Red and processed meat and cancer prevention

Does eating red and processed meat increase your cancer risk?

It’s quite likely that you’ve seen or heard news stories about the links between red and processed meat and cancer. This is because there is strong evidence that eating a lot of these foods increases your risk of bowel cancer and eating processed meat can increase your risk of stomach cancer.

What is red meat?

Red meat is beef, pork, lamb and goat, which includes foods like steak, hamburgers, minced beef, pork chops and roast lamb.

Red meat is a good source of nutrients so can form part of a healthy, balanced diet, but we don’t need to eat it every day. Aim for less than 500g (cooked weight, which is about 700–750g raw weight) a week. Eating less than this does not significantly raise cancer risk.

There isn’t enough evidence about other red-coloured meats, including game – like quail and venison – for us to say whether they affect cancer risk, so we don’t make specific recommendations about these.

To help you visualise how much 500g of red meat is, a medium portion of roast beef or pork is about 90g and a medium steak is about 145g (cooked weight).

What is processed meat?

Processed meat has been smoked, cured or had salt or chemical preservatives added rather than having just been cooked or reformed (like most sausages and burgers). This includes bacon, salami, chorizo, corned beef, pepperoni, pastrami, hot dogs and all types of ham.

We recommend avoiding processed meat because there is strong evidence that it is a cause of bowel and stomach cancer. It also tends to contain added salt, and be higher in fat and provide fewer nutrients than unprocessed red meat, making unprocessed red meat the better choice if you do eat red meat.

How are red and processed meat linked to cancer?

Researchers are still investigating how red meat causes cancer. One possible way involves a compound called haem, which contains iron and gives red meat its colour. Haem has been shown to damage the lining of the bowel.

We also know that when we eat red meat, chemical compounds called nitrosamines are formed, which are known to damage the DNA in our cells, which can cause cancer.

As well as being made from red meat, processed meat also contains added nitrites and nitrates, which are also converted to nitrosamines when we eat them.

Easy ways to eat less red meat and cut down on processed meat

  • Eating smaller portions (about the size of a deck of cards) means you can have red meat more often and stick within the 500g a week.
  • Swap beef mince for turkey or even Quorn mince. Even if you only swap half, you’ll cut calories and it's just as filling. Boost the flavour with onion, garlic, herbs and spices.
  • Keep some days red-meat free
  • Make red meat go further by adding some beans, chickpeas, lentils or mushrooms to bulk up stews, chillies and pasta sauces. This can also lower the calories in your meals and counts towards your 5 A DAY.

Take a look at our A Closer Look at Red Meat factsheet for more tips on cutting down.