Red and processed meat and cancer risk
About 2600 cases of bowel cancer diagnosed each year in Australian adults can be attributed to eating red and processed meat.
Red meat includes beef, lamb, pork, veal, goat, venison and kangaroo.
Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or by adding the preservatives nitrates and nitrites. This includes ham, bacon, salami, frankfurt, prosciutto and some sausages such as cabanossi and kransky.
The World Health Organization classifies processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means that there’s convincing evidence that it causes bowel cancer. Red meat is classified as a Group 2A carcinogen, which means it probably causes bowel cancer. Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in Australia.
By reducing your intake of red meat and avoiding processed meat you can reduce your risk of cancer.
Meat and cancer risk
Researchers are still investigating how red and processed meat cause cancer. However, there are several possible reasons:
- Red and processed meat contain haem iron, which makes meat red in colour. When haem is broken down in the gut it forms N-nitroso compounds. These can damage the cells lining the bowel, which can lead to cancer.
- The preservatives nitrates and nitrites used in processed meats are also broken down into
N- nitroso compounds.
- Cancer causing chemicals develop when meat is burnt or charred.
How much meat should you eat?
You don’t need to stop eating red and processed meat, however, it is best to cut down.
Cancer Council NSW and the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that you eat no more than 700 g raw or 455 g cooked, lean red meat each week and that you eat little, if any, processed meat.
A serve of red meat is equal to 90–100 g raw or 65 g cooked:
- ½ cup lean raw mince
- 1 lamb loin chop
- ½ cup diced raw meat
This means, you could have a serve of red meat every day or 2 serves across 3–4 meals a week.
When shopping for red meat, you can use the raw meat guidelines to work out how much to buy. For a family of four buy 400g of lean meat for one meal.
Swap a serve of red meat for:
- 80 g cooked chicken (100 g raw)
- 100 g cooked fish fillet (115 g raw) or 1 small can of fish (95 g)
- 2 large eggs (120 g)
- 150 g (1 cup) cooked or canned legumes, e. g. kidney beans, chickpeas or lentils
- 170 g tofu
- 30 g nuts, seeds, or nut or seed pastes
Do you need to eat red meat?
Lean red meat can be an important part of a balanced diet. It’s a great source of iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein. Iron is essential for making haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around the body in the blood. A low iron intake can lead to anaemia, which causes tiredness, breathlessness and poor immune function.
You don’t need to stop eating red meat to reduce your cancer risk, however look at ways to include more plant-based foods in your meals.
Instead of red meat include lean chicken (or other poultry), fish, eggs and legumes. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend you eat about 2 serves of fish (preferably oily) every week. Oily fish includes swordfish, salmon, sardines, gemfish and mackerel.
If you don’t eat meat or other animal foods, it is important to ensure you are getting enough protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids.
How to eat less red and processed meat
- Reduce your serve of red meat and fill at least half your dinner plate with a variety of different coloured vegetables.
- Use more vegetables and legumes in recipes, e. g. add carrot, celery, mushrooms, peas and lentils to bolognaise sauce and chickpeas to curries.
- Eat a meat-free meal at least once every week. Try a vegetable-based pasta, risotto, frittata, soup or curry.
- Use fish or chicken in curries, casseroles, pastas, salads and sandwiches.
- Replace processed meat such as ham, bacon, prosciutto or pepperoni with chicken, tinned tuna, mushrooms, eggplant, tomato, capsicum, baked beans or cheese. Add extra flavour with smoked paprika or chilli.
- Look at the ingredients list and avoid meat that contains nitrates or nitrites (additives 249, 250, 251 or 252).
Tips for cooking meat
- Buy lean mince, lean cuts of meat and avoid marbled meat.
- Trim visible fat from meat before cooking.
- Use lower fat cooking methods such as steaming, poaching, stir-frying and pan-frying with a small amount of poly or mono unsaturated oil.
- Avoid burning meat – marinate meat to prevent burning, add flavour and to keep meat tender.
- Try lower temperature cooking methods such as casseroling, slow roasting or microwaving.