Meat and cancer risk
Improving your health and reducing your risk
Cancer Council recommends:
- consuming a maximum of 455g per week of lean, cooked red meat
- avoiding processed meats such as frankfurts, salami, bacon and ham, which are high in fat and salt
- limiting consumption of burnt or charred meat
- choosing lean cuts of meat and poultry and eating more fish and plenty of plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals
What is red meat and processed meat?
There are two different types of meats associated with cancer risk – processed meats and red meat. These are two different ways of classifying meat and meat products, and the evidence and recommendations for each differs.
When referring to red meat and cancer risk, we are referring to beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, venison and goat. It does not include white meat such as fresh chicken, turkey or fish.
Processed meat refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. This includes hot dogs, ham, jerky and corned beef, as well as canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces. Processed meat differs from unprocessed red meat, in that it may be cured with the addition of preservatives (salt, nitrite or smoke) and/or other additives (phosphate, glutamate or ascorbic acid).
In Australia, fresh sausages are separate to processed meat as our food regulations control nitrate levels and fat content in sausages (ANZ Food Code Standards). Although fresh sausages in Australia do not have nitrites added, care should be taken when cooking as burning or charring sausages might also increases the risk of cancer. This means that this average lifetime risk goes up to 9.3% for consuming 50g of processed meat daily.
Does eating meat cause cancer?
Experts from the International Association for Research on Cancer Reviewed the evidence and concluded that there was “limited” evidence to suggest that excess red meat consumption caused bowel cancer. For this reason they concluded it was a “probable carcinogen”, but couldn’t conclude exactly how much it increased your cancer risk by – or say how much needed to be consumed to increase the risk. However, there did appear to be an association with increased cancer risk when more than 100g a day was consumed.
Evidence suggests that there is a link between excess consumption of processed meats, and cancer risk. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has found that consuming excess processed meats is a cause of bowel cancer.
Experts concluded that over the long term, consuming a 50g portion of processed meat consumed daily (that’s two slices of bacon) increased the risk of bowel cancer by 18%. The average Australian risk for developing bowel cancer by the age of 85 is 8.2%.
Other types of meat
There is not enough evidence to draw any conclusions on eating chicken, or other white meats and cancer risk. Eating fish may be protective against cancer and has been linked to a reduced risk of bowel and liver cancer.
What about barbecues and charred meats?
The World Cancer Research Fund found that consumption of grilled or barbecued meat and fish was associated with a limited suggestive increased risk of stomach cancer. Heating meats at high temperatures may result in the formation of mutagenic chemicals, thus consumption increases the risk of cancer. Cancer Council recommends as a precaution avoiding charring food while cooking.
How much meat can we eat?
Cancer Council recognises that lean red meat is an important contributor to dietary iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein in the Australian diet. Based on the current limited evidence, you do not need to cut red meat from your diet but should avoid excessive consumption. Cancer Council supports the Australian Dietary Guidelines that recommend eating a maximum of 455 grams per week of lean, cooked red meat.
Cancer Council recommends avoiding processed meats such as frankfurts, salami, bacon and ham.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines also recommend limiting consumption of foods high in saturated fat, including pies, processed meats and commercial burgers, among other foods.
ANZ Food Code Standards: Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 2.2.1 – Meat and meat products
IARC v114: International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans, volume 114. Red meat and processed meat. Lyon, France: IARC; 2018
Nagle CM, Wilson LF, Hughes MC, Ibiebele TI, Miura K, Bain CJ, et al. Cancers in Australia in 2010 attributable to the consumption of red and processed meat. Aust N Z J Public Health 2015 Oct;39(5):429-33
WCRF CUP findings reports
Learn more about reducing your cancer risk with diet and exercise