Is red meat really cancerous?

Is red meat really cancerous?

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced October 26 that eating processed meat like hot dogs, ham and bacon “definitely” causes cancer and the consumption of red meat like beef, veal, pork, lamb and mutton is “probably carcinogenic” to humans.

An international committee of 22 experts from 10 different countries studied the effects mainly for colon cancer, but also analyzed the likelihood that meat could cause pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” said Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the committee which investigated more than 800 studies and looked at the intake from diverse diets in several countries and populations across the world, in a news release. “In view of the large number of people who consumed processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

The committee, which acts as an adviser to the WHO, focused on environmental and lifestyle factors that may contribute to the disease. Typically, the group will categorize each factor based on the likelihood of it playing a role in cancer.

In this case, the committee labeled processed meat into Group 1 carcinogens, which is in the same group as alcohol, asbestos and tobacco smoke.

While the news has evoked strong emotions, several people, including the meat industry, believe that this shouldn’t cause mass panic for meat lovers out there.

For example, the WHO advisory suggested 50 grams of processed meat (that’s equivalent to two slices of bacon) can increase the risk of colon cancer by up to 18 percent. In comparison, smoking can increase the chances of lung cancer by 2,500 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.

Scientists involved with the WHO advisory also pinpointed meat can cause cancer, but don’t know exactly how processed meat causes cells to become cancerous.

Evidence has shown that red meat has a chemical called heme that gives the red pigment in the blood its color. When heme enters the digestive tract, it breaks down into carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds. While in processed meat, the nitrates used to cure the meat and give its preservation, can increase the cancer-causing compound cooked at high temperatures. But, the evidence found that it isn’t the quality of meat that causes cancer, it’s how it’s prepared.

“There’s not a one-to-one link – it’s not 100 percent,” says Dr. Joaquin Estrada, colorectal surgeon at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. “I tell my patients to eat red meats in moderation, supplementing with high fiber foods such as whole grain oats, leafy greens and raw fruits and vegetables. We know those foods are protective against colon cancer.”

Dietitians agree that it’s all about moderation.

“A balanced diet should contain for adults at least 5 to 6.6 ounces of protein, which includes meat, fish, poultry and beans,” says Rosemary Mueller,  registered dietitian with Advocate Weight Management in Libertyville and Park Ridge. “Protein from low-fat sources, eaten in small quantities more frequently throughout the day, can potentially assist with weight loss and enhance good health.”

Environmental groups are already pushing for warning labels on meat. The next steps will be for government regulations to decide if this is the right step moving forward.

Related Posts



  1. Did you know that leaving the house increases the chance of being hit by a car increase by multiple orders of 10!!!! With all the dangers out in the world its amazing that our species even exists! We should have died out millennia ago based on the food and drink we ate back then and have now studied! Did you also know that black pepper and Rhubarb are also carcinogens!!! Even the plants are trying to kill us if we eat them! It couldn’t be that the digestive process itself, which is vulnerable to all sorts of inflammation and the main exposure avenue to outside toxins, is a carcinogenic process. I mean….. it starts with mastication and then an exposure of a strong acids and digestive enzymes which break particulates into smaller and smaller more absorbable elements, some of which may hurt us but for which our liver has evolved to purge our body of those harmful toxins, but it may not get them all…and of course why would it? its not a perfect system, but…oh…oh no…..but why……..DAMN YOU UNVIERSE!!!!!!!! WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL US MORTAL CREATURES……WHY……………………………….KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

    Sorry…I sorta lost it there, but with all the dramatic news I couldn’t help but be caught up in the moment of faux panic.

  2. Dr. Ashwani Garg

    I think this article is missing the real point. The WHO study only has identified conclusive evidence on the link between eating red and processed meat and cancer. However, numerous past studies have pointed to the fact that in people consuming more fibrous foods and less meats, the rate of colon cancer is half of the others. In some articles the difference is quite striking. For example, an article compared African Americans to native Africans, and found that African Americans have SIXTY times the cancer of native Africans. The fact is that in Illinois, the incidence of colorectal cancer is much too high, at 45 / 100,000 per year. Colorectal cancer is the 3rd most common cancer in the world. 1,400,000 new cases were diagnosed in 2012. A diet that is predominantly whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts/seeds is very protective against colon cancer. After all, remember that in the USA, this cancer is so common that everyone over age 50 is recommended to screen, with colonoscopy being a popular option.
    Knowing the above, I chose to eat only fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, nuts/seeds, and shun all meat, dairy, egg, and cheese, in hopes that I can reduce my chance of dying from cancer and heart disease as much as possible. I choose not even to consume a little alcohol or smoke 1 cigarette because again, I want to reduce my chances of cancer. There are factors beyond my control like environment, pesticides, etc. but I want to do the best possible. We have a fiduciary responsibility to do the best possible to try to reduce our risks of getting ill. Look at the big picture and don’t lose the forest for the trees. There is a big difference between saying “eating a little red and processed meat will only raise my chances of cancer by 18%” and saying “eating an unprocessed diet of plant foods will REDUCE my risks of cancer by the most possible”. Why not go for the gold?

    • health enews Staff November 4, 2015 at 11:43 am · Reply

      Dr. Garg,
      Thanks so much for being an avid reader of health enews, we always appreciate your engagement. We would love to chat with you more about potentially blogging for health enews – your comments here would actually make for a great blog post. If interested, please email us at

      Thank you!
      health enews editors

  3. Dr. Ashwani Garg

    Also one more comment – the part about protein is completely off the point. Only 3% of Americans are lacking protein, while ALMOST ALL Americans are deficient in fiber and potassium. Where is this fiber found? Fruits, veg, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. There is no fiber in meat, cheese, egg and dairy foods. Fiber is THE nutrient that reduces incidence of colon cancer, found in numerous studies over and over. Protein has never been associated with reduction in the risk of cancer, actually, it is quite the opposite. Most Americans have excess protein which leads to diseases. Usually the protein is accompanied with fat, which causes heart disease. If you focus on whole, unprocessed grains, beans, veggies, you will get enough protein, because all living things contain protein. To read more about protein, check out a book called “Proteinaholic” by Dr. Garth Davis of the Davis Clinic (actually a bariatric surgeon and an expert on weight loss) who will tell you the reality about protein.

Subscribe to health enews newsletter

About the Author

health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.