What the evidence says

What evidence is there showing that lean, red meat causes cancer?
There is no evidence showing that lean, red meat has any causal relationship with the initiation of cancers. International scientific opinion remains divided on the issue.  Avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer.

Results from many studies show a very weak association between high red meat consumption and increased risk of cancer. 

These include the large EPIC study, of which there is a British cohort, has found similar rates of bowel / colorectal cancer in vegetarians and meat-eaters[1]. A recent analysis of published data on red meat and colorectal cancer suggested that there was little evidence of an association. In addition, other studies have shown no association between red meat intake and risk of other types of cancer including prostate, and breast cancer.

Many studies have attempted to show a link between red meat consumption and cancer but many are poorly designed, using food frequency questionnaires and lacking the use of urinary biomarkers as indicators of red meat intakes.  In fact, the interdependency of food consumption with other dietary and lifestyle factors, socioeconomic characteristics, clinical variables, and genetic traits makes it difficult to isolate the independent effects of a specific food or food group, such as meat intake, on disease risk.

Mr Roger Leicester, Consultant Colorectal Surgeon and member of the Meat Advisory Panel says, “There is no evidence showing that lean, red meat has any causal relationship with the initiation of cancers.

“Avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer.  Results from many studies show a very weak association between high red meat consumption and increased risk of cancer.  These include the large EPIC study, of which there is a British cohort, has found similar rates of bowel or colorectal cancer in vegetarians and meat-eaters.” 

Studies also tend to combine red meat into one category in many epidemiological studies, with cooking methods not considered and studies poorly designed such as the use of food frequency questionnaires as well as many studies not using urinary biomarkers as indicators of red meat intakes.

For more information, read Mr Roger Leicester's blog Colorectal Cancer - The Facts here.


[1] Keys T et al. (2014) Cancer in British vegetarians: updated analyses of 4998 incident cancers in a cohort of 32,491 meat eaters, 8612 fish eaters, 18,298 vegetarians, and 2246 vegans. Am J Clin Nutr 100(suppl): 378S–85S.

[2] Alexander D et al. (2015) Red Meat and Colorectal Cancer: A Quantitative Update on the State of the Epidemiologic Science.  Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 0, No. 0, 1–23 (2015)

[3] Rohrmann, S., et al. (2015). "Intake of meat mutagens and risk of prostate cancer in a cohort of U.S. health professionals." Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev.              

[4] Alexander, D et al (2010)” A review and meta-analysis of red and processed meat consumption and breast cancer.” Nutr Res Rev 23(2): 349-365

[5] Van Hecke, T., et al. (2015). "Increased oxidative and nitrosative reactions during digestion could contribute to the association between well-done red meat consumption and colorectal cancer." Food Chem 187: 29-36.

[6] Miller, P. E., et al. (2013). "Meat-related compounds and colorectal cancer risk by anatomical subsite." Nutr Cancer 65(2): 202-226.

[7] Wang, J., et al. (2012). "Carcinogen metabolism genes, red meat and poultry intake, and colorectal cancer risk." Int J Cancer 130(8): 1898-1907.

[8] Viegas, O., et al. (2012). "Inhibitory effect of antioxidant-rich marinades on the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines in pan-fried beef." J Agric Food Chem 60(24): 6235-6240.

[9] SACN (2010) Iron and Health. www.sacn.gov.uk/pdfs/draft_iron_and_health_report_complete_june_2009_consultation.pdf

[10] Bates B et al (2014) National Diet and Nutrition Survey: rolling programme years 1-4. www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-diet-and-nutrition-survey-results-from-years-1-to-4-combined-of-the-rolling-programme-for-2008-and-2009-to-2011-and-2012

[11] Aune, D et al (2013). “Red and processed meat intake and risk of colorectal adenomas: a systematic review and meat-analysis of epidemiological studies.” Cancer Causes Control 24(4): 611-627