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 link 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.

To reduce your bowel cancer risk, we advise eating no more than 500g (cooked weight) per week of red meat, like beef, pork and lamb, and avoiding processed meats like ham, bacon and salami as much as possible.

What is red meat?

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

As a rough guide 500g of cooked red meat is the same as 700g of raw red meat. To help you visualise how much this is, a medium portion of roast beef or pork is about 90g and a medium steak is about 145g (cooked weight).

Although eating too much red meat is linked to bowel cancer, it is a good source of nutrients including protein, iron and zinc, so it’s fine to include up to 500g a week as part of healthy, balanced diet.

What is processed meat?

Processed meat is meat which has been preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives.

Examples include ham, bacon, pastrami and salami, as well as hot dogs and some sausages.

Hamburgers and minced meats only count as processed meat if they have been preserved with salt or chemical additives.

Research has shown that eating processed meat can increase your cancer risk. As there’s no real nutritional need to eat processed meats, if you eat meat, it’s best to choose fresh, unprocessed meat.

How are red and processed meat linked to cancer?

There is strong evidence that eating a lot of red meat is a cause of bowel cancer.

One possible reason for this is that the compound that gives red meat its colour, haem, may damage the lining of the bowel.

Studies also show that people who eat a lot of red meat tend to eat fewer plant-based foods, so they benefit less from their cancer-protective properties.

We also have strong evidence that processed meats are a cause of bowel and stomach cancer.

When meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives, cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) can be formed.

These substances can damage cells in the body, leading to the development of cancer.

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

  • Keep a few days a week red-meat free
  • Add beans or pulses such as kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils. Use them to replace some of the meat in dishes such as chilli or bolognese
  • Instead of bacon, chorizo or salami, try spicy chicken or vegetarian sausages