Cheese and Other Dairy Products: Are they Processed?

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?”

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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!
  • GrassFed: 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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263 thoughts on “Cheese and Other Dairy Products: Are they Processed?”

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  1. Do you have an opinion on stevia as a yogurt sweetener? I grow it in my herb garden its really great finely chopped and mixed with berries and greek yogurt. It took a few rounds to get past the green flecks but is very sweet.

  2. Hmmm Cottage Cheese? I think Greek yogurt more mimics the taste and texture of sour cream. I use it with salsa as a dip. A treat food for sure, but a summer delight when tomatoes are in season.

  3. I read recently how to make a mock sour cream using low sodium full fat cottage cheese and vinegar. Less calories, less fat and less carbs. Would you feel this falls into a healthier alternative, but still within in the guidelines of whole foods? I agree with the concept that stripping milk etc. of fat can impact our health, but if it’s using whole milk it seems like it could still be a whole foods choice.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Sound a like a good alternative, especially if you can find an organic cottage cheese option. I think Nancy’s makes one.

    2. Jennifer Ostrander

      I prefer to just use plain Greek yogurt. It’s the best tasting sour cream ever and super good for u and protein rich. Tastes the exact same maybe just a little creamier.

  4. I have necessarily joined the ranks of eliminating processed foods* from my diet. I always thought I ate “healthy nutritious”. However, in the last five months or so, my GI system let me know, “nice try”. “White” is barely in my food vocabulary any more, as in white flour, white sugar, or practically any sugar or non-complex carbohydrate. And no antibiotics in what I eat. (I have an overabundance of gut yeasts, probably due to a slew of medications that put my gut out of whack.) NOW, if I can’t pronounce it, it’s not on my plate. I’m learning a whole new way of cooking and gut friendly substitutes. Here’s the frustrating part: there’s really no published diet (except maybe paleo, and that’s too meat protein rich for my tastes) that addresses my “special needs”. Make no mistake: I don’t tell people I have life-and-death allergies, I just have food sensitivities . . . the unpleasant ones that cause me to map out restrooms, and on really bad days, not leave the home so I may be less than 15 feet from the necessary room. I long for a taste of ice cream and pizza, but I pass it up, because the consequences are just too severe.

  5. Hi, in regards to the cheese color. Don’t some cheeses naturally go orange I see lots of cheese with the orange color but are all of those unnatural?

  6. So, with the NON processed foods meal plans.. is there any meal plans that are gluten free as well or should I just modify the ones you have suggested?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Deb. No, we do not have meal plans that are specifically gluten free and do encourage you to make the changes that will work best for you.

  7. I could not help but notice that the block cheese was made from raw milk. This is not a safe product for children, pregnant women, or anyone who has a compromised immune system.

  8. I feel like this question won’t make sense but I’ll ask anyway: Where in the store is the best place to find the best block cheese? Would it be with the shredded cheese section or over by the bakery where they have a section of specialty type cheeses?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. It completely depends on the store. I go to four different groceries here and they are all in different places. :) Most commonly, however, you do find most of the cheeses (outside of the deli area) grouped close together. Some stores have separate organic and health food sections, too. Again, depends on the store. Sorry. ;)

    2. our grocery stores also split cheeses into two areas. The cheeses in the dairy area are the more standard brands and types. The other area has more local options and speciality options. Organic Valley is in the dairy section but I have found some local options in the other section that are real food.

  9. I was wary of this recipe because it seemed too simple. I was thinking it would be boring. I was dead wrong! It is so so good! I’m so glad I took a chance on it and this is how I will be making my chicken salad from here out!

  10. I make my own yogurt quickly and easily using a yogourmet electric yogurt maker. I love it because it makes perfect yogurt every time. My son was on a special diet for over two years (SCD diet) and I made a half gallon a week. At the beginning he was trying to gain weight and we used organic half and half. As you can imagine that makes the best yogurt around. We “cooked” the yogurt for 24 hours as prescribed on the SCD diet and I still do that when I make yogurt (now I use organic whole milk). Add a touch of honey or some grain free yogurt… yum! I also use the yogourmet yogurt starter.
    Here’s a link to the yogurt machine, it is a great investment:

  11. Hi! Any “recipes” to make my own yogurt quickly and easily? I work full time and have two kids so labor intensive/time consuming isn’t up my alley! TIA

    1. Michelle,

      I’ve just started making my own yogurt and I can give you a really simple recipe.I use a 2qt crock pot and I fill it with 6 cups of whole milk. I cook it on low/high depending on what I’m doing. When it reaches 180 degrees using a thermometer shut it off. Let it cool down to 110 degrees and take out one cup of milk and mix it with about 2 Tbsp of store bought yogurt (I used brown cow). Pour that mixture back into the crock pot and gently mix it with a spoon back and forth. Wrap the crock pot up in a towel and place it in the stove or other dry/dark area. In 12 hours voila you have 6 cups of yogurt. From there I save the culture and use it for my next batch following the same directions. The longer it sits (can sit up to 24 hours) the thicker it becomes but also gets more tart. Also eventually you will have to replace your yogurt culture but I’ve been using the same one from my original batch for 2 months-making yogurt weekly. Hope that helps!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Jennifer. Organic Valley has several cheeses that are not raw. Trader Joe’s also carries a good variety.

  12. I was wondering what you used to shred your blocks of cheese. I have a traditional type shredder and the cheese gets all balled up in the little grater holes. I’m sure there’s a better way, I just don’t know what it is. Thank you

  13. make your own cheese. It is so easy and tastes better. There are countless sites to learn from. I have just finished with cream cheese. Ingredients – milk , little bit of cream and lemon juice. None of all that stuff you can not pronounce…..

