Red meat

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Thinly sliced raw beef is red.
Roast beef is a dark 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, on the other hand, 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).

Some meat, such as pork, is classified as white meat under the common or gastronomic definition, but as red meat under the nutritional definition.


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]

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]

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. Most poultry is white, but duck and goose are red. 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.

Some cuts of pork are considered white under the culinary definition, but all pork is red 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]

Cultural and social aspects[edit]

Socially, it is popularly accepted that meat is a symbol of satiety and success (wealth) by people across the world. Across many cultures, it is traditional to eat meat with loved ones for gatherings or celebrations.[10] According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, red meat is defined as "something substantial that can satisfy a basic need or appetite."[11] Consumption in the United States continues to grow.[12]


Red meat contains large amounts of iron, creatine, minerals such as zinc and phosphorus, and B-vitamins: (niacin, vitamin B12, thiamin and riboflavin).[13] Red meat is a source of lipoic acid.

Red meat contains small amounts of vitamin D.[14] The liver contains much higher quantities than other parts of the animal.

In 2011, the USDA launched MyPlate, which did not distinguish between kinds of meat, but did recommend eating at least 8 oz (227 grams) of fish each week.[15][16] 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.[15] 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.[15]

Human health[edit]

Understanding the health impact of red meat is difficult because it is not a uniform product, with effects varying based on fat content, processing and preparation. Processed red meat, in particular, is linked to higher mortality, mainly due to cardiovascular diseases and cancer.[17] There is some epidemiological association which indicates that the consumption of unprocessed red meat may have negative health effects in humans, [18] however this is being contested[19]. The association of red meat with increased mortality may also be increased with certain cooking methods.[20]


There appears to be a positive correlation between the consumption of processed red meat and several kinds of cancer. These include lung, esophageal, liver, and colon cancer. Conversely, an inverse association has been found with a few rare cancer types as well.[21]

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified processed meat (e.g., bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausages) as, "carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer." IARC also classified red meat 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."[22][23][24] Subsequent studies have shown that taxing processed meat products could save lives, particularly in the West where meat intensive diets are the norm. If the amount of taxation was linked to the level of harm they caused, some processed meats, such as bacon and sausages, would nearly double in price.[25]

Another study found an increase risk of pancreatic cancer for red meat and pork. That study noted that, "findings suggest that intakes of red meat and processed meat are positively associated with pancreatic cancer risk and thus are potential target factors for disease prevention. [...] Future analyses of meat and pancreatic cancer risk should focus on meat preparation methods and related carcinogens."[26]

That study also suggests that fat and saturated fat are not likely contributors to pancreatic cancer. Animal fat, particularly from ruminants, tends to have a higher percentage of saturated fat vs. monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat when compared to vegetable fats, with the exception of some tropical plant fats;[27] consumption of which has been correlated with various health problems. The saturated fat found in meat has been associated with significantly raised risks of colon cancer,[28][29] although evidence suggests that risks of prostate cancer are unrelated to animal fat consumption.[30]

Other research does not support significant links between meat consumption and various cancers. A meta-analysis of prospective studies found that "There were no significant differences between vegetarians and nonvegetarians in mortality from cerebrovascular disease, stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer or all other causes combined."[31] Truswell reviewed numerous studies, concluding that the relationship of colorectal cancer with meat consumption appeared weaker than the "probable" status it had been given by the World Cancer Research Foundation in 1997.[32] A study by Chao et al. (2005) found an apparent association of colorectal cancer with red meat consumption after adjustment for age and energy intake. However, after further adjustment for body mass index, cigarette smoking and other covariates, no association with red meat consumption was found.[33] A meta-analysis found no association of colorectal cancer with consumption of animal fat or protein.[34] The EPIC-Oxford study found a lower rate of colorectal cancer amount red meat eaters.[35] A study within the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) found that association between esophageal cancer risk and total and processed meat intake was not statistically significant.[36]

Cardiovascular disease[edit]

The relation of red meat with cardiovascular disease is complex, with understanding still evolving. Consumption of red meat does not appear to be associated with cardiovascular disease risk factors like total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, triglycerides, ratio of TC to HDL and blood pressure.[37] Red meat consumption has been linked to inflammatory markers in the blood in women, but most of this association appears to disappear when data is adjusted for the average increased body weight of meat eaters.[38] It is, however, associated with higher fasting glucose and insulin concentrations.[39] Prospective cohort studies have found an association with increased cardiovascular mortality.[40]

Replacing either processed or processed red meat with fish leads to reduced atherosclerosis and vascular occlusion, though there is no impact on rates of total ischemic strokes. The risk associated with unprocessed red meat was less than processed in this study, and poultry was healthier than fish.[41] Replacing unprocessed red meat with poultry in Asian men is associated with reduced cardiovascular disease.[42]

