Red meat

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Thinly sliced raw beef is red.
Roast beef is a darker color after being cooked.

In gastronomy, red meat is commonly red when raw and a dark color after it is cooked, in contrast to white meat, which is pale in color before and after cooking.[1][2] In culinary terms, only flesh from mammals or fowl (not fish) is classified as red or white.[3][4] In nutritional science, red meat is defined as any meat that has more of the protein myoglobin than white meat. White meat is defined as non-dark meat from fish or chicken (excluding the leg or thigh).


Concentration of myoglobin by percentage of mass
Name Myoglobin USDA category
Chicken breast 0.005%[5] White meat[6]
Chicken thigh 0.18 – 0.20%[5] Dark meat
Turkey thigh 0.25 – 0.30%[5] Dark meat
Pork 0.10 – 0.30%[5] Red meat[6]
Veal 0.10 – 0.30%[5] Red meat[6]
Beef 0.40 – 1.00%[5] Red meat[6]
Old beef 1.50 – 2.00%[5] Red meat[6]
Cooked duck with potatoes, showing the red color of the meat

Under the culinary definition, the meat from adult or "gamey" mammals (for example, beef, horse meat, mutton, venison, boar, hare) is red meat, while that from young mammals (rabbit, veal, lamb) is white. Poultry is white. Most cuts of pork are red, others are white.[7] Game is sometimes put in a separate category altogether. (French: viandes noires — "dark meats".)[4] Some meats (lamb, pork) are classified differently by different writers.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), all meats obtained from mammals (regardless of cut or age) are red meats because they contain more myoglobin than fish or white meat (but not necessarily dark meat)[5] from chicken.[6] Some cuts of pork are considered white under the culinary definition, but all pork is considered red meat in nutritional studies. The National Pork Board has positioned it as "the other white meat", profiting from the ambiguity to suggest that pork has the nutritional properties of white meat, which is considered more healthful.[8][9]


Red meat contains large amounts of iron, creatine, minerals such as zinc and phosphorus, and B-vitamins: (niacin, vitamin B12, thiamin and riboflavin).[10] Red meat is a source of lipoic acid.

Red meat contains small amounts of vitamin D.[11] Offal such as liver contains much higher quantities than other parts of the animal.[12]

In 2011, the USDA launched MyPlate, which did not distinguish between kinds of meat, but did recommend eating at least 8 oz (230 g) of fish each week.[13][14] In 2011, the Harvard School of Public Health launched the Healthy Eating Plate in part because of the perceived inadequacies of the USDA's recommendations.[13] The Healthy Eating Plate encourages consumers to avoid processed meat and limit red meat consumption to twice a week because of links to heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. To replace these meats it recommends consuming fish, poultry, beans, or nuts.[13]

Health effects[edit]

Overall, diets high in red and processed meats are associated with an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer (particularly colorectal cancer), and all-cause mortality.[15][16][17][18] These associations are strongest for processed meat, which is meat that has undergone salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation, such as bacon, ham, salami, pepperoni, hot dogs, and some sausages.[19]

A 2013 meta-analysis found a moderate positive association between processed meat consumption and mortality, mainly due to cardiovascular diseases and cancer.[20] A 2016 literature review found that for the each additional 50g per day of processed meat consumed, the risk increased 4% for total prostate cancer, 8% for cancer mortality, 9% for breast cancer, 18% for colorectal cancer, 19% for pancreatic cancer, 13% for stroke, 24% for cardiovascular mortality and 32% for diabetes.[21] This is reflected by a 2021 umbrella review that sees an increase of 11–51% risk of multiple cancer per 100g/d increment of red meat, and an increase of 8-72% risk of multiple cancer per 50g/d increment of processed meat.[22]


The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies processed meat as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on "sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer."[23] Unprocessed red meat is categorised as "probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect."[19][24]

A 2011 meta-analysis concluded that "high intake of red and processed meat is associated with significant increased risk of colorectal, colon and rectal cancers", in line with a 2007 review by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute of Cancer Research.[25] Put in perspective, in the UK, 56 out of 1000 people who eat the lowest amount of processed meat will develop colorectal cancer (5.6%) while 66 out of 1000 high processed meat eaters will develop colorectal cancer (6.6%).[26]

A 2012 meta-analysis found an increased risk of gastric cancer associated with higher consumption of red or processed meat.[27] Positive associations have also been observed between red meat consumption and increased risks of pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer but the link is not as clear.[19][28]

A 2019 meta-analysis concluded that the absolute effects of red and processed meat on cancer was "very small" and that the certainty of evidence was low, endorsing continued consumption of red and processed meat, contrary to prevailing dietary guidelines.[18][29] However, the paper was criticised for "flawed methodologies used to review and grade nutritional evidence", relying on a method not normally applicable to nutritional studies.[18][30]


Nitrates and nitrites found in processed meat can be converted by the human body into nitrosamines that can be carcinogenic, causing mutation in the colorectal cell line, thereby causing tumorigenesis and eventually leading to cancer.[31] Processed meat is more carcinogenic compared to red meat because of the abundance of potent nitrosyl-heme molecules that form N-nitroso compounds.[32]

Meat with a dark exterior, common in high temperature cooking

A 2017 literature review indicated there are numerous potential carcinogens of colorectal tissue in red meat, particularly those in processed red meat products, such as N-nitroso compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).[32] Cooking meat with "high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame", also causes formation of PAHs and HCAs.[33]

Cardiovascular disease and stroke[edit]

Several studies have found a correlation between unprocessed red meat, and coronary heart disease (CHD) and certain types of stroke, while controlling for various confounding risk factors.[34] A study of 84,000 women, over a period of 26 years, found that those with the highest intake of unprocessed red meat had a 13% increased risk of CHD.[34] A 2010 meta-analysis found that processed red meat, but not unprocessed red meat, was associated with a higher incidence of CHD and diabetes.[35] The review suggested that the "differences in salt and preservatives, rather than fats, might explain the higher risk of heart disease and diabetes seen with processed meats, but not with unprocessed red meats."[35]

A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical research on stroke outcomes associated with meat consumption showed that total meat consumption, red meat consumption, and processed red meat consumption increased the risk of stroke by 18%, 11%, and 17%, respectively, while consuming white meat (chicken) reduced the risk of stroke by 13%.[36] Factors associated with increased stroke risk from consuming red meat include saturated fats that increase levels of blood cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and heme iron, which may precipitate atherogenesis in cerebral arteries, leading to stroke.[36]

As of 2020, there is substantial evidence for a link between high consumption of red meat and coronary heart disease.[30][37][38] A 2021 review conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford of studies involving over 1.4 million people concluded that each 50g per day increase in the consumption of processed and unprocessed red meat increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 18% and 9%, respectively.[39][40]


Unprocessed red meat intake is tentatively associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, but the link is weaker and less certain than the link between processed red meat and diabetes.[41] Red meat consumption has been associated with higher fasting glucose and insulin concentrations, which are risk factors for type 2 diabetes.[42] Daily consumption of 85 grams of red meat and 35 grams of processed red meat products by European and American consumers increased their risk of type 2 diabetes by 18–36%, while a diet of abstinence of red meat consuming whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy was associated with an 81% reduced risk of diabetes.[43] One study estimated that "substitutions of one serving of nuts, low-fat dairy, and whole grains per day for one serving of red meat per day were associated with a 16–35% lower risk of type 2 diabetes".[44]


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