Does Red Meat Cause Cancer?

by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.

We often see headlines that link red meat with cancer. Some of them go as far as saying that red meat “kills”.

Why are these claims being made? And what is in red meat that is not found in other animal products?

Before we set off any panic alarms on red meat, let’s take a step back and review the current scientific evidence (in an unbiased way).

Grab “Does red meat cause cancer?” below:


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Conveniently download this 33-page science report. Contains links to extra reading materials and scientific references.

Topics covered in this report:

  1. Red meat in the headlines
  2. What’s an epidemiological study?
  3. Case-control studies
  4. Prospective cohort studies
  5. Red meat and cancer associations
  6. Do they prove cancer causation?
  7. Where’s the biological evidence?
  8. Mutagens from high-heat cooking
  9. What are HCAs and PAHs?
  10. N-Nitrosamines in processed meats
  11. Other hypotheses for the cancer link
  12. Could it be your genetics?
  13. What about high-protein and IGF-I?
  14. Previous research
  15. A caveat on low-protein diets
  16. Why red meat (and not other animal products)?
  17. New research: Neu5Gc in red meat
  18. What were the study’s results?
  19. So, does red meat cause cancer?
  20. Your key takeaways
  21. Learn more
  22. References and resources


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Alex Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for students. She is a Harvard-trained scientific researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups every other Thursday.
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  • Ems

    Reply Reply February 11, 2015

    I always felt confused by the claims and didn’t know what to believe. Thank you for teaching me the differences between epidemiological studies, biological studies, case-control etc. I don’t eat red meat but always wondered about this.. headlines can be misleading if you don’t know about those things.. thanks!

    • Alex

      Reply Reply February 12, 2015

      Ems – indeed, most headlines mix up causation and correlation, two very different things :-)

  • Tom

    Reply Reply February 12, 2015

    Eye opening! One of my favorite reports so far. Well balanced and honest. Most of the stuff written about red meat on the internet tells you one side of the story but not both. I wish everyone would have access to this report, i’ll be sharing and sharing. Excellent stuff, Alex !

    • Alex

      Reply Reply February 12, 2015

      Tom – thanks for spreading the word! It’s also my wish that more people get smarter about these things :-)

  • Jane Magan

    Reply Reply February 12, 2015

    It’s all about balance isn’t it? I have always thought that eating a little red meat and enjoying bar-b-q food on occasion is ok as long as, just as you say, lots of vegetables and some fruit is also included in the diet which contain lots of antioxidants which can have a protective effect on the cell.

    Thanks for another balanced report.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply February 12, 2015

      Jane – you’re most welcome! And also phytochemicals that play a role on DNA repair :-)

  • Eli

    Reply Reply February 12, 2015

    I agree with Jane and Tom, well balanced and transparent. BTW, this is the first time I hear of mutagens! it’s shocking how little we know. love love love love your science reports, they’re the highlight of my thursdays

    • Alex

      Reply Reply February 12, 2015

      Eli – lovely feedback like yours is also the highlight on my Thursdays :-)

  • Pienaar Jordaan

    Reply Reply February 12, 2015

    Great report! Clear information without hype and sensationalism. Answers a number of questions I have had to face regarding “banting” (Protein and animal fat diet). Thank you

    • Alex

      Reply Reply February 12, 2015

      Pienaar – glad we could help answer your questions! Fortunately exaggeration and sensationalism don’t have a place with us :-)

  • A Howton

    Reply Reply February 12, 2015

    I am not surprised by Longo’s findings, because the “moderate” protein diet used in the study is 10-19% of calories from protein. The CDC recommends that a “minimum” of 10% of protein be consumed. I have not seen many recommendations for a diet lower than 10% of calories from protein. When compared to USDA recommendations, 10-19% would appear to be on the low side. It is, however, interesting that for people younger than 66 years of age, it is apparently protective to consume a diet where less than 10% of calories come from protein sources.

    I also noticed that the study stated that “the majority” of protein came from animal sources. The Loma Linda studies indicated that there is protective value in consuming a vegetarian diet. I hope someone will do a series of studies that explore whether diets with various protein percentages differ if the protein comes from animal and non-animal sources.

    • Alex D

      Reply Reply January 19, 2017

      There is such a study. Read Dr, Colin Campbell’s book “The China Study.”

      • Alex D, thanks for sharing! The China Study was done nearly half a century ago, in the 1970’s. We think it was an extraordinary piece of research at its time, though it’s become a tad outdated now and only applicable to Chinese populations in the last century, who are known to be dairy intolerant and carry genes that predispose them to metabolise fats, carbs, animal proteins, and other food compounds differently. Meaning we cannot extrapolate the findings to other ethnic groups.

        T Campbell’s other studies were interesting in the old days, but with a few false positives in there which we couldn’t replicate again. Big Science is advancing a lot faster than that and today we know a lot more. Thousands of variables come into play and we need to look at all of them. Cancer is not one but over 200 different diseases, each disease/cancer type with its own risk factors. For example, while dairy may increase cancer risk in some cancer types (e.g. liver), it may actually be protective in others (e.g. colorectal). See Does Dairy Cause Cancer?

        It’s wise to consider your own familial risk and genotypes to narrow down what’s risky for you and what’s actually beneficial. We dive a lot deeper on this in our Nutrition for Cancer Prevention and Longevity course for those who are interested.

        Personalised nutrition is the current direction of new science. Your genome, your microbiome, your metabolome, your connectome… they all count! :-)

        Best wishes,

        Maria (THSA Research Analyst)

  • Tina Buchheim

    Reply Reply February 12, 2015

    Another lovely report! Always put together in an easily digestible form!
    It is a shame that most nutritional “advice” (distortion) people receive from the media is so black and white – and leaves most of them completely confused, almost to the point of no bother.
    It is so refreshing to see it all beautifully put together, backed up with all the resources.


  • Monika

    Reply Reply February 13, 2015

    When it comes to read meat I have been getting somewhat confusing messages from media, internet, colleagues and family members and didn’t really know where the truth begins and where it ends. Sometimes there is simply too much information that is not necessarily correct. It’s nice to see facts laid out clearly in a digestible way. Thank you for clarifying the myths.

  • Philip Watling

    Reply Reply February 17, 2015

    The Homo genus has been eating red meat for hundreds of thousands of years. I think if there was a cancer-causing agent in red meat then that would be enough time for our bodies to have come up with a defense!

  • Myrna

    Reply Reply February 17, 2015

    This is clear Information,very eye opening you have cleared up some of my questions about red meat the rep
    ort was very transparent Many thanks

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