While pasteurization conditions effectively eliminate potential pathogenic microorganisms, it is not sufficient to inactivate the thermoresistant spores in milk. The term sterilization refers to the complete elimination of all microorganisms. The food industry uses the more realistic term "commercial sterilization"; a product is not necessarily free of all microorganisms, but those that survive the sterilization process are unlikely to grow during storage and cause product spoilage.

In canning we need to ensure the "cold spot" has reached the desired temperature for the desired time. With most canned products, there is a low rate of heat penetration to the thermal centre. This leads to overprocessing of some portions, and damage to nutritional and sensory characteristics, especially near the walls of the container. This implies long processing times at lower temperatures.

Milk can be made commercially sterile by subjecting it to temperatures in excess of 100° C, and packaging it in air-tight containers. The milk may be packaged either before or after sterilization. The basis of UHT, or ultra-high temperature, is the sterilization of food before packaging, then filling into pre-sterilized containers in a sterile atmosphere. Milk that is processed in this way using temperatures exceeding 135° C, permits a decrease in the necessary holding time (to 2-5 s) enabling a continuous flow operation.

Some examples of food products processed with UHT are:

  • liquid products - milk, juices, cream, yoghurt, wine, salad dressings
  • foods with discrete particles - baby foods; tomato products; fruits and vegetables juices; soups
  • larger particles - stews