  14. I was thinking about making a friend’s butternut squash soup recipe. It calls for cream cheese, and I was shocked at the ingredient list on the name brand’s package! It reads: Pasteurized Nonfat Milk, and Milkfat, Whey Protein Concentrate, Cheese Culture, Salt, Whey, Stabilizers (Xanthan Gum, and/or Carob Bean Gum, and/or Guar Gum), Sorbic Acid, as a preservative, Vitamin A Palmitate. I instead opted for the mascarpone that my grocery store carries–cream, non-fat dry milk powder, citric acid. Not sure that it counts as a real food, but do you think it was the better choice?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Courtney. It can be hard to find a clean cream cheese. Nancy’s is a good brand. The mascarpone was a better choice in this case.

  15. Hey all!
    Just wanted to say that I looked into Plan to Eat after a previous post and absolutely LOVE it! Thanks for sharing and I’m glad they are becoming a sponsor of the site.

  16. Hi Amy:) Just a question about cheese. I have found a store near my home that sells a variety of cheeses that are organic, block, white, full fat, and grass-fed. However, I’m not sure of what ingredients are actually supposed to be in cheese. I mean obviously milk, but a lot of the cheese I am finding has one or more of the following: enzymes, microbial enzymes, vegetable enzymes, and rennet. I’m not sure if these things are SUPPOSED to be in cheese or extra additives that aren’t necessary. From what I can find on the internet it seems rennet is necessary to make cheese, but not all cheeses list rennet. In short, do you have a good resource or blog post about what real-food cheese ingredients are? Thank you for all of your help so far!

  17. I’ve been scouring the grocery stores in my area for a “real” ricotta. I’ve narrowed it down to the two best options–neither of which I’m sure qualifies as a real food. The first label read: Milk (Whole & Skim), Vinegar And Salt. The second: Whey, Milk, Vinegar, Xanthan Gum, Locust Bean Gum, Guar Gum (Stabilizers). All of the other options (regardless of whole milk vs. part-skim) contained carageenan, which I wish to stay away from. Would either of these be a suitable choice?

  18. I live in a small town and my only options for an organic yogurt are either low fat that is plain or whole milk but is vanilla flavored. Any insight on which one is best since they both seem to have one thing right and one thing wrong?

  19. For a dairy free alternative, goat cheese is a fabulous, versatile substitute! It comes soft, very similar to cream cheese, as well as block form in cheddar, mozza, feta and other forms :)

  20. I would like your take on salt. My husband is not supposed to have any processed foods of any kind and no salt of any kind. No lite salt no,no salt nothing and no sodium of any kind.

  21. Hi! What about organic string cheese? Is it typically more processed that block cheese? I just assumed it was regular mozzarella cheese that had been sliced a certain way. But perhaps it is simply better to buy block cheese? Anyone know?

  22. hi – is it better to buy non fat organic or full fat non-organic yogurt. My grocery store seems to only sell 0 fat organic yogurt and 2% fat non organic yogurt so I’m not sure which is best to buy. (both options are plain). Please advise, Thanks!!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Jackie. You can usually ask your grocer to carry certain products. It’s worth a try. In the mean time, as far as non-fat vs, non-organic, I believe organic sources of (commercial)dairy are arguably more important. ~Amy

  23. Hi,
    I bought plain Chobani Greek yogurt, which I’m flavoring with your berry sauce – delicious! I’m wondering about the amount of ingredients in the yogurt. It seemed like all the plain yogurts I looked at had more than a handful of ingredients so I’m not sure if it’s highly processed or not.

    Thanks for all your recipes! Helping me out so far :) Using whole wheat flour has been great!

  24. I live in a small town that has very little options as far as organic goes but I saw organic valley’s cheese slices last week at the store. I’m curious if that falls in line with the real food idea because it’s the only cheese from that brand I’ve seen that is the yellow color.

  25. Hi,
    I am finding that my husband and son-in-law are becoming converts to the whole/real foods efforts recently. Our grandson is milk protein intolerant at this time and he is one that reacts to soy. Our daughter is trying to do breast milk, so I am wondering if anyone has found a tasty alternative for cheese. We found a coconut milk ice cream, but most cheese alternatives are lactose free not dairy and soy free. Thanks for any help you can give.

  26. Any wholistic nutritionist or doctor I have been to see advises avoiding dairy all together because as humans we are not fit to consume the milk of another mammal…and dairy has been linked to many negative health effects, some of which may not present itself until later in life. Could you please provide your thoughts on this. Thank you.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Carrie. Lisa’s family enjoys dairy products as part of their diet and feel it is a wholesome and healthy choice. That said, it is an individual choice and a diet which does not include dairy can also be a very healthy one. ~Amy

  27. But dairy is super hard to digest and is mucus forming in the body. We don’t need cheese in our diets. Cheese is directly linked to acne as well, especially for me. At least your kids are being the hormone free organic cheese! I hope growing up with this healthy lifestyle keeps their skin clear when they become teens in the future!

  28. Hi! I’m new to real food, and I was wondering, is all cheese made with enzymes? I haven’t been able to look at organic or any Whole Foods/Trader Joes type store yet so I don’t know if those would be different, but even when looking at the shortest ingredient list on the many varied cheeses and companies in a few supermarkets I’ve looked in, they all contain enzymes. Is that ok, or will I find cheese without enzymes if I keep looking? Thanks so much for the awesome blog, website, and for doing all the research for us! It makes eating healthier so much easier and possible to do.

  29. 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?

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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?

    1. 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.