered to their homes” pointed out Paul Bensabat, former CEO of Lactalis in the United Sates, and founder of Saveur Food. Since fresh milk can only be kept in the refrigerator, Americans can only imagine drinking milk if it comes out of the fridge.”

It should be noted that UHT milk isn’t completely absent from the American market. My children sometimes bring small packages of chocolate or vanilla milk to school.


In 2013, Americans drank 20 gallons of milk on average compared to 14.2 gallons in France. I’m going to go into German mode here (don’t forget I hold dual citizenship) and I’m going to nitpick these figures a little bit:
20 gallons, that’s about 6.7 ounces per day, per person, which is about 1.5 quarts per week, per person. For a family of five, like mine, that’s about 1.8 gallons consumed each week. My two gallons of milk come in handy!

My husband and I can never agree when we talk about milk. I believe that milk is healthy, especially for the children. For the same reason, he prefers eggs for breakfast. In his opinion, milk is indigestible, with the proof being that Asians only consume very little.

We are probably both right. But since I’m the mother, my children eat cereal every weekday morning. I let their father handle the weekend, when they can have eggs and bacon on their plates. And of course, I would never draw a comparison, no, because eggs and bacon are not heavy whatsoever… right?


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  • It’s amazing to see such differences on products as simple as milk. I was already told by American or English friends that French milk taste “funny” (i.e. they really didn’t like it!).
    I only buy 2L of milk per week (we are 3), far below your huge 2 gallons!

    Just a little mistake on your post: you’ll find 03 different type of milk in France: skim milk was forgotten (max 0,5), with a green cap. (And, of course, you’ll find organic milk in every food stores, but without specific cap color.)

    • You’re right Lucile! Sorry for forgetting this. I remmber that my mum used to drink skim milk, which was kind of looking like painted white water. Not very tasty… One more point: there is also “raw milk” in France = unpasteurized, uncooked milk.

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