Neurologic disease[edit]

Increased unprocessed red meat consumption is associated with a decreased risk of demyelinating neurologic disease.[43]


Red meat[edit]

The consensus on the role of red meat consumption to increased risk of cardiovascular diseases has changed in recent years. Studies that differentiate between processed and fresh red meat have failed to find a link between unprocessed red meat consumption and heart disease. A meta-analysis published in 2010 involving around one million people who ate meat found that only processed meat had an adverse risk in relation to coronary heart disease (CHD).[44] 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."[44] Some mechanisms that have been suggested for why red meat consumption might be risk factor for cardiovascular disease include: its impact on serum cholesterol,[45] that red meat contains arachidonic acid,[46] heme iron,[47] homocysteine,[48] and its high saturated fat content.

Several studies have found a correlation between unprocessed red meat and the occurrence of CHD and certain types of stroke and have controlled for various confounding risk factors.[49] A study of 84,000 women, over a period of 26 years, finds that those with the highest intake of unprocessed red meat, have a 13% increased risk of CHD.[49] Likewise a Harvard study published in 2012, studying mortality as a result of processed and unprocessed red meat consumption finds that one serving (≈ 42 g/day) of unprocessed meat a day results in an increased risk of mortality of 13%, and likewise, processed meat 20%. While these ratios are indicative of cancer and cardiovascular (CVD) disease, the study indicates that of the 23,926 deaths[50] investigated during the course of the study, 5910 of them were related to CVD[50] and there was no statistical significance between the risk of unprocessed and processed red meats factors in the occurrence of CVD.[50] The disparity between metadata studies definitely need to be addressed, because while one points toward unprocessed red meat being insignificant in certain health risks, there are still correlations to be found in focused large cohort studies.[50][49]

Unprocessed red meat intake is tentatively associated with an increased risk of type II diabetes, but the link is weaker and less certain than the link between processed red meat and diabetes.[51] Other findings have suggested that the association may be due to saturated fat, trans fat and dietary cholesterol, rather than red meat per se.[52] 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”.[53]

A 2012 meta-analysis found an increased risk of gastric cancer with higher consumption of red or processed meat.[54] Red meat itself contains certain factors that, under certain conditions, produce carcinogens like N-nitroso compounds (NOCs).[55]

In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that red meat is probably (Group 2A) carcinogenic to humans,[56] and reported that for each additional 100g (up to a maximum of approximately 140g)[57] of red meat consumed per day, the risk of colorectal cancer increased by 17%; there also appeared to be increased risk of pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer but the association was not as clear.[58] Put in perspective, in the UK, 56 out of 1000 people who eat the lowest amount of red meat will develop colorectal cancer (5.6%) while 66 out of 1000 high-red meat eaters will develop colorectal cancer (6.6%) (1.17 x 5.6 = 6.6).[59]

A 2016 literature review reported that for 100g or more per day of red meat consumed, the risk increased 11% for each of stroke and for breast cancer, 15% for cardiovascular mortality, 17% for colorectal cancer, and 19% for advanced prostate cancer.[60]

Processed meat[edit]

Most processed meat contains at least some red meat.[56] To enhance flavor or improve preservation meat is treated by salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to create processed meat.[56] Nitrates and nitrites found in processed meat (e.g. bacon, ham, salami, pepperoni, hot dogs, and some sausages) 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.[61] In its Press Release 240 (16 Oct. 2015) the International Agency for Research on Cancer, based on a review of 800 studies over 20 years, concluded that processed meat is definitely carcinogenic (Group 1) and found that for each additional 50g of processed meat consumed per day, the risk of colorectal cancer increased by 18% (up to a maximum of approximately 140g);[57] it also found that there appeared to be an increase in gastric cancer but this was not as clear.[58]

A 2016 literature review found that for the each additional 50g per day of processed meat (e.g., bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausages) 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.[60]


Meat with a dark exterior, common in high temperature cooking

Cooking any meat at a high temperature or smoking meat produces carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon compounds (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).[62] The subgroups of heterocyclic amines compounds are amino-dimethylimidazo-quinoxaline (MelQx), amino-dimethylimidazo-quinoxaline (DiMelQx), and amino-methyl-phenylimidazo-pyridine (PhIP), which are mostly formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P) is another compound found in meat cooked at extremely high temperatures. Likely because of these factors, marinating fresh lean red meat and thoroughly cooking it at a low temperature will reduce the production of carcinogenic compounds and thereby lower the risk of colorectal cancer.[63][64]

See also[edit]


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