Does Red Meat Really Cause Cancer?

4 minute read

By Jordana Weiss

For a long time, people have stayed away from red meat because they’ve heard it may cause cancer. Scientists have found indirect links. Fortunately, if you start a search online, you can get to the heart of the link between red meat and cancer.

In the following article, we’ll look at sources that discuss the concern about red meat as a risk factor for developing cancer. Then, we’ll analyze them to determine the best way to incorporate moderate amounts of red meat into your diet.

What Is Red Meat?

Red meat is a type of meat that is dark in color both before and after cooking. A simple rule of thumb used by the USDA is that any meat that comes from a mammal is considered to be red meat. The most typical in our cuisine is beef, veal, or lamb. Even though the USDA is generally considered to be the last authority on all things food in America, many people debate about what actually constitutes red meat — some consider goose red meat, while others say that anything hunted from the wild, even a bird like pigeon, is red meat.

Processed Meat

Another type of meat that has come under fire is processed meat — any kind of meat that is preserved (usually with salt) or flavored. The most common types of processed meats are hamburgers, bacon, hotdogs, salami, and any other type of meat that comes in a tube. While there are some diligent producers who use only the best cuts of meat in their processed meat products, many companies take the opportunity to skimp on quality by throwing any and everything into their hotdogs or salami.

Red Meat vs. Processed Meat

Recently, the World Health Organization announced that their affiliate, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had completed a study where they looked at both processed meat and red meat and evaluated them on their potentiality to cause cancer. After considering the results of the study, the IARC chose to name processed meat a carcinogen, and red meat a probable carcinogen.

A carcinogen is a substance that could potentially cause cancer. Other known carcinogens are asbestos and tobacco.

The Study

Twenty-two different experts from all over the world reviewed different studies to come up with this conclusion about the cancer-causing potential of red meat and processed meat.

More than 800 individual studies were consulted, and in the end, scientists found that eating more than 50 grams of processed meat a day could increase someone’s risk of colorectal cancer by more than 18%. While 50 grams of processed meat may seem like a lot, it’s actually only about one hotdog, or a few strips of bacon.

Red meat was shown to affect the subject’s risk of colorectal, prostate, and pancreatic cancer. A study in Australia showed that one in every six cases of bowel cancer was caused in some part by increased consumption of red meat. One in six is a staggering number, and it’s easy to see that and be frightened away from ever consuming red meat again.

Why Eat It?

While it’s true that red meat is a possible carcinogen when eaten regularly, eating sustainably raised, hormone-free red meat once or twice a week provides you with essential nutrients like zinc, iron, and protein. It’s easy to become iron-deficient if you cut red meat out of your diet completely, and don’t replace it with anything else.

If you’re concerned about your risk for cancer due to your red meat intake, talk to your doctor. He or she should be able to recommend a plan of action for you to either limit your red meat consumption, or cut it out completely, while substituting other foods that can bring those nutrients into your diet.

How to Eat it

Studies have shown that eating red meat that has been cooked at high temperatures is probably the worst way to consume it. Cooking fat at a high temperature has been shown to create chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that are carcinogenic. Any meat that is cooked at a high temperature (like when you fry or barbeque it) creates more HCAs than if it’s slow roasted, stewed, or baked. HCAs are found in especially high quantities in food that is charred.

So the next time you’re craving some beef or pork, put a big roast in your slow cooker, and leave it overnight on a low heat. You’ll wake up to the delicious scent of cooking meat, without creating as many HCAs. You can also freeze portions of it to enjoy later!

How Much?

Although the wisdom used to be that 2-3 servings of meat should be consumed per day, now scientists are beginning to back off this idea, and suggest that 2-3 servings of red meat per week is ideal.

If you’re trying to cut down on meat slowly, there are a few easy ways to start. Next time you’re making something with meat in it, swap out half of what the recipe calls for with legumes, grains, or vegetables. This can be especially delicious if you’re making something like chili — taking away half of the meat allows you to get creative adding in different beans and grains to make up the difference.

Change Your Thinking

The results of these studies are so shocking for many people because for a long time we’ve been told that meat is the main part of a meal. Once you adjust your perspective and start thinking of meat as a thing to be savored like a treat, it becomes much easier to realize that although it may be delicious, too much isn’t good for you.

The American Cancer Society recommends a diet that contains mostly vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, with only the occasional meat dish. Choosing lean, white meats like fish or chicken over red meat is always a good idea. Even if you can’t give up red meat for good, a healthy diet and active lifestyle will help in cutting down your risk of cancer.

Jordana Weiss