Does Red Meat Cause Cancer?

Many individuals include red meat in their diet and others avoid it altogether. While red meat—which includes veal, pork, lamb, beef, or goat meat—does have health benefits, some studies have shown that consuming red meat may increase your risk of certain cancers such as colon, prostate, and pancreatic.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), has conducted reports that suggest the consumption of red meat may be carcinogenic to humans. But since red meat's classification as a Group 2A carcinogen is based on limited evidence, there are other factors to take into account when deciding whether or not to eat red meat.

If you include red meat in your diet, it is important to take into account how much you are consuming, and how you are preparing the meat. 

woman seasoning red meat

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What Is a carcinogen?

A carcinogen is defined as something that can directly cause cancer. This can be a chemical substance, a virus, or even the medications and radiation we use to treat cancer. Current research shows that there are certain chemicals in red meat—both added and naturally occurring— that cause these foods to be carcinogenic.

What's in Red Meat?

Red meat has a lot of vitamin and nutrients such as amino acids (lysine, threonine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, leucine, isoleucine and valine), Vitamin D, B6, B12, iron, selenium, and zinc.

Some of the harmful components in meat start with the antibiotics and growth hormones given to the animals that are born and raised in factories. Other harmful components present based on the cooking method of the meat.

When meat is cooked at a high temperature—like grilling—two chemicals are formed:

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs): These are formed when the amino acids and sugars in meat react to the high temperatures when meat is being prepared. The longer meat is cooked at high temperatures over 300 degrees Fahrenheit, more HCAs are formed. Think barbecued, grilled, and pan-fried meat. HCAs are mainly found in meat cooked at high temperatures, not other foods.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs): These are in the smoke that is formed when the meat is grilled or prepared on an open fire. When the fat juices from the meat drip on the surface of the open fire causing the smoke and flames, the PAHs stick to the surface of the meat. PAHs can also be found in cigarette smoke, car exhaust fumes, and other smoked foods.

Both HCAs and PHAs are known to change the DNA, and that may increase the risk of cancer. There were studies that showed that high consumption of well-done meat and high levels of exposure to meat carcinogens as in HCAs may increase the risk of human cancer.

Types of Red Meat

Unprocessed red meat is considered fresh mammalian muscle meat. This includes veal, pork, lamb, beef, or goat meat.

What the Research Says

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most fatal types of cancer. Studies have shown that increasing one serving or 50g of processed meat—like bacon or beef jerky—per day was associated with a 19% increase of prostate cancer risk. Red meat, however, was not associated with an overall risk of pancreatic cancer. Although statistics did show there is a positive risk factor of pancreatic cancer in men who consumed high levels of red meat.

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men. Some reports show the connection between an elevated risk for prostate cancer and frequent meat consumption, whereas other studies failed to find an overall effect on the risk. In one study researchers found that the way the meat is prepared (well-done, smoked, and open-flamed) may lead to prostate cancer.

Breast Cancer

On a global level, breast cancer is known as the most common cancer among women. Studies show that red unprocessed meat consumption was associated with a 6% higher breast cancer risk. 

Stomach Cancer

Studies have shown that consuming processed meat can increase the risk of cancer in the lower stomach. There is an 18% cancer risk for every 50g of processed meat every day. Imagine one hot dog or four strips of bacon. Research concluded overall that the consumption of red and/or processed meat can contribute to increased gastric cancer risk. However, there is further investigation needed to confirm the association between red meat consumption and stomach cancer risk. 

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is also known as colon cancer, bowel cancer, or rectal cancer. Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men and the second in women worldwide. Epidemiological studies show that red meat and processed meat increases colorectal cancer risk by 20-30%.

Esophageal Cancer

There is an associated risk of esophageal cancer and meat consumption overall. Specifically, high intake of red meat and low intake of poultry are associated with an increased risk of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma.

Other Health Risks

Additional health risks that are related to the consumption of red meat include cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  In fact, studies have shown that eating red meat on a regular basis may shorten your lifespan.

Consuming Red Meat and Staying Healthy

There are several ways you can prepare meat in a healthy way. Meat can be cooked at a lower temperature. It can also be prepared by baking or broiling. Other options include using healthier oils and seasoning with herbs, spices, and/or marinating the meat.

A Word From Verywell

Protein is an important component for a healthy diet, and while red meat provides protein, moderation is key. Mixing up your protein sources with a variety of fish, poultry, or nuts will provide a healthy balance. If you plan to change your diet by adding or removing foods, contact your medical professional. 

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