Cheese and Other Dairy Products: Are they Processed?

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There’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately and it goes something like this:

If you avoid processed foods how is it that you’re still eating cheese (or cream cheese or sour cream or [insert dairy product here])? Isn’t cheese processed?”

The thing is even cooking is technically a form of processing or changing your food so unless you are on a raw food diet, which we are not, we are all eating food that’s been somewhat “processed”. So maybe it would be better to say we avoid all highly processed foods, which, to draw the line somewhere, we define as having more than 5 (or any refined) ingredients.

So to hopefully answer some of those burning cheese questions I’d like to share what we look for when it comes to purchasing dairy products in general. And in case you missed it be sure to check out our post earlier this month all about milk.


There are a few basic things we look for in cheese…

  • Organic: As I’ve mentioned before you can’t exactly peel or wash off dairy products like you can with conventional produce so we think it’s best to go organic if you can.
  • Block Form (as opposed to pre-grated): Bagged, pre-shredded cheese contains an anti-caking agent called cellulose that’s sometimes made from wood pulp. Whether this additive concerns you or not the point is it’s an extra additive you will not find in a block of cheese. So when we want grated cheese at our house we just grate it ourselves. Yes, it’s an extra step, but it’s worth it to me especially because I think the texture is much better (i.e. less “powdery”).
  • White: Cheese, which is obviously made from milk or cream, is meant to be white not orange…think about it. The orange color is typically a harmless, natural color additive, but just to make a point I personally like to buy my cheese white because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. When it comes to “voting with my dollars” I don’t like to mess around!
  • Full Fat: We no longer buy any reduced-fat or non-fat food products (since to get products that way they are simply more processed), which is actually kind of a relief because I never thought the low-fat versions tasted all that good anyway!
  • Grass-Fed: Cows are meant to eat grass (not corn), and as I mentioned in the milk post when animals are fed a proper diet their food products are in turn more nutritious for you. Sometimes it’s hard to find, but I ideally look for cheeses that either say “grass-fed” or “pasture raised” on the package.

Yogurt*, Cream Cheese, and Other Dairy Products

This is what we look for when it comes to other dairy products like cream cheese, sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, and ricotta cheese…

  • Organic: Just like cheese and milk we always choose organic when it comes to any dairy products.
  • Full Fat: Once again we did away with all low-fat and non-fat products when we made the switch to real food.
  • Plain: When it comes to dairy products like yogurt, it’s always best to buy the plain version and flavor it yourself. The majority of factory-made food contains way too much sugar (and salt and oil) so it’s not only best to be able to control how much is added, but also what type of sweetener is used. We love mixing our plain yogurt with homemade berry sauce, homemade strawberry-honey jam, or a little maple syrup and vanilla extract… you can also add some orange zest for a real treat!
  • Least Number of Ingredients: No matter what type of food you are buying I highly recommend to ALWAYS read the ingredients before making a purchase. Most of the time least processed = least number of ingredients (as long as those ingredients are “whole” of course).
  • Grass-Fed: Once again this can be hard to find especially when you are looking beyond cheese and milk, but ideally all dairy products should come from grass-fed (as opposed to corn or grain-fed) cows.

*Note Regarding Greek Yogurt: I can’t really say that Greek yogurt is “better” or “worse” for you than regular yogurt because to be honest it’s just different. As long as the yogurt meets the criteria outlined above just pick whichever one you like best!


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204 comments to Cheese and Other Dairy Products: Are they Processed?

  • Kelly

    What organic mozzarella cheese do you buy? Same brand organic valley in a block? We have been changing over to organic and I never thought about the coloring in my cheeses and I buy shredded! I want to buy what’s best for my family.

    • Jamie Dunson

      I’m having a really hard time myself with finding organic mozzarella at Publix or the fresh market down here in FL. So I’m stuck buying conventional brands. I noticed on Amazon they sell Organic Valley mozzarella in bulk but it’s part skim which I’m not sure is any better. Plus it’s in bulk- only way I can buy it is if I shred it first and freeze but I’m not quite convinced yet on the switch. Any help would be appreciated too.

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi there. In a perfect world grass fed organic is the way to go but it can be difficult to find. Organic in a block is a good option as it does not have the additives which shredded cheeses generally do. You can often find a better variety online than is available in stores but this can be an expensive option unless you buy in bulk. You will have to decide what option works best for you. ~Amy

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  • Jenn

    Dairy is the problem we have with eating non-processed. We buy cheese from a local company that does not have anything extra in it (no modified milk ingredients), but the cost is significantly higher for pastured and/organic dairy products. 4X the price of regular butter (I haven’t even looked at other dairy products). Our answer? Get our own cow. I don’t know how anyone affords pastured, organic dairy products. We go through 8-12 L each week of milk alone (well, we make kefir and yougurt with it as well), 1 lb butter, plus 1 kg (give or take) of cheese. Any suggestions?

    • Dori

      We are also using raw milk to make butter, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream, ect. Our problem is as well, that we have a hard time buying cheese at a affordable price and only buy raw milk cheddar and ricotta. Would love to have mozzarella and others as well but it is too expensive. Our solution is the same as you mentioned…..we are looking to sell our house and buy some land to have a milk cow.

  • Dori

    I make my own yogurt from raw milk and do not bring it past a 110 temp as to not kill the bacteria. That being said…from my small amount knowledge, real yogurt is naturally thinner than store bought yogurt. To achieve a Greek yogurt consistency you drain out some or all of the whey depending on how thick you like your yogurt. The down side to this process of making Greek yogurt is that the whey is incredibly healthy for you. I say this as to encourage you to eat regular yogurt as is, so you may benefit from the yogurt.

  • Sophia

    Once again, a really informative post. I would point out that cheese is one of those foods where it’s very important to read labels, if you are trying to eat a whole-foods diet. In addition to being aware of coloring agents, anti-mold and other chemicals, and fillers; an awful lot of cheese out there is made with added oil, even some organic & all natural brands.

  • […] I made on Sunday. It has completely real food–no mayonnaise, just organic sour cream (post here about whether sour cream is real food or not). I used the recipe from 100 Days of Real Food, but […]

  • Kristi Segura

    Hi there, my husband and I both have cholesterol issues ( hereditary) and I was wondering why the stonyfield organic fat free plain yogurt is not a good choice. How do they process it that makes it unhealthy?

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