Red meat and cancer

In October the World Health Organization made waves when it announced that processed meat is “carcinogenic” and red meat “probably carcinogenic” to humans. An international group of experts reviewed more than 800 research studies examining the connection between red meat consumption and cancer risk before coming to this conclusion.

After this report was released, I started getting questions from meat lovers around the country. What counts as processed meat? How much meat is ok? What about for my kids?  I put together some of the most frequently asked questions and answers here.


My kids routinely request deli ham or turkey in their lunches on a daily basis. Does all lunch meat count as “processed meat”? How can I make safer choices for my kids?

The IARC’s definition of processed meats is; ‘meats that have been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation’. Lunch meat does count as processed meat since they use a number of preservatives. My recommendation for your kids – try to have them get a variety of animal and plant based protein. An occasional lunch meat sandwich once in awhile isn’t likely to do harm, but for a more regular basis item try to find a brand made from fresh carved meat without the preservatives. Canned tuna is another option, or PB&J (I like to dress it up and do peanut butter + mashed strawberries or raspberries – even tastier than regular jelly, and much less sugar!). The more variety they can get, the better. The bottom line is to not worry TOO much about it; just make sure they’re getting a variety and eating fresh foods as much as possible.

Are over-the-counter deli-cut meats better than prepackaged, or are they processed the same way?

Over-the-counter deli-cut meats and prepackaged meats differ in the way they are produced, handled, and sold. Deli meats are precooked or cured meats which are sliced and served either hot or cold. Most pre-sliced meats are higher in fat, sodium and preservatives compared to those that are sliced to order. This is because pre-sliced meats have larger surface area which requires more preservatives. There are many brands, producers, varieties and options for both deli cut meats and prepackaged ones. The best thing to do is read the nutrition labels or request one if it’s not present on the product, and look for those with the least amount of sodium and preservatives


What do you consider as processed meat?

Processed meats are meats that have been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other methods to enhance flavor or preservation. They are mainly made of beef or pork but they can also contain other meats such as poultry or offal. Examples are hot dogs, ham, sausages, beef jerky, and canned meat.  


Are grass-fed, organic or  antibiotic-free, cage-free meats carcinogenic too?

The potential carcinogenic effects of meat are from high cooking temperatures, and the addition of preservatives and nitrite compounds. Meats of all types, including organic and grass-fed, that are treated with preservatives or cooked at high temperatures have the potential to be carcinogenic if consumed in large amounts. Overall, finding beef that’s fresh and high quality is probably more important than organic vs non-organic or grass vs grain fed. Ask your local butcher for his recommendations.


Is it possible to isolate the risk factors in red meat and counteract their effects? What can I as a meat eater do to avoid these carcinogenic effects?

Avoid cooking meat at high temperatures or in direct contact with flame such as barbecuing. Limit your consumption of processed meats as much as possible. Vary your daily protein choices, and incorporate more fish,poultry, and plant-based protein into your diet.


The bottom line:

  • If you eat processed meat more than several times a week you should be cutting down.
  • If you eat red meat everyday you should be cutting down.
  • If you only eat red or processed meat occasionally, and include a variety of other protein sources, you’re probably ok 🙂

This post was written by Selin Sahin, a nutrition student at New York University and an intern at Alissa Rumsey Nutrition & Wellness. I reviewed and edited the post for content.