Does Red Meat Cause Cancer?

If you’re visiting the butchers soon, pause and read this first..

On Oct. 26 last year, a new report, published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, concluded after a review of the over 800 accumulated scientific literature, that red meat should be classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans.”

According to the report, the risk in both is highest for colorectal cancer. Each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. The report places processed meat as a serious cause of cancer along with asbestos, alcohol, arsenic and tobacco.


Red Meat: All types of mammalian muscle meat such as beef, veal, lamb, mutton, horse and goat.

Processed Meat: Meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation, such as hot dogs, sausages, corned beef and biltong or beef jerky as well as canned meat and meat-based preparation sauces.

How Does Processed Meat Cause Cancer? (Theories)

  • Haem, the pigment present in haemoglobin and naturally in meat, is broken down in our gut to form a family of chemicals called N-Nitroso compounds. These can damage the bowl lining cells; the ensuing DNA damage can lead to cancer.
  • Processed meats have added nitrogen-based preservatives found to induce a specific DNA mutation, which leads to colorectal tumors.
  • Cooking meat at high temperatures through grilling or barbequing, forms cancerous compounds too.

So, as you see, the issue is not the quality and source of red meat, but its natural composition and the processing it undergoes.

Should You Stop Consuming Meat?
IARC did not make dietary recommendations. However, in response to the report, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends consumers to “vary their daily protein choices by including lean meats, poultry and fish along with plants sources like beans, legumes, nuts and seeds and to limit consumption of processed meats like hot dogs.”

Although red meat has its nutritional value (it is a good source of the highly absorbable iron, zinc and vitamin B12), if your red and processed meats consumption is high, it would be wise to start cutting down on them… at least until new research is released.

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