Red meat, processed meat and cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Carolyn Lammersfeld, MBA, MS, RD, CSO, LD, Vice President of Supportive Care Services

This page was reviewed on January 29, 2022.

More than half of the meat that Americans eat is either red or processed meat. There are mixed conclusions from U.S. and international cancer research organizations about whether eating red or processed meat causes cancer. While research continues, reducing or avoiding these meat products is an option to consider to lower the risk for certain cancers—especially colorectal cancer.

What’s red meat and what’s processed meat?

Any meat from mammals such as cows, pigs, lambs, horses or goats is considered red meat. Red meat is named for the color of the uncooked meat. Some common examples of red meat include:

  • Beef (steak, ground beef or beef ribs)
  • Pork (pork chops, pork loin or pork ribs)
  • Ham
  • Lamb (lamb chops or leg of lamb)
  • Mutton

Meat that’s been smoked, cured, salted, fermented or otherwise treated to preserve freshness or change the flavor is called processed meat. Some common processed meat products include:

  • Sausages
  • Deli meats
  • Hot dogs
  • Bacon
  • Beef jerky
  • Bologna

Does eating red or processed meat cause cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute:

  • Both red meat and processed meat have been associated with an increased risk of cancers of the colon and rectum.
  • Some research also suggests a connection between processed meat and stomach cancer.
  • Other studies suggest a possible link between red meat and pancreatic and prostate cancers.

However, more research is needed to fully understand how much of a risk red and processed meat pose, and some cancer experts don’t consider them to be risk factors based on the available evidence.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified processed meat as a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent), and red meat as a possible human carcinogen. The topic is under consideration by the National Toxicology Program, the American authority on carcinogens.

Cooking or processing meat—especially at high temperatures—introduces various chemicals that may lead to cancer. These substances are known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Additionally, processed meats often contain another carcinogenic chemical known as N-nitroso compounds.

How to lower your cancer risk from red and processed meat

When it comes to cancer risk, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting red meat to three portions, or 12-18 ounces, a week and consuming little to no processed meats.

Consider replacing red or processed meat with:

  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Legumes
  • Nuts

Changing the way you cook meat may reduce your exposure to HCAs and PAHs, though more research is needed to better understand the connection between cooking methods and cancer risk. HCAs and PAHs are most concentrated in portions of food that are charred or blackened. Some population studies have suggested a higher risk of colorectal, prostate and pancreatic cancers among people who eat high amounts of fried, barbecued or well-done meats.

If you want to reduce exposure to these chemicals, the following cooking tips may help:

  • Cook meat “slow and low” rather than at high temperatures.
  • Avoid grilling meat over open flames.
  • Avoid putting meat directly on hot metal surfaces, such as a grill.
  • Microwave meat before cooking it at high temperatures to reduce the time the meat makes contact with high temperatures.
  • Flip meat frequently to decrease its chances of charring.
  • Cut out charred pieces from meat before serving.

HCAs and PAHs may be found in poultry and fish cooked at high temperatures as well as red meat, so these same principles apply when cooking those proteins, too.